What began as a trip bathed in high hopes quickly turned sour for Providence. The players spoke excitedly about the 76 Classic after their win over Maine, but reality slapped the Friars in the face right from the start.
PC drew a tough, tall and talented Baylor squad in the first round, and fell 72-56, in a game marked by horrendous shooting. The Friars then were life and death with a poor A-10 team, before rallying for a 67-62 win in the last three minutes, over Charlotte. And PC fell behind 11-1 to a very good St. Mary's team, and trailed by twenty at the half before mounting a second half surge to lose by a respectable 81-75 count. A 1-2 trip was not what anyone associated with the program had envisioned.
Not every aspect was bleak. There were several bright spots. "If there is one thing I can talk about, it is the resiliency of this team," Keno Davis said in the press conference after the St. Mary's loss. "Again we get down big points and we have a chance to win that ball game. We don't shoot well, again, and yet we're a couple of shots away from being right down to the wire."
Several players had good efforts. Marshon Brooks put the clamps on Charlotte's point guard, keying PC's comeback win, and continued to show that he may be Providence's next star. Jonathan Kale fought hard and recorded 20 points and 10 boards against St. Mary's. Weyinmi Efejuku had some key buckets. But in all, PC's roster played inconsistently, shot poorly and came out flat too many times.
So let's take a closer look at a couple of the abounding questions…
1. What's up with PC's shooting?
The Friars, under Keno Davis' tutelage, are going to shoot a lot of threes. That's a simple fact. Davis' Drake team bombed away. However, coming into the season, this was thought to be a pretty good shooting team. Yes, PC lost long range sniper Dwain Williams from last year's squad, but were gaining Sharaud Curry, and everyone else was back. Last year, PC shot 45% from the field and 38% from three. Efejuku shot 38%, Brian McKenzie 41%, Jeff Xavier 36%… and this from a team that really did not have a penetrating drive and kick point guard; a team that passed the ball around the perimeter until an opening popped up.
This season, PC has already suffered through some horrendous shooting performances. As a team, PC is shooting 44% from the field, not a big drop, but from three, the Friars are hitting at 28%. McKenzie is at 22%, Curry at 25% and Xavier at 28%. PC shot 4-23 against Baylor from three, 4-22 against St. Mary's… the march goes on. So did these same good shooters suddenly become bad shooters?
Opponents are extending their defense out farther against PC, realizing that the Friars' big men can be guarded one on one. As a result, PC's perimeter players are being hounded into longer, contested three point shots. Opposing guards are not doubling down on the rare occasions that the ball goes inside, confident that their bigs can handle PC's bigs. In addition, Curry has been a step slower, and has not been able to penetrate as in the past. But in truth, Curry never was a consistent drive and kick point guard. Most of his forays into the paint resulted in shot attempts, layups and floaters. But at least Geoff McDermott penetrated and kicked to shooters at times as a point forward. This year, the ball is out of his hands. So, without the outside shot falling, without anyone penetrating to kick out for open, squared up attempts, plus the slightly deeper three point line, PC's offense struggles to score. Which brings us to question number two…
2. Why the zone on defense?
Early on, Keno Davis made a point to say, "The full court press is something we've been practicing a lot. We've gone to it earlier than I thought we would because our half court intensity sometimes hasn't been where it needed to be to start games. And when you're able to use pressure defense it tends to get your guys playing harder, not only running on the offensive end, but sometimes it picks up your half court intensity as well."
In PC's first four games, the Friars played almost solely man to man on defense, mixing in full court, half court and quarter court pressure. All of a sudden, with PC's offense bogged down, out in California, the Friars are sitting back in zone. Granted, PC would have been hard pressed to play Baylor's athletes for an entire game in a pressing man to man, but seeing PC play so much zone was a shock. At the least, pressure man on defense might have helped jumpstart a moribund offense. So what will PC's primary defensive identity be? What will they be known for?
PC's defense is far from the problem at this point, and looks improved from last season, but thee are still holes. Opponents find lanes to the rim with impunity and the Friar guards are forced to double down to help on opposing bigs, leaving the perimeter open for money threes. PC's bigs just can't handle the opposing bigs without help. Which brings us to question number three…
3. Can PC get more out of their bigs?
Well, the decision to redshirt Bilal Dixon is being revisited. A decision will probably be made this week. But Davis has said that after the first ten games of the season, the 6'9 freshman will stick with a redshirt year. The URI game is game number nine.
The rest of the frontcourt is thin in depth and small in stature. Geoff McDermott and Kale are 6'7 and neither has great lift. McDermott had been playing well heading up to the Anaheim trip, but a rolled ankle in the first minute against Baylor limited his effectiveness, so he gets a mulligan. Kale played hard, but doesn't finish especially well, and too often gets overmatched by bigger opponents.
At 6'10, Randall Hanke has the height, but remains an enigma, capable of a two point performance or a nine point, eight rebound outing, as against St. Mary's. The lack of penetration has also hurt Hanke, who used to thrive on short, dumped passes to the blocks that would result in a quick, easy layup. Now, Hanke has far too few touches to be effective. The remaining forward is 6'8 Alex Kellogg, who plays nice positional defense but is very limited offensively.
Providence is 4-3 so far, with a challenging week ahead. Brown on Wednesday and Rhode Island on Saturday present the Friars with real tests. How PC answers the above questions will go a long way towards determining the remainder of the season.
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