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Big East 2016-2017 Season Preview: Providence Friars

The Friars hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament hinge on an improved returning cast and an influx of inexperienced talent.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Providence vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Year Five of the Ed Cooley Era in Providence finds the Friars in a bit of a state of flux. With Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil gone, Cooley will bank on his unproven but promising arsenal of talent to try and keep the Friars relevant.

Last Season

Record: 24-11, 10-8 Big East (4th Place)

Big East Tournament: Def. Butler 74-60, Lost to Villanova 76-68

NCAA Tournament: Def. USC 70-69, Lost to North Carolina 85-66

Best Wins: 69-65 vs. Arizona (Wooden Legacy Tournament), at 81-73 at Butler, 71-68 vs. Butler, 82-76 (OT) at Villanova

Worst Losses: 65-64 vs. Marquette, 77-70 at DePaul

Key Returnees (2015-16 Stats)

G Kyron Cartwright, Junior (5.9 PPG, 4.0 APG)

F Rodney Bullock, RS Junior (11.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG)

F Jalen Lindsey, Junior (7.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG)

G/F Ryan Fazekas, Sophomore (5.1 PPG, 34.3% 3PT FG)

G Drew Edwards, Sophomore (2.4 PPG, 33 GP)

Departures (2015-16 Stats)

G Kris Dunn (16.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 6.2 APG)

F Ben Bentil (21.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 46.2% FG)

G Junior Lomomba (5.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 34 GS)

F Quadree Smith (1.7 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 19 GP)

G Tyree Chambers (0.2 PPG, 11 GP)

Additions (Hometown/Last School)

G Maliek White, Freshman (Richmond, Va.)

G/F Isaiah Jackson, Sophomore (Gainesville, Fl./George Mason)

F Alpha Diallo, Freshman (New York, NY)

F Kalif Young, Freshman (Vaughan, Ontario)

F Emmitt Holt, Junior (Webster, NY/Indian Hills CC)

Projected Starting Lineup

PG Cartwright

SG Jackson

SF Lindsey

PF Bullock

C Holt

Head Coach

Ed Cooley (5th year, 103-67)

Storylines

Replacing the “Big 2”

Any time a team loses its two best players to the NBA, there’s cause for concern. For Providence, there’s an even greater cause for concern because of the uncertainty that surrounded both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil last year. Bullock, Cartwright, Lindsey, and several other players showed flashes of excellence last season, but the supporting cast as a whole lacked consistency, something that eventually aided the Friars late-season tumble down the rankings.

Finding Three-Point Shooting

Awful three-point shooting was another driver in Providence’s end-of-season slide. Dunn, not regarded as a shooter, ended up leading the Friars in three-point percentage. Fazekas, hailed as a three-point sniper, opened the season red-hot from three-point range, but was never the same after a bout with mononucleosis in the middle of the season. Edwards and Lindsey were also looked at as potential floor-spacers headed into the season, but both finished below 30 percent from behind the arc. For an undersized team like Providence, finding three-point shooting is crucial to competing in the rough-and-tumble Big East.

How do they fare out-of-conference?

The (early) story the last two seasons in Friartown has been the Friars’ strong out-of-conference starts. In 2014, LaDontae Henton carried Providence to an upset victory over Notre Dame, and they later hung tough with mighty Kentucky in a loss on the road. In 2015, Kris Dunn carried the Friars to an upset over Arizona, and the Friars won a classic at Rhode Island in early December. In fact, last season’s lone out-of-conference blemish was a loss to Michigan State in the Wooden Legacy finals. This year, it’s another tough slate: the Friars travel to Ohio State and Boston College (whom they lost to in 2012 and ‘14 in Chestnut Hill), have a home date with Rhode Island, and play in the Emerald Coast Classic with Memphis, Iowa and Virginia. The out-of-conference slate is a good measuring stick to see how good Providence can be when Big East play rolls around.

