WHAT'S THE FORMULA FOR POST SEASON SUCCESS?

Very few Providence College basketball fans thought that this year's team was destined for greatness despite the presence of returning All-American Ryan Gomes. The Friars lost three starters from last year's NCAA team, and with only three upperclassmen on the roster, most hoped early on that the team could be on the bubble by Selection Sunday and with good fortune, make it back to the NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately, the team's fortunes took one hit after another all season with the loss of JuJuan Robinson, the broken nose of Randall Hanke, the departure of Gerald Brown, and ankle injuries to Donnie McGrath and more seriously to Dwight Brewington. It made for a dismal season, particularly in the Big East portion of the schedule where the injuries and personnel losses were felt the most. Still, Providence finished the regular season with some respect by winning three out of their last four and securing the 9th seed in the Big East tournament.

Friar fans were looking for at least one win in New York to demonstrate that the team had grown over the course of the long season. What fans instead witnessed was a flat and bitterly disappointing performance from the Friars who made it very easy for an intense West Virginia team to win in impressive fashion and get on a roll that would take them all the way to the Big East Championship Final. Losing to a better team was acceptable, but it was how the Friars lost to West Virginia that troubled fans the most. It raised serious questions: Why did the team play so poorly on the heels of winning 3 out of 4 and a dramatic win at Georgetown less than a week before? Why is the program now 1-8 combined in first round games at the Big East Tournament and the NCAA tournament under the current coaching staff? What can be done to reverse this trend? These are some of the questions that need to be to addressed before the Friars begin play in the new Big East next fall.

TAKING STOCK OF THE CURRENT REALITIES

The task for making improvement begins with understanding a couple points of information that will not change in the near future.

1. Whether or not you think Tim Welsh is the right coach for Providence College going forward, the fact remains that he has four more years left on his current contract which he received based on making two NCAA tournaments in four years (2001,2004) and achieving two 11 win Big East seasons with Top 25 rankings. He begins preparation for next season with an urgency to show improvement in the post season during this contract. It is highly probable that the college will retain him for most, if not all, of these four years due to the financial obligations, but it is felt by many that an extension beyond that will require better post season results. There is no expectation of a coaching change in the next few years.

2. Assuming that the funding for the renovation of the Dunkin' Donuts Center is appropriated in the coming months, it is likely that these new renovation plans will not be completed for likely two more years. Additionally, the planned $7 million dollar strength and fitness center on the Providence campus will not be completed for at least another year. As a result, it is expected that Providence will not be able to secure better player commitments on the basis of improved facilities for another two years.

HOW DO COACHES PREPARE THEIR TEAMS FOR POST SEASON BASKETBALL?

It begins and ends with great talent, but game coaching and player development are obviously key factors as well. Are players improving throughout the season? Are their talents being used in the most effective fashion? Connecticut's Jim Calhoun was asked this year at the Big East tournament how he gets his teams playing their best basketball at the end of the season. He stated that his philosophy has always been to deconstruct his players preconceptions as individuals early in the season, making them critically examine every aspect of their game and how it fits into the team concept. As the season progresses, Calhoun indicated he slowly builds their confidence in what they can accomplish individually and as a team. By the middle of February, he begins to tell them how good they are and attempts to instill great confidence in them that they can be the best and overcome all opponents when it matters most. To some degree, this sounds like a speech straight out of the movie "Hoosiers," and most people know that hard work combined with the best talent usually gels and matures, achieving successful results at season's end. Talent wins. However, there is a real psychological aspect to coaching where team building must always be on a slow but steady upswing to achieve success late in the season. There are many examples of talented teams who have "peaked too early" and not reached their full potential by season's end.

Does Providence need to do a better job in this respect? It would seem so, as both the 2001 and 2004 seasons ended without any post season victories despite the fact that both teams had played extremely well for significant stretches earlier in the season. It is difficult to point to any critical in-game coaching errors that have led to the string of Providence defeats in the post season. However, what is clear is that the mental and possibly strategic preparation prior to many of our post season games has been insufficient because the players have come out flat far too often in these situations. Mental preparation for big games at season's end must be an area that the coaching staff changes their approach from past practice. It calls for an adjustment in approach and philosophy.

What are the player personnel keys to winning post season basketball games?

GUARDS RULE

It is often said that the college game is dominated by guards, and historically, the most successful teams bear out this belief. Be it Lenny Wilkens, John Egan, Vinnie Ernst, Jimmy Walker, Ernie DeGregorio, Billy Donovan, Eric Murdock, or God Shammgod, Providence's most successful teams were led by excellent guard play. In the Tim Welsh era at Providence, there have been some good ones, but not nearly enough. John Linehan was a great leader and the best defensive guard in PC history, but he wasn't a great playmaker on offense. Donnie McGrath is a solid guard too, as he shoots the ball well and is a steady presence on the floor for the Friars, but he also is not a penetrating guard. These are not knocks on Linehan and McGrath, who have been good players for PC. The problem has been that they have never had enough support from other quality guards to complement their skills. Penetrating guards make other players more productive, particularly young players like the Friars have had this season. Unfortunately, Providence has had a shortage of guards for years now. In fact, Providence has not had a solid backup point guard since the graduation of Chris Rogers in 2001. There have been some reasons for this that have been outside of the control of the coaching staff, but I will focus on one that has been under their control.

