There is no question that Providence, especially when its shots are falling, will score a lot of points. The question is, can the Friars stop anyone?
Providence shot 62% in the second half and 52% for the game and put a whopping 105 points on the board. Included in that was a much improved 10-20 performance from three point range, and 25-37 free throw shooting. "I thought overall that we've become a better ballclub over the last week," said coach Keno Davis. "One of our emphasis was that we wanted to shoot more free throws, and I think you saw more aggression going to the basket." However, a small, scrappy squad from Pennsylvania exposed some glaring defensive weaknesses that will be worked on.
Slippery Rock trailed 49-37 at the half, but it could have been worse. The Friars seemed to lose focus and played poorly over the final three minutes of the half, allowing the visitors to chip away at what had been a nineteen point lead. In the second half, PC pressed for extended periods, but the Rock did a good job handling the pressure and looked to attack the press to score.
Providence played man for the entire forty minutes, but the guard oriented guests seemed to get wherever they wanted to go on offense, penetrated at will and kicked the ball out to open shooters. "We've played all man to man defense in our first couple of exhibition games," said Davis. "Just because you can only be as good as you are in your half court man defense, even though we're probably going to play other defenses. But we've been pretty basic in what we've brought out offensively and defensively but I hope it helps us be a better ballclub." As the shooting of the visitors heated up in the second half, even when covered, the shots began to fall. "We're just learning how to play, whether its our pressure defense or our half court defense," Davis said. "We need work in just about every area so we needed to try more things and the pressure defense, one, will help us win games; two, we need to get in shape. And sometimes when you use pressure, you play more aggressive in the half court because of it. You get the tempo up."
PC also benefited from a huge disparity in fouls. In the first half, PC was whistled for only four fouls, while Slippery Rock had 17 fouls, and yet the Friars went to the lockerroom up by only twelve. For the game, Slippery Rock outfouled PC 25-9, and attempted only three free throws. Yet the visitors poured in 84 points.
Part of the reason was rebounding. PC outrebounded Slippery Rock by only 43-42… and the visitors were playing with a 6'3 center, Denell Stephens, who racked up 19 points and 12 rebounds. The Friars post defense was porous, and this was further hampered by an inability to stop dribble penetration. "That's what we're going to try to do to a lot of our opponents this year," said Davis. "We'll be smaller. It's frustrating when they drive in and kick out for an open three and you get good help defense, but sometimes what do you do? You hope that as the season goes on, you see enough of that to know how to defend it but we're not ready for that yet."
As in every game, though, there were positives and negatives. Freshman Bilal Dixon played 15 minutes and put up 8 points and 8 rebounds, including an emphatic crowd pleasing dunk as he flew in from the right side. Dixon battled inside for rebounds, stuck some short putbacks and played with great energy. In addition, Alex Kellogg played 14 minutes, and pulled down four boards. Both Dixon and Kellogg benefited from the absence of Jonathan Kale, who was slated to start the game, but did not play at all because before the game, while the teams were warming up, the refs decided that the cast on his wrist and thumb (which was the same cast as he wore in last week's game against Ottawa) was not suitable for a game. The coaches found out just three minutes before the game. "The cast was not acceptable for play," said Keno. "I was not in the best mood to start an exhibition game, it's a shame because we all need the work. We need him out there. His rebounding was missed. We will figure it out. The positive is that it occurred before an exhibition game and it didn't cost us a regular season game. Sometimes there are different interpretations of the rules, I just wish we had known earlier."
Jeff Xavier did not start, but led the Friars with 21 points and really stroked the ball well from three. Xavier also recorded four steals and was effective driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line. Sharaud Curry started at point and played 31 minutes, with 11 points and 4 assists. Curry struggled with his long range stroke, but had several nice drives to the hoop that resulted in twisting baskets. As he played, he looked more comfortable and willing to crash into the trees inside. "I think he's getting better and better," Keno commented. "Obviously I think he wishes he was further along but when you're out that long and you have that kind of injury, you're not going to come back and be your old self right away. But for people who saw him last Saturday, hey, he's a little better."
PC's other three guards, Brian McKenzie, Weyinmi Efejuku and Marshon Brooks, were all very effective. McKenzie played defense a little too much with his hands and picked up four fouls, but scored 17 points on 5-7 shooting, and finished plays strong. Efejuku had 19 points and 7 rebounds and slashed to the basket, drawing fouls or sinking acrobatic layups. And Brooks had 12 points on a mix of short pops, drives to the hoop and outside attempts.
Frontcourt-wise, PC needs to be more effective. Randall Hanke struggled against the smaller, quicker Slippery Rock players and had just 6 points and 3 rebounds in 18 minutes against a frontcourt that he should have dominated against. The Rock scored inside too easily. Geoff McDermott was solid with 7 points and 5 boards, but was relatively quiet. Which raises the question again… against bigger frontcourts, will the Friars be able to stop people? That is a question that needs to be answered quickly.
PC now has a week off to prepare for the season opener against a good, dangerous Northeastern team, who will play two games in a tournament prior to facing the Friars. Northeastern will play IUPUI, and then likely face Michigan. Providence certainly needs to hit the practice court hard this week, because from here on out, the games only get tougher… and there's much work to do. But keep in mind - this was just an exhibition game... its early... and the whole package has not been installed yet, either offensively or defensively. Next Saturday should provide more answers.