Date: Wednesday, February 24
This game was originally scheduled to take place more than two months ago. Providence was supposed to open it’s Big East schedule at home against Xavier on December 12. The day before the game, everything came to a halt. Positive COVID tests within Xavier’s program caused it to be postponed.
Much has changed since early December. At that point, Xavier was sitting at 7-0 after a dominant win over Oklahoma. Zach Freemantle, Paul Scruggs, and Nate Johnson were all coming off 20-point performances.
Since then, the Musketeers have gone just 5-4. If that seems like a smaller number of games played than usual, that’s because Xavier’s program has been paused twice since Big East play started. One of the five wins over that stretch was over these Providence Friars, with freshman Colby Jones hitting a game-winning 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run at the end of regulation.
Of the four losses, two have come since Xavier’s most recent pause. In their first game in two weeks, they fell at home to UConn. That was followed up by a loss at St. John’s just a few days later. The Musketeers did win their last time out, but a close game at home to a short-handed Butler team is far from inspiring.
The Friars, meanwhile, finished a rocky non-conference slate with a strong performance at TCU. They seemed poised to carry that momentum into a game against Xavier, but instead found themselves off for 11 days due to COVID complications with Xavier and UConn. The up-and-down performance of the team outside the conference continued into Big East play. Providence has wins at Creighton and Seton Hall and a home win over UConn, but they still sit under .500 in the Big East.
The loss at Xavier early this season is just one of three heartbreakers for Ed Cooley. Losses to Xavier, Creighton, and Georgetown by a combined four points create frustration, and Cooley has repeatedly called his team soft this season. Since the original meeting between Xavier and Providence was postponed, the Friars have had two three-game losing streaks without winning three in a row once.
If the season ended today, Xavier would be in the NCAA tournament. Joe Lunardi has the Musketeers as one of the last four teams in. However, with a short resume and one that seems to have peaked in December, every game is a must-win. Splitting with Providence makes their tournament case a lot weaker.
You’re not going to find Providence on any bubble watch sites right now. Despite being picked to finish third in the conference, the Friars now need to win out to finish above .500 in Big East play. Back-to-back wins over UConn and DePaul hinted at the patented late season run from Ed Cooley, but that fire got snuffed out when Providence wasn’t competitive with the Huskies in the rematch last time out. Now, the road to March Madness goes through Madison Square Garden, but the Friars can still play spoiler Wednesday night.
The Friars will have two changes in their lineup since the first meeting between these two. Jimmy Nichols scored 7 points with five assists and four rebounds, but an injury has sidelined him for the season. Noah Horchler has replaced him, averaging 10 points and eight rebounds per game over his last five. Freshman Alyn Breed started in relief of the injured Jared Bynum, but Bynum is healthy again. Breed may stay in the starting lineup for as Bynum is eased back in, but the transfer could provide an impact that was not found in the first matchup.
These two teams are structured similarly. Both have a dominant big man and a veteran backcourt duo with a strong passer and an 3-point specialist. Nate Watson and Zach Freemantle are fourth and fifth in the Big East in points per game. Paul Scruggs leads the conference in assists per game, with David Duke sitting behind him in third. Nate Johnson and A.J. Reeves have both made 42 3-pointers this season. After the top three, both teams have been inconsistent, and that will be the difference in this one. In the first matchup, David Duke scored 30 points. Nate Watson and Zach Freemantle both scored 17, and Watson had 14 rebounds. Nate Johnson hit four 3-pointers. Despite all that, the game came down to a freshman. The stakes are high in this rematch, and the two teams line up evenly. Expect the role players to take center stage yet again.