Ahead of the top ten matchup between Providence and Villanova, we had Providence writer Matt St. Jean and Villanova writer Tommy Godin sit down to chat about the game.
Matt St. Jean: Hey Tommy! We’ve got quite a game on our hands between Providence and Villanova. I know I didn’t think this game would be the game of the year at this point in the season. What’s the overall feeling on the Wildcat side of things heading into Tuesday night?
Tommy Godin: Hey Matt, great question and always a pleasure to work with you my friend. What a season this has been in the Big East thus-far huh? Between Marquette’s meteoric rise, Providence’s historic season and even teams like DePaul picking up some ranked wins this is shaping up to be one of the more memorable seasons in the Big East that I can remember. This top-ten matchup of Villanova at Providence is certainly the game of the year in the Big East and if I had to use one word to describe the vibe on the Villanova sidelines it would be eager. Despite ankle injuries to both Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, Villanova keeps finding (and sometimes inventing) new ways to win. The Wildcats have relied heavily on the trio of Jermaine Samuels, Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon and will need to continue to do so on Tuesday night. I am confident Jay Wright will have his guys ready for this tough battle, making this game appointment television for any and all Big East fans.
Now I’m kind of going off of your question a little bit here but what is the vibe up there in Providence? What has to go right for the Friars to come out on top on Tuesday night?
Matt: Equal parts excited and terrified is the vibe in Friartown right now. This is the biggest game for Providence in quite some time and just the second meeting between two top ten teams at the Dunk ever. The Friars lost the first one to #7 Xavier back in 2016.
First, I want to touch on the injury situation. Providence took advantage of Gillespie missing the season finale last year and Moore going down partway through to grind out a victory. While both are banged up this time, Al Durham is reportedly battling a sports hernia right now. Lots of injuries to monitor in the backcourt.
As for what needs to go right? When the goal is to beat a top ten team, the answer is everything, but anyone could have told you that! The key for the Friars will be to win on the glass. They had trouble boxing out on defense against St. John’s and DePaul and gave up far too many second chance opportunities as a result. Against a team as good at offensive rebounding as Villanova, Noah Horchler, the Big East’s leading rebounder, and the rest of the front court will need to step up. That becomes even more important with a team that plays as slowly and cleanly as the Wildcats. Those guys don’t turn the ball over, and they don’t miss a lot of shots. Providence can’t afford to give them extra opportunities in a game that may have a limited number of possessions to begin with.
Speaking of that, what’s your feeling on Jay Wright’s strategy there? Villanova was middle of the pack in tempo in 2018, but now they’re ranked 354 out of 358 teams. Why the adjustment?
Tommy: Equal parts excited and terrified is a very familiar feeling down here as well, partner.
That analysis you had of Providence efficiently rebounding the ball and limiting Villanova’s second chance points was spot on. Both Providence and Villanova rank outside of the top 250 teams in the country in terms of possessions per game so (obviously) every possession is going to count a little extra for both teams. The observation you made about Villanova’s pace is truly fascinating as well. While I do not think the fourth slowest team in the country is exactly what Jay Wright had in mind when he was drawing up his offense, I do believe that a lot of emphasis has been put on valuing possessions, getting good shots and taking care of the basketball.
As far as the motive behind the adjustment, while I, nor any mortal, can get in the brain of Jay Wright, I do think a lot of it is attributed to the personnel and depth. In 2018 we had guys like Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Phil Booth playing smart and efficient basketball, thus the uptick in pace. In addition to the starters, Villanova’s 2018 roster was one of the deepest ever for Jay Wright. The Wildcats had role players like Donte Divincenzo ready and willing to contribute starter-level minutes on any given night.
Unlike 2018, this season for Villanova has not been as advertised when considering depth. Again, I am a homer, but I do not think I am out-of-line to think that our starting five could compete with any team in the country’s starting five on any given night. Where Villanova gets into trouble is when we have to rely heavily on our bench. On Tuesday you will see Caleb Daniels as the first substitute off the bench, but after him Jay Wright will only substitute in two MAYBE three players into the game. The lack of depth directly correlates to valuing the basketball and as a result the pace slows down a considerable amount.
