After losing Kris Dunn, Ben Bentil, and Junior Lomomba, Providence heads into 2016 with the hope that they will be able to tread water and establish a functional rotation in nonconference play. Their nonconference slate, which I won’t go to in-depth with, isn’t without its tests (at Ohio State, a tournament with Memphis and either Iowa or Virginia, and a home date with Rhode Island), but the Friars should head into Big East play well over .500. Unfortunately for them, the Friars face a very real possibility of an 0-4 conference record to start.
Here’s a look at the Friars’ schedule come December 28:
December 28: at Xavier
Yikes. Not an ideal opening game for the young Friars. Ed Cooley has yet to win at the Cintas Center in Xavier’s first three Big East seasons, including an 85-74 loss that doesn’t indicate how lopsided the game was at times. To add salt to the wound, Xavier returns almost all its top talent from last year’s team. The Friars will have their hands full with Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett and crew.
January 1: at Butler
Unlike the Cintas Center, Providence has won the first three Big East games at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and they are coming off of a 3-0 season sweep of Butler in 2015-16. But the Bulldogs, like the Friars, are coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and, unlike the Friars, return arguably their second-best player in Kelan Martin. Providence won on New Year’s Eve in Indy last year, thanks in large part to a scoring outburst by Rodney Bullock. Cooley would be greatly benefited by another performance such as that one.
January 4: vs. Georgetown
Another team that the Friars swept last year, the Hoyas will look to put last season’s disappointment behind them. The Hoyas erased sizable deficits in both games last season, making both interesting down the stretch. But Georgetown returns a ton of talent and will give the Friars their third straight test to start conference play.
January 7: vs. Creighton
The Friars have yet to lose to Creighton at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center since the ‘Jays joined the Big East. In fact, Greg McDermott’s crew have only taken down the Friars once, and that was on Doug McDermott’s senior night in 2014. This year’s Creighton team however may be even better than that of Dougie McBuckets’ final year, as they sport a pair of backcourt studs in Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster. A fourth straight test doesn’t make things easy on Cooley and company.
January 10: at DePaul
Rosemont was the sight of the Friars’ most embarrassing defeat of 2016; Kris Dunn struggled, Ben Bentil got hurt, and DePaul helped send Providence on a tailspin out of the top 25. On the bright side, Providence has in large part taken care of business against the Demons in recent years, and this game will be one of the easiest during their conference slate. If the Friars have an answer for Billy Garrett and Eli Cain, they could put the Demons to bed early.
January 14: vs. Seton Hall
The Pirates lose Isaiah Whitehead and Derrick Gordon, but return plenty of pieces from the team that soundly swept the Friars last season. Kevin Willard was able to stifle the Friars’ offense during both meetings last season, and that may be bad news for a team unsure of who their go-to scorer will be. On the flip side, Providence is at home, where they’re tough to beat no matter who the opponent is.
January 16: at Georgetown
Surprisingly, the Friars have looked good at the Verizon Center the past 2 seasons, winning both games by close margins. Again, the Hoyas will be better than they were last season, so a road date after one day off will do Providence no favors. This one caps off the Big East’s MLK Day marathon, and should be an emphatic end to the day.
January 21: at Villanova
Yikes Volume 2: the Wildcats are once again loaded, and are out for revenge following the Friars statement win at Wells Fargo last January. Yes, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are gone, but Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and countless others, and Cooley will be hard pressed to get a good night’s sleep the night before. At least it’s not at The Pavilion.
January 25: vs. St. John’s
The Johnnies’ loss at the Dunk last season snapped a 2-game win streak for them there. While Chris Mullin trots out a better team this season, they still are a couple years away from being a terribly tough draw. This will be a welcome reprieve for the Friars after the game at Villanova.
January 28: at Marquette
Never the toughest team on paper for the Friars to conquer, but Cooley has yet to win a game at the Bradley Center. The Golden Eagles upset the Friars in both games last season, including a 96-91 double overtime win last season. Marquette loses Henry Ellenson, but returns key pieces in Traci Carter, Haanif Cheatham, and Luke Fischer. Yet another toughie for the Friars.
February 1: vs. Villanova
The Wildcats always get tested at the Dunk, including close matchups in each of the last three years. At first glance, it looks like a game the Wildcats should win going away, but don’t underestimate how well Cooley’s teams have typically played in big home games, even if they don’t always result in a win.
February 8: at Seton Hall
A week-long reprieve is just what the doctor ordered around this time; it gives the Friars (hopefully) enough of a reboot to navigate through a horrific six-game stretch that culminates at Marquette two games prior. They lost at the Rock in embarrassing fashion last year, but should come out rested and ready for this one.
February 11: vs. Butler
The Friars won last year’s game in Rhode Island 71-68, but not without a few nervous moments towards the end. Same story for this one as the first matchup in Indy: If the Friars can contain Kelan Martin, then they’ll have a shot. Otherwise it’ll be tough sailing against a team who might be in a dogfight (pun intended) to crack the Field of 68 come February.
February 15: vs. Xavier
The Musketeers return to The Dunk for the first time since they played in the first-ever Top 10 matchup there last January. Unfortunately for the Friars, they might be even better than the team that won 75-68 in Providence last season.
February 22: at Creighton
CenturyLink Center has not been as kind as it might look to the untrained eye to Providence over the years. In 2014, the Friars had the brakes beaten off in a blowout loss. In 2015, they won, but struggled to put the Bluejays away throughout. And last season, they put up their worst offensive performance of the season, escaping Omaha on a buzzer-beater by Kris Dunn. This one might be more like 2014 given how these two teams match up headed into the year.
February 25: vs. Marquette
The Eagles shocked the country by winning 65-64 in Providence last season. At the time, they had struggled to put together a consistent 40 minutes, and the Friars were eighth in the nation. This year could be more of the same: a hard fought game that comes down to a play or two at the end.
February 28: vs. DePaul
The Demons haven’t won at Providence since 2013, and there’s no reason to think that their fortunes will turn this season. Providence usually takes care of business at home against lesser opponents, and this one has the look of a Friar win.
March 4: at St. John’s
The Friars return to Madison Square Garden, where their light always seems to shine a little brighter than normal. Jalen Lindsey will look to replicate his 30-point outburst from a 90-76 victory that was never really that close.
It’s certainly not an easy path for the Friars in Big East play. Gut-feeling tells me the best case is around 9 wins, while the floor feels like it’s around 6. Only time will tell which end of the spectrum the 2016-17 Friars live up to.