Just three weeks ago, the Providence Friars were riding high. Despite head-scratching home losses to Marquette and Seton Hall, the Friars had just put together the finishing touches on their best performance of the season, an 82-76 overtime victory at Villanova. The win propelled the Friars back up to No. 10 in the country, improved their record to 17-3 overall, and made those Marquette and Seton Hall losses seem like outliers.
Fast forward to today: the Friars have lost four of six, the issues that plagued them in their first two Big East losses have once again resurfaced, and aspirations of a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament have faded to (for now) nothing more than an afterthought. The Friars recent slide is likely more than just a few bad breaks here and there; although they have not been the luckiest team over the past few weeks, there are real and pressing issues that the Friars need to fix in order to get back on track before March. Here are the three biggest issues behind the Friars slide:
1) Kris Dunn Has Not Been Himself
Dunn came into the year as a Player of the Year candidate, and although he has not completely failed to meet expectations, he has certainly been struggling over the past few weeks. He often looks like a player who wants to make the big play on every play, leading to a spike in turnovers and bad decisions. When Dunn lets the game come to him and makes smart decisions, the Friars are hard to beat. Unfortunately for the Friars, he seems to be pressing, which has been a key reason for their mid-season slump.
Additionally, Dunn and the Friars have been perplexed by the zone defense as of late. The zone has made it easier for teams to double him before he can attack the basket, and has forced him to become a jump-shooter and distributor instead of the potent slasher that he was both last season and early this season. If he continues to struggle as a jump-shooter, he will struggle to find lanes to drive into. In turn, it will continue to be hard for his teammates to find open looks, and the offense will remain as stagnant as it has been.
2) No Third Scoring Option
Dunn and Ben Bentil are arguably the conference's two best players; unfortunately, none of their other teammates have been able to consistently step up and help the offense prosper. Rodney Bullock was great in Saturday's win over Georgetown, but has struggled to create, and make, his own shot. Jalen Lindsey's 3-point shooting has regressed in Big East play, as has Ryan Fazekas'.
Junior Lomomba and Kyron Cartwright are hot and cold as well, and Drew Edwards, who has showed offensive promise, has failed to earn major minutes for various reasons. If Bullock can play like he did on Saturday and on New Years' Eve at Butler, or if any other player can step up and increase their offensive contributions, the Friars will be a lot tougher of an out. Until then, the offense will have to continue to rely solely on the production of Dunn and Bentil.
At certain junctures, Providence has looked flat-out gassed. Dunn and Bentil hardly ever come out of the game, a preventative measure by Ed Cooley to cultivate offensive and defensive continutity, and look spent towards the end of nearly every contest. The Friars recently finished a stretch of four games in twelve days, and are likely looking forward to a week of no basketball following Wednesday night's game at Xavier.
Each season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Friars have the look of a team who needs substantial rest to kick back into high gear. As the games become more spread out over the next few weeks, look for Providence to have a much more well-rested and mentally sharp team.
This recent slide is not the end of the world; after all, in a year full of parity, it is nearly impossible for any team to find any consistency in the win column. However, if these three issues continue to rear their ugly head, it may result in another disappointing one-and-done in Friartown come March Madness.