Moving on, I have a two-part question for ya. Ed Cooley, one of the most respected coaches not only in the Big East, but all across the country, has done an outstanding job with the program this year. Talk about what he means to this team moving forward into March, as well as the emergence of redshirt junior Jared Bynum, who has been an integral component to the Friars recent success.
Matt: You can’t talk about Ed Cooley the coach without talking about Ed Cooley the father first. That’s the role he sees himself in first and foremost with his players, and I think that’s a huge factor into the toughness and confidence the Friars have exhibited this season. His presence on the sideline and in the huddle steadies the team, especially late in games. Check out my earlier piece breaking down Providence’s late-game success and you’ll see how much is good execution and awareness from his players. This group is nearly all transfers, and Cooley hand-picked veterans who would fit his style of play. He’s always been good at finding the diamond in the rough, but this year he’s raking them out of the grass hand over fist.
Cooley’s offense requires a ball-handling guard who can create and hit shots late in the clock. Whether it was Bryce Cotton, Kyron Cartwright, Maliek White, or Luwane Pipkins, Cooley’s Providence teams have always been at their best when they have that guy. Bynum is his latest iteration. A transfer from Saint Joe’s, Bynum was expected to fill the shoes of Luwane Pipkins last year. Due to a number of factors, namely a nagging groin injury, he struggled mightily all season, and his shooting percentage plummeted. With a year to adjust to the Big East under his belt and a healthier season this year, his shooting touch is back. Bynum exploded for 32 points while hitting 7 of 8 shots from deep, and he’s averaged over 25 a game 63 percent from the field and a whopping 71 percent from beyond the arc over the past two weeks. That earned him Big East Player of the Week honors in each of the last two weeks. He’s playing like a man possessed as of late, and his quickness will certainly test the status of Gillespie and Moore’s ankle injuries. The craziest part? Bynum comes off the bench. He’s started just one Big East game, and he’s the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year as far as I’m concerned.
This will be Villanova’s fourth game this season against a team ranked in the top 10. All four have come away from home, and the Wildcats lost the first three. What’s kept the Wildcats from getting over the hump against those teams?
Tommy: Playing against a team ranked in the top ten is as tough as it is but having all of them come on the road that early in the season, it almost felt like a sick joke. There were a couple factors that went into those early losses, but I will break down the top three biggest reasons in my opinion.
First, I touched on this a little bit in my previous answer, but depth is really the main concern for the Wildcats thus far. Caleb Daniels is an outstanding six man who has taken tremendous strides to really be a key factor this year off the bench. Aside from Daniels, Bryan Antoine, Jordan Longino and Chris Arcidiacono are really the only guys Jay Wright feels comfortable subbing in at this point in the season. Bryan Antoine was once a five-star recruit and projected to be a key piece to Villanova’s success, but he just cannot seem to shake the injury bug and this year is no different. Having Antoine injured for the better part of a month now has really had a negative domino effect on the rest of the team.
As a result of the lack of depth, closing out games for Villanova has become a real concern. If you remember just last week Villanova was playing on the road at Saint Johns and with just about 4:30 left in regulation Villanova held a 20-point advantage. Fast forward approximately three and a half minutes and it's a three-point game. Villanova went on to win that game, but it goes to show just how quickly things can change. The game last week at Saint Johns was not the only case of Villanova sputtering off at the end. In fact, against Purdue, Villanova held a lead as large as ten with just about ten minutes to go in regulation and they lost that game by six. There are other examples too but I’m sure you get the point by now.
