Ed Cooley’s first five years as head coach at Providence College have been marked by a consistent upward trajectory. Fueled by collegiate superstars, like Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton, Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, the Friars’ fortunes now include three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, and spiked last year with season-long national rankings, a 24-11 record and PC’s first NCAA win in 19 years.
As Cooley moves into season six of his tenure – and only four coaches have ever logged more time at Providence’s helm: Joe Mullaney, Dave Gavitt, Al McClellan and Tim Welsh – this may be the year where expectations of that season-by-season improvement are tempered. It’s not that the roster is berefit of talent. Talent abounds, but unlike previous seasons, there exists much more uncertainty in the mix of youth and experience and no sure answers in the search for a go-to player.
With Dunn and Bentil gone, the Friars will be looking at a more balanced attack, which differs from Cooley’s first five editions. He has thrived with a go-to scorer, one who can shoulder the load, put points up in a hurry and help to avoid long scoring droughts. Going into the previous seasons, you knew what you were going to get from Cotton, Henton and Dunn. Bentil was a surprise, but a pleasant surprise that added to the known quantity of Dunn.
This season, there are candidates for that role, but they fall into the category of hopeful candidates, rather than “pretty confident we’re going to get this” type of candidates. The opportunity for a player, or several players, to step up and provide the kind of production that will be necessary for the Friars to succeed will certainly be there. Now, it only remains to be seen whether that happens and who it will be.
The most obvious candidate is redshirt junior Rodney Bullock. The 6’7 forward had moments of brilliance last season but lacked consistency. While he showed a nose for the ball and some slithery moves inside, Bullock is undersized playing inside and had a tendency to get pushed around. Henton was undersized too, but had a non-stop motor. Still, with his ability to step out and get hot from three and his instincts on the offensive glass, Bullock is a legitimate scoring threat for the Friars – if he can give the requisite effort on a nightly basis. At worst, Bullock should be a double figure scorer who contributes 5-6 rebounds a game.
The most intriguing candidate might be junior Jalen Lindsey. He’s got the body and athleticism to battle inside and has now played major minutes in his career. Lindsey has also had flashes of offensive brilliance, like a 30-point effort last season, but his lack of consistency on the offensive end has been maddening. While Lindsey will have games where he will shoot the three-ball effectively, that’s not his bread-and-butter. If Lindsey can operate closer to the basket, draw fouls and clean up misses, he can be close to unstoppable with his hops and ability. He already is a lockdown defender.
With Kris Dunn running the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the primary ballhandling duties will fall to junior Kyron Cartwright. At 5’11, Cartwright is at a disadvantage defensively, but his speed and pace are exactly what Cooley is looking for in a point guard. Playing under control at that pace and learning how to facilitate remain Kyron’s challenge. Never known as a gifted offensive player, Cartwright’s jumper, both pull-up and from three, is still a work in progress, making it unlikely that he will emerge as the go-to guy this season. Obviously, health is a concern with any team, but especially one built on young, emerging players, and Cartwright, as an upperclassman with experience, has been battling a sore knee that kept him out of the Northeastern scrimmage.
The list of upperclassmen on Providence’s roster this season is thin – no seniors – and, as a result, much has been expected from redshirt sophomore transfer Isaiah Jackson. As a freshman with potential at George Mason, Jackson showed enough to excite Friar fans. The 6’6 swingman is versatile, long and athletic. More of a scorer than a shooter, reports out of practice have been that he has a poor man’s Henton-type game, but needs to score more consistently. He showed that during the Carleton exhibition and was relatively invisible in that contest. As the rust comes off, though, PC will need production from Jackson.
Where the Friars could really use a boost is from the play of Ryan Fazekas. If the 6’9 sophomore can return to his pre-mono three-point shooting form, the team will greatly benefit. One of the big concerns for this team – and it’s legitimate – is shooting. Last year’s Friar team was one of the worst in memory and ranked at or near the bottom of the Big East. A return to form by Fazekas would help to alleviate what could be a major problem. A legit three-point marksman, Fazekas lacks the strength and athleticism, at this point, to defend and rebound consistently at the highest level, but he can carve respectable minutes out by drilling shots.
Sophomores Drew Edwards and Ricky Council were brought in by Cooley and Company to add quality and depth to the shooting guard slot and the results have been mixed. Edwards certainly showed more promise as a freshman and many fans were expecting a big jump in his game this season. Unfortunately, he’s been slowed by a mid-summer knee injury and recovery. Edwards could provide shooting help, but he’ll have to show major improvement from last season. He also provides additional ballhandling and he’s a tough defender who makes hustle plays. Council barely left the bench as a freshman but had a reputation as a shooter and scorer, so there is potential. His defense will determine his minutes.