3 Reasons for Optimism

Cooley always finds a Breakout Player

In 2012-13, it was Bryce Cotton. LaDontae Henton fit the bill in 2013-14, Kris Dunn in 2014-15, and Ben Bentil last year. Every season, Cooley seems to have a player make the jump into stardom. The question now is if he can find one. If Cooley gets increased output from Bullock, Cartwright, or a new face like Jackson or Holt, Providence will exceed expectations throughout the year.

If they stay healthy...

Inconsistency hurt, but injuries and illness added fuel to the fire in 2015-16. Outside of Fazekas’ aforementioned bout with mono, Dunn and Junior Lomomba battled illness for a few weeks in February, and Bentil fought through a balky ankle. Injuries are nothing new to Cooley; after all, he worked with six-man rotations for the good part of both 2012-13 and 2013-14. If he’s given the blessing of a fully healthy team, he can help the Friars ascend the Big East standings.

A promising incoming class

A late recruiting push from Cooley and his staff netted them the following: Diallo, a top-100 recruit, Young, the big man that they were in desparate need of, and Holt, a former Indiana commit who showed flashes of excellence in the Friars’ exhibition win over Carleton University. Combine that with Jackson, whom the staff has been very high on since his transfer from George Mason, and White, a quick, scrappy guard who also played a big role in their exhibition win, and Cooley certainly has some talent to work with. The question now is whether these five players can replace, or at least soften the blow of two NBA-caliber talents.

3 Reasons for Pessimism

Too Much Inexperience

Every college coach speaks to it: adjusting to the college game can take time. Even John Calipari’s world-class recruiting hauls face growing pains, and the Friars are surely in for some of those this year. Unfortunately, with the out-of-conference schedule being as tough as it is, these growing pains may just cost the Friars valuable wins that they’ll need come March.

The Big East is a Buzzsaw

An inescapable fact of life for Cooley and the Friars is that they play in one of the nation’s best conferences. Not only does the Big East support the defending champs in Villanova, but Xavier, Creighton, Seton Hall, Butler, and Marquette aren’t exactly slouches either. It will be a night-in, night-out gauntlet for Providence, and it’s hard to see them get the 9 or 10 conference wins that they’ll likely need to get on the selection committee’s radar.

Rebuilding Takes Time

There’s no question that there’s a bit of a rebuild underway for Cooley and company. With that being said, rebuilding seldom happens overnight. There will be times when this Providence team looks great; however, there will be many times when the growing pains are apparent. If the growing pains outweigh the flashes of brilliance, then Friartown could be in for a long season.

Best Case Scenario

Both Bullock and Cartwright break out into all-Big East caliber talents. Holt and Young solidify the frontcourt, and Jackson adds another scoring punch to a team desperate for one. Providence pulls off an out-of-conference win at Ohio State and later win the Emerald Coast Classic in a shocker over Virginia. Big East play is still bumpy, but they win enough games to snag the 5th seed in the conference tournament. From there, they win once, fall to Villanova in the semi-finals, and sneak into the tournament for the fourth straight season.

Worst Case Scenario

The offense is often stagnant, leading to losses even on nights that the defense plays great. Poor shooting and lack of size lead to a lack of identity, and the Friars lose to BC, URI, and Ohio State on top of going 0-2 in the Emerald Coast. While they beat the teams they should in the Big East (see: St. John’s and DePaul), they can’t find wins anywhere else, and finish 8th en route to a .500 season.

Final Prediction

I’ll go somewhere in the middle between the best case and worst case. As mentioned before, there will be growing pains, and Cooley will be hard-pressed to turn this team into a contender overnight. This team will end up drawing comparisons to the 2012-2013 team, exceeding expectations but eventually falling short of the NCAA Tournament. Cartwright will make the biggest jump out of anyone else, playing his way into the conversation for the Big East’s best point guard heading into 2017-2018. I’ll say the Friars go 17-14, 7-11 in the Big East, and miss the dance for the first time since that 2012-13 campaign.