That Purdue game actually segues perfectly into my last point of a lack of a strong paint presence. Now this is no slight to Eric Dixon and the team as a whole as rebounders, rather an observation of how games can be won and lost in the paint. Against Purdue, Zach Edey (7’4, 295lbs) would bully just about anyone in the paint not named Shaquille or Joel. He led both teams in scoring and was truly dominant every time he got the ball in the post. Eric Dixon is an outstanding player who seems to get better every single game, but the fact of the matter is he is only 6’8” tall. He plays MUCH bigger than the numbers and is going above and beyond the call of duty for what Jay Wright and the rest of the coaching staff are asking of him, but he simply cannot do it alone.
Despite being ranked 8th in the country by the Associated Press, the metrics do not love Providence. I’m sure you are aware of the KenPom rankings (47th), the NET Rankings (29th) and one advanced analytic called Luck*. My question to you is how much stock do you put into the advanced analytics and how is this team different in terms of silencing the noise?
Matt: It’s always worth watching those metrics just to see what they’re saying, but at the end of the day, the most important number is the one in the win column. The metrics do reflect that the Friars have played a lot of close games because the half-court offense has left things to be desired at points this season. It won’t tell you that Providence wins a lot because they do all the little things right. The team has certainly heard the term luck thrown around, as evidenced by comments by Ed Cooley and the players to the media. It definitely fuels them. They like the chip on the shoulder. You don’t win this many games against good teams without doing a lot of things well, so I’m fine saying this is a blind spot in what KenPom does and moving on from that.
I will say, good teams need to get lucky. If the ball is bouncing Providence’s way this year, I’m certainly not going to complain.
Let’s wrap this up. If Villanova wins, what do the headlines say tomorrow?
Tommy: If Villanova wins on Tuesday night, I believe the headline would read a little something like ‘it is time to exhale NovaNation, the Wildcats hung on’.
The Dunk is going to be rocking on Tuesday night and like most games, Villanova is going to get Providence’s best shot. This is the biggest game of the year in the Big East no question, and the victor of this contest will have a massive advantage in terms of seeding in the Big East. To put it simply, if Providence wins on Tuesday they would have to lose three of their remaining four games to surrender the Big East Regular season crown. If Villanova wins, that would set the stage for a March 1st meeting that would (likely) be for the Big East regular season championship.
I expect this game to be a low scoring, methodical, type matchup with both teams seemingly feeling each other out early. Although Villanova is the favorite in this matchup, I think between the overall health of the team and the lack of a closer, it gives Providence a huge advantage on top of being at home. If Villanova can keep it close until the end, then their chances of winning will go up exponentially. The Wildcats are the number one team in the country in team free throw percentage which is a great attribute to have in games like this.
Despite what the analytics say, Providence is a damn good team. We are in for a real treat tonight, Matt, but I would be remiss if I did not remind you and the rest of our readers to find your CBS Sports Network login information and do it now. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s enjoy tonight’s game to the fullest. It rare that we get a top ten meeting in the Big East with the implications this high, so best of luck to the Friars tonight and moving forward!
I loved your question about the headline, so I am going to take that and redirect it right back at you. What’s the headline if Providence wins and how do you think this game is going to go?
P.S Follow @mattstdream and @tommygodinjr on twitter and keep a special eye on their profile pictures following the game. I think Villanova blue is your color, Matt!
Matt: This game is the annual pink-out for Providence, and I have a feeling you’ll be sporting some pink on your profile Wednesday morning!
If the Friars pull out the win, expect my postgame recap to be titled “Friars Win Another Close One, Control Destiny for Big East Title.” It will certainly be a close game either way, and I like how Ed Cooley’s had his guys ready for those big moments. They know exactly how big this moment is, and I expect them to rise to the occasion.
This should be a slow, defensive battle. The first to 50 may win. Who knows if either team hits 60? The Friars have held Villanova under 60 in two of their last three meetings, winning both. It will certainly take a similar defensive effort tonight. I think Providence has that in them, and we’ll see a close game finished up with Al Durham at the line to close it out.
Hopefully we have an injury-free game that lives up to the billing. The roof may pop off the Dunk tonight!
I’ll give you a piece of trivia as we close out here: Providence has won 19 consecutive games at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Their last loss there? January 25, 2020, against Villanova.