The Providence staff has been busy on the recruiting trail and a talented group of newcomers was brought in to supplement the returnees. This group addresses several needs and maintains the talent level on the roster. However, one glaring need – shooting – was not specifically addressed by any of the additions.
Perhaps the most game-ready of the newcomers is 6’7 junior forward Emmitt Holt. As a freshman, Holt showed promise and the ability to play at a high level at Indiana University in the Big Ten. After spending last season at Indian Hills Junior College, Holt has the experience and body to battle Big East frontcourts. His relentless play in the paint and long arms enable him to play bigger than his listed height and grab rebounds and draw fouls. Holt possesses a nice touch inside and also has a promising midrange jumper. Of the newcomers, he could emerge as a go-to player for the Friars and should contribute immediately.
One player who could provide some unexpected help from the outside is 6’2 Maliek White. A hard-nosed, gritty combo guard, White is still learning the intricacies of playing point guard, where he is needed to relieve Cartwright, but he has the ability to score and is not afraid to take the big shot. He’ll need to shore up his ball security, defense and facilitating, but he certainly can be an effective create-your-own-shot offensive player.
It’s not often that you can steal a national Top 100 player late, but PC did just that with 6’6 wing Alpha Diallo. A New York native, Diallo has a Roosevelt Jones-type vibe to his game. A solid straight-up defender, he is at his best in the open court, slithering his way to the rim. He possesses an unorthodox shooting stroke but will occasionally attempt a three, if open. As he matures, Diallo has the potential to be a tough matchup for opponents. He’ll contribute this season, if just for his additional ballhandling help and scoring ability.
The final newcomer is another late recruiting win in 6’9, 250-pound center Kalif Young. From Canada, Young gives PC a sorely needed big body down low and his ability to progress and improve throughout the season will determine his playing time. Young possesses a nice touch around the basket and has a scorer’s instinct. He also has a decent motor for a big man and wants to clear the boards. His biggest challenge will be avoiding fouls and staying on the floor.
Judging from the Carleton exhibition and the word filtering out of the closed-scrimmage against Northeastern, some things are becoming evident about this Friars team. First, and I’ve mentioned this a number of times already – but it can’t be overstated - is that shooting, which was an incredible problem for the team last year, could be a bugaboo once again this season. Boiled down to its basic essence, basketball is all about being able to put the ball in the basket, and those teams who can do so efficiently usually are the most successful.
Speeding up tempo is one way to counteract poor shooting. After every defensive rebound, Cooley can be seen on the sideline imploring his team to push the ball. That’s to gain advantage in numbers and easier shots. With players like Lindsey, Diallo, Jackson, Cartwright, White and others, this team is built for the open court, not a slowed down halfcourt game. Against many of the lesser out of conference opponents, PC will be able to force tempo and run for stretches; against Big East and better out of conference foes, the Friars will find it more difficult to run.
Point guard play will be critical for PC’s chances. The Friars will need to limit turnovers, while opposing teams with deep backcourts will apply pressure to expose the team’s thin ballhandling crew. Likewise, Friar point guards under Cooley have annually led the Big East in assists. Against Carleton, Cooley said, “For us to be a good team, we have to get more than 8 assists.” Clearly, passing and facilitating will be a priority going forward. PC scored 87 points against Carleton, but very little of that was related to good ball movement.
Finally, defense and rebounding will be a point of emphasis. Cooley wants to play man defense and believes he has the athletes and depth to do so. However, the Friars have few standout defenders at this point. Improvement here in understanding help defense is a must and the Friars remain undersized in the low post. With Holt, Bullock, Lindsey and doses of Young, the Friars face challenges on the glass but should be okay.
The schedule will do a young team no favors. With the season’s first 6 games in a 16-day period – including matchups with Vermont, Ohio State, Memphis and either Virginia or Iowa, there will be little respite or time to improve. The potential exists for the Friars to exit November in a deep hole.
Taken as a whole, it’s difficult to imagine this season as one where the upward trajectory continues, unabated. It’s much easier to imagine it as a season of rebuilding, one in which the Friars lay the foundation for much greater success in the following campaigns. Which brings us back to the go-to player.
With everyone back next season, barring unforeseen departures, which could also include Bullock deciding to go pro or play his fifth year season elsewhere, this is a season to determine PC’s next collegiate superstar and key supporting pieces. Who will step forward and find the consistency necessary to take on that role? Who will be the complimentary stars? Stay tuned as the season opens on Monday, Nov. 14 with a tough home game against Vermont.