Last season the Providence Friars surprised the Big East with their level of competitiveness, finishing .500 in conference and making it to the quarterfinals of the NIT. With a new Big East, new faces, and a renewed energy, the Friars goal for 2013-2014 is simple: win and win big.
The sole loss of last year’s Friar squad came from senior point guard Vincent Council, who was the leader of the team despite missing ten full games due to injury in the season opener. And when you lose the All-Time Big East Assist Leader, your team is bound to feel something.
So it’s a bit of a curiosity that, despite the loss of this senior leadership, there’s a lot of optimism about the Friar backcourt.
Replacing Council is sophomore Kris Dunn, who came in halfway through last season from injury, but still managed to impress (at times on potential alone) despite never playing at full health. Council had made his bones in his four years as a Friar by knowing how to dish the ball, but Dunn may fill those shoes quicker than people might’ve anticipated as he was known as a a great feeder on offense. Additionally, Dunn has proven to be a defensive nightmare with his speed and agility, something that most fans wished Council would’ve become adopted into his game. The question that will circulate around Dunn coming into this season is, "how well can he score?" While by no means a bad shooter percentage wise (he went almost 40 percent from the field for the season), his average scoring for the season came out to an uninspiring 5.7 PPG. While health almost certainly played a factor in this, Dunn will need to produce more from a scoring standpoint now that he's the lead point guard to make up for Council's 10.5 PPG.
There's no question who will be in the shooting guard position. Returning for his senior year is leading scorer Bryce Cotton, who averaged 19.7 PPG in 32 of the games he played. While an early hamstring injury struck Cotton he had a strong outing in his junior year, demonstrating his ability to lead and perform under pressure. Look no further than the last second three-point shot from Cotton in the February 3rd game against Villanova - resulting in a 55-52 road win for the Friars - as a testament to what Cotton is capable of doing.
He led the team in points per game, minutes played (1209 for the season, 37.9 MPG), three-point shooting (98-269, good for 36 percent for the season), and was second in free-throw conversion and field goal percentage (behind LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts, respectively). With Dunn being able to feed Cotton the ball, there's no reason for Cotton not to thrive offensively this year. A knee injury that's followed Cotton throughout the offseason, however, could raise problems if he re-aggravates it during the season. And while Cotton isn't the only offensive option for this years Friar squad, Cotton's ability to generate offense in droughts also meant Cotton's own struggles would impact the rest of the team. Cotton will be relied on to help get the offense going early, but if the Friars don't learn to build out their offense when Cotton struggles there could be some periods where the Friars will have to rely on their defense to keep the game from getting out of hand.
The Friar frontcourt will be interesting this year. The only "loss" (if you can call it that) is Sidiki Johnson, a transfer from Arizona who amassed a whooping 165 minutes of play over 11 games for the Friars. Johnson came and went for the Friars so quickly that he's more or less an afterthought from last year's squad, and I will prove that by never mentioning him again.
Returning in the frontcourt are two critical players for coach Ed Cooley's system: Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton. Henton, a junior this year, started in all but one game last season and averaged 34.2 MPG. This worked out for the Michigan sophomore as he averaged 13 PPG and 8.3 RPG, which led the team's rebounding average. He shot the ball with a 40 percent clip, but struggled from beyond the arc at 25.8 percent shooting from three-point land. His shooting can and should improve, but the area Henton will need to improve upon the most is his defense. It seemed for half the games last season that Henton was more or less apathetic on the defensive side of the ball. In games like the December 28th contest against Brown, Henton's scoring kept Providence alive in a game where the offense was on life support, but his defense cost the Friars the victory. While Henton scorched Brown from three-point land, Brown was able to respond to every attempt because Henton struggled shutting down his man on defense. While this was only one game, it was a prime example of an area Henton struggled with, and one that he can easily overcome with focus and effort.
Kadeem Batts, a fan favorite, is back for his senior year after some concern he would declare for the draft. Batts became a critical factor in the frontcourt last season, and treated his junior year outing as his way of proving to doubters that he was indeed a Big East caliber player. Batts was behind only Henton in rebounding at 7.2 RPG, and second in scoring with 14.8 PPG. This was quite a jump from his sophomore year, where he only averaged 6.2 PPG and 4.2 RPG. Much of this improvement was attributed to Batts clashing in the paint on both ends of the floor. By learning how to use his strength and size better Batts was able to work both sides of the paint and become a nightmare for match ups. It's hard to think of Batts as anything but a leader in the frontcourt, and as long as he doesn't regress from his junior year, his impact could help push the Friars into the upper slots of the Big East and into a respectable postseason position.
That leaves one other starting slot for the Friars, and while the backcourt is basically locked in with Dunn and Cotton, the last starting spot in the frontcourt is still yet to be decided. However, Brandon Austin figures to be in the drivers seat to filling that role. A 6-foot-6 point forward, Austin can play the 1, 2 or 3 with relative ease. He has great handles and is incredibly quick and agile. Austin is also said to be quickly improving as a scorer. He was highly touted in high school, but the reason he should earn the starting role over other players is his versatility. Having someone at the 3 who can handle the ball, create problems, and help facilitate an offense is a huge advantage the Friars have in Austin, and due to his size he'll be able to support Henton at the 4 when needed, or shift down to the 2 or 1 when Cotton or Dunn need a rest, or when Cooley wants to go with a bigger lineup.