Providence has recruited a number of "combo guards", a 6'2 to 6'4 type of guard that is usually most comfortable at shooting guard but has some ability to play point guard as well. I suspect the coaching staff has recruited these players because they have the size to play defense in the rough Big East and because they provide the staff with versatility to play them at either of the two guard positions. The problem that too frequently arises is that these guards often don't excel at either spot. Sheiku Kabba was a smallish shooting guard with an average outside shot. He could play point guard at times, but his decision making was not always the best at that position and he also was not known for his passing ability. As a result, Kabba was really only a productive guard for his last two years, and likely would have been better off as a third guard off the bench for his entire career if Providence had better options.

It is understandable that Top 100 pure point guards are difficult to recruit (especially with facility disadvantages), so I believe the time has come for the PC coaching staff to take more chances on play-making point guards who may project as A-10 quality, because they may be somewhat undersized for the Big East. We often see quality pure point guards in the A-10 conference that Providence could no doubt have recruited. The problem is, for every A-10 point guard who turns out to be talented enough to be capable of running a Big East team, there are three others who wouldn't succeed in the Big East because they are not strong enough assets on offense and are unable to defend bigger guards. (i.e. Corey Wright under Pete Gillen). However, given PC's long time problem of lacking a quality fast break and the continued difficulty of executing in last possession situations due to insufficient dribble penetration, a few more gambles on slightly undersized penetrating point guards may be warranted at this time. Providence must ensure there is a minimum of two legitimate point guards on the team at all times.

THE QUESTION OF "TEAM TOUGHNESS"

The term toughness means a lot of things on the court. It includes good rebounding, intense defense, using strength and size effectively, and also executing under pressure. There isn't any one quality that makes a player tough, but in order to be considered tough you must have one or more of the aforementioned attributes. Clutch shooters are often considered tough because they can execute plays in pressure situations when others simply can't. The very quick are often considered tough because they can appear more intense than slower players and are usually better defenders. Players with size are also considered tough because they take up space and impose their will on weaker players. Providence teams in recent years have not been considered particularly tough, especially in the front court. The rosters have had too many players that either lacked speed, strength, or the superior basketball ability that facilitates late game execution.

Can toughness be a state of mind? To some degree, but I am more inclined to believe that toughness develops as a player develops from having certain attributes and experience. Too many Providence players have either lacked the quickness or athleticism to play intense defense at the 1, 2, and 3 positions, and too many at the 4 and 5 spots have lacked the size and strength to be strong rebounders, while also lacking the quickness and basketball skills to execute when faced with the other team's swing players. Providence has seemingly had far too many 6'7-6'8 front court players who have had some offense ability but have either lacked the strength, size or athleticism to be excel in areas that define toughness - (David Murray, Leon Brisport, others). These are recruiting issues - the Big East is the most physical conference in the nation. Speed and strength, even in the absence of great basketball skills, is extremely valuable. If a player is not highly skilled, he must compensate for that with strength and quickness in order to win. Boston College and Pittsburgh have employed this type of player philosophy with success in recent years. Unless your team is the most skilled squad, you will not win in the Big East purely with a finesse game alone.

IS IT REALLY JUST ABOUT BETTER TALENT?

Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal wrote an article that stated that PC's biggest problem is a simple lack of talent. While that does seem be the case, Providence has had a couple of talented and experienced squads the last few years and they have disappointed in March. Is it possible that Providence has lacked the right mix of talent to succeed in the post season?

In both 2001 and 2004, Providence experienced great regular season success only to play poorly during the post season. On both of those teams, front court players were generally the cornerstones of the team. In 2001, with Erron Maxey and Karim Shabazz, and in 2004 with Ryan Gomes and Marcus Douthit, the Friars generally won when those players were productive. Granted, the guard play was solid on both of those teams, but it was generally not explosive, and none of those guards were capable of taking over a game. Much like the increased importance of pitching in playoff baseball, superior performances of guards in the post season often leads to victory. In general, it is easier for a team to limit the production of front court players because they don't handle the ball as much and must receive a pass to score. Providence guards did not have a major impact in either 2001 or 2004 in the post season which allowed teams to concentrate on neutralizing the Friar front court players.

It is true that the Friars need to continue to upgrade the talent throughout their roster, but the upgrade must initially focus on adding more playmakers at the guard positions. Combined with an eye for toughness in recruiting and a concentration on team building that begins in November but crests in March, Providence's coaching staff will hopefully learn from the shortcomings of the past and deliver Friar fans the post season success that has thus far been so elusive.

Scout Friars Top Stories