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Ed Cooley is not going to remember his time in Cincinnati fondly. Last season, against Xavier, he took ill on the bench and had to be taken to a hospital. In his absence, the Friars folded and lost to the Musketeers. This season, Xavier jumped Providence right from the start and led by as many as 21 points with under ten minutes to play before the Friars mounted an inevitable surge and made the final score respectable.
That was a mirage, however. What Xavier did to PC was anything but respectable.
Providence is a team at a crossroads or a team in a free fall, depending upon which media source you read. Either description isn’t entirely inaccurate but not necessarily wholly accurate, either. It is true that PC is now 5-7 in their last 12 games, after a 14-1 start. It is true that, after 12 consecutive weeks in the rankings with a high water mark of #8, there is an excellent possibility that the Friars will drop into the also receiving votes category on Monday. What looked like a 4 seed a few weeks ago now shows up as a 8 seed and further slipping toward the bubble is a distinct possibility.
The problems aren’t complicated. As the season has progressed, the Friars have fallen into the rut of developing into a two-man team with the top two scorers in the Big East, Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn. At times, Rodney Bullock has performed as an admirable third option, but that hasn’t been reliable. And beyond that, no one else has performed consistently. As mid-February morphs into late February, the expected improvements from players like Jalen Lindsey, Kyron Cartwright, Junior Lomomba, Drew Edwards and others has shown up in brief flashes, but has generally been non-existent. For the first time since becoming the Friars’ head coach, an Ed Cooley team is not getting better as the season progresses.
With just four games remaining in the regular season, leaks are springing up throughout the Friars’ ship. Against Xavier, PC settled for quick three point shots that drew air, hit backboards and generally were off target. A poor shooting team forced 35 three point attempts. The Friars probed Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone and found a number of open baseline 15-footers, most of which clanged off the iron. PC failed to value the basketball, committing 15 turnovers, 11 in a damaging first half, and 7 by Dunn. Defensively, Xavier found open looks all over the court and cut to the basket with impunity, aided by Bentil’s lack of mobility. The Musketeers crushed Providence in the paint, 32-10.
In fairness, Xavier is a horrible matchup for the Friars. The Musketeers feature an incredibly deep, talented and balanced team with lots of size inside and offensive firepower. Give the Musskies open baseline 15 footers or in the middle of the zone foul line jumpers, and they have the personnel to knock those shots down. They also have an array of snipers from the three and the size to control the paint. In short, this is a team that has just about everything and may be the Big East’s best bet for a Final Four run.
Xavier’s firepower makes it a team capable of putting together fearful runs. Any offensive lapses by an opponent has the potential to turn into backbreaking barrages. Xavier executed 9-0, 10-0 and 12-0 runs against the Friars and answered every Friar run with one of their own. PC trailed 52-37 at the half and 69-48 with 9:41 to play.
PC had two good runs during the game. The first came in the first 4 minutes of the second half, as the Friars trimmed the lead to 54-47 after two Bentil layups and a Ryan Fazekas three pointer. At that point, the Friars forced a Jamie Farr miss at the rim but couldn’t control the rebound and Jalen Reynolds picked the ball up and scored. Had the Friars rebounded, with momentum on their side, they would have had the opportunity to cut the lead to 5, but instead, Xavier answered with a run that pushed the lead back to 66-47.
In the final ten minutes, the Friars fought back, trimmed the lead to 72-66 on a Cartwright three and 78-72 on a Dunn three with 58 seconds left. However, free throws by Xavier and missed threes by Dunn, Cartwright and Fazekas in the final minute enabled the Musketeers to extend the lead again. Once again, thirty minutes of subpar basketball could not be overcome by 10 minutes of passionate basketball.
Dunn led the Friars with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, while Bentil chipped in 17 points and 6 boards before fouling out and Bullock had 13 points and 8 rebounds. For Xavier, Myles Davis had a rare triple-double, with 11 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, Trevon Blueitt had 23 points, Edmond Sumner had 11 points and Reynolds had 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Now the Friars have 8 days off to prepare for a hot Seton Hall team on the road. Some Ed Cooley magic will be needed to heal this team, both physically and emotionally as the push towards the big East Tournament begins.