With all the returning and incoming talent, depth will not be a concern for the Friars for the first time in awhile. It's hard to talk about the sheer amount of opportunities that Cooley has in his depth chart because, frankly, Cooley can get creative when he creates his lineups in order to create mismatches.
Take, for example, the idea of going big. With a 7-footer like Carson Desrosiers and a 6-foot-9 Tyler Harris on reserve Cooley can really stretch the floor when he needs to. Both players are coming off their year of sitting due to transferring (Harris from NC State, Desrosiers from Wake Forest), and both have a lot to offer. With Harris, speed and slashing will be big, especially off the bench. Desrosiers, on the other hand, can clog up the paint and bang the boards, while freeing up Batts to the 4 and creating a mismatch with opposing power forwards. Both came with concerns (Harris' defense and Desrosiers' ability to use his body), but if the development that Batts showed under Cooley is any indication both these players will see significant minutes and be ready to contribute right away.
2013 Friar Carson Desrosiers Highlights from WakeForestSports.com (via FriarTV2011)
Then you have sophomore Josh Fortune, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who was billed as a sniper from beyond the arc coming out of high school. He struggled in his freshman year stopping the defense and getting his own offense going, and struggled to find the potential he was said to have. Flashes of that potential was seen in more than one game where a few good looks from beyond the three boosted Fortune's confidence to shoot the ball and - if he connected - would get him going like an old lawnmower. During the offseason, it should be expected Fortune really took the time to hone in on his defensive skills as well as his consistency as a shooter. If he's able to step in the games and shoot with a confidence that doesn't require him to look-first, shoot-second, he could have a breakout season.
If there are question marks to have with the roster it's with freshman Rodney Bullock, junior Brice Kofane, and senior Lee Goldsbrough. Goldsbrough and Kofane both saw limited minutes last season (Kofane limited to 15 PPG, Lee just 7 PPG) but would find a way to make contributions when needed. Occasionally, Kofane would be a strong defensive player with blocking shots and grabbing boards, but generally was a liability when he played soft. On top of that his hands needed a lot of work, as he would often struggle getting a grasp on the ball when it was passed to him on the inside, costing him an easy basket while his matchup adjusted. Lee, on the other hand, was an aggressive defender that played with heart. Despite his limited minutes it was hard for fans not to cheer when Lee took the floor because he played with a passion that coaches hope to extract out of all their players. Lee struggled generating offense, and would often collapse under his own nerves when the pressure started to pick up. Cooley will find uses for both these players, but it's hard to imagine their minutes increasing with the added talent.
Freshman Rodney Bullock is a curiosity. While Austin was the more heralded of the two freshman, Bullock could be just an important of a piece. From all accounts he's tough player who can play with energy, has good hands on the glass and plays above the rim. Scouting reports listed his handle as a concern, but with players like Dunn and Austin feeding to him that may become less of a concern. Strength will be critical to a player like Bullock with his style of play.Bullock is a player I'm looking forward to seeing, if only to get a better understanding of how his game will contribute to the Friars.
Something To Prove:
Coming off of last season's success, the Friars are in a similar position to St. John's. The players are their, the coaching is ready, and the timing is correct - now all that needs to happen is the Friars need to win.
While the Big East is what it is, the Friars will have to prove themselves early with the opportunities they have. Boston College, the Friars opening opponent, will be entering the Dunk with high expectations on their season, and a win over BC will help make an early case for the Friars being the real deal.
Their next opportunity will be at Paradise Jam. Although reports are coming out that a lot of the higher-talented teams have injured players, it's crucial that the Friars perform here. Over the past five years the Friars have struggled with their preseason tournaments, and making a case for both the Big East's level of talent as well as the Friar NCAA hopes will come with how the Friars handle this neutral court tournament.
And then: Kentucky. If I have to say anything other than "Kentucky" chances are you don't follow college basketball very closely.
This conference realignment happened at the best time for Providence. In the former Big East, Providence was met with many challenges both on and off the hardwood. In their rebuilding effort Providence needed to establish a new identity, which was no easy feat when your reputation is compared against the titans of the old Big East. Providence was well on it’s way given their recruiting and their head coach, but wasn’t there by the time the shifts began.
However, this was a blessing in disguise. With a new Big East the Friars will be given the chance to make a brand name for themselves in this new conference. The new Big East will still be competitive on the hardwood, there’s no denying that, and Providence won’t exactly cakewalk to the top (just the opposite), but if they can make their name early Providence will come out with a much-needed, refreshing identity.
After taking off in the second half of last season’s Big East action the Friars went 7-2 and set up the expectations for the following season. Namely, that the Friars can’t be waiting on ‘next year’ any longer. This year the Friars need to show what they’re capable of. Everyone from top to bottom, coaches to fans, expects the Friars to make noise. Is this reasonable? You bet. Everything is in place for a great season. The Friars need to capitalize on that.