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NCAA Basketball: Providence at St. John

Under the Microscope: The Luck of the Friars

Is Providence lucky or good?

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Cooley decided his press conference following Providence’s dramatic win at Xavier was the right time to set the media straight on something.

“We’re really lucky. We’re a really lucky team. So you know what? We’ll continue to be lucky and try to win the next game.”

Cooley, with a smirk, was referencing some pundits who have dismissed Providence’s record this season as the result of luck.

The game at Xavier was one of eight games decided by five points or less this season for Providence. Their record in those games? 8-0. According to analytics site KenPom.com, which currently ranks the Friars as the 48th best team in the country, they’re the second luckiest team in the past two decades based on their record in close games. Ask Cooley yourself what’s caused their success late in games and I’m sure he would be quick to credit his players and praise their toughness, as he has done all season.

Either way, his team is 19-2 for the first time since the days of Ernie DiGregorio, Kevin Stacom, and Marvin Barnes. They sit atop the Big East with little over a month before the conference tournament.

Three of Providence’s eight close finishes have come over their last three games, so I decided to dig into the final minutes of all three to see if it's really luck driving these victories.

Providence at Xavier

After more than 39 and a half minutes of basketball at the Cintas Center last Wednesday night, the difference between Providence and Xavier was no different than it was when the game started.

It was Xavier’s ball with about a six-second differential between the shot and game clocks. The Musketeers opted to drain as much clock as possible before taking their shot.

Travis Steele’s best players all day had been point guard Paul Scruggs and center Jack Nunge. Ed Cooley opted to put the 6-8 Justin Minaya, his best defensive player, on the 7-1 Nunge for this final defensive possession.

“We hedged our bet, you know, put him on the guy who was hurting us the most.”

Minaya, number 15, can be seen down low on the block.

Xavier guard Paul Scruggs began to dribble towards the basket with less than 12 seconds on the game clock. He drew the assignment of Providence’s Al Durham. The Musketeers spread the floor as Scruggs drove, with two men in the corners and Adam Kunkel, number 5, backing away from the lane. Nunge worked back towards the ball handler, with Minaya on his hip to deny any pass to the big man.

With a pass to Nunge, a 63-percent shooter inside the arc this season, taken away, Scruggs, a 45-percent two-point shooter, had little choice but to attack the basket. Minaya worked over to the ball while staying in the passing lane while Providence forward Ed Croswell collapsed into the paint to defend Nunge and help prevent any second-chance opportunity for the Musketeers.

Scruggs released his shot with both Durham and Minaya putting a hand in his face. Croswell put himself into position to box out Nunge. Of the two options Xavier had on this play, the Friars had forced the lower-percentage scorer to take the shot and a highly contested one at that.

The shot missed, and, thanks to box-outs from Croswell and Noah Horchler, Minaya was all alone to pull down the board. With little time on the clock, the Friars had to push, and Minaya knew it. He turned and fired a pass up the floor to Durham who was already making his way up the floor.

Durham and Jared Bynum raced down the floor. Durham dropped it off the Bynum - a 38 percent three-point shooter - who coolly pump-faked one defender before stepping and firing the wide-open three-pointer. This shot went in.

In the deciding seconds, the Friars took away Xavier’s best option on offense, forced the second option into a tough shot, got a rebound, and executed a quick transition offense to get an open look. They did all of that on the road and against a ranked opponent.

Providence vs Marquette

While they played Xavier to a tie late, the Friars found themselves trailing to Marquette with under a minute to play.

Jared Bynum dribbled around Tyler Kolek and drove towards the basket. Marquette’s defense - as Shaka Smart defenses do - collapsed heavily into the paint. This left Noah Horchler wide open in the corner. Bynum found him quickly with the pass.

Horchler, a 43 percent three-point shooter this season, missed.

Enter Nate Watson.

Quickly running the numbers here will tell you that a dunk is nearly a 100 percent chance. Reducing this to numbers, however, strips the moment of its nature. That’s a play that’s equal parts luck and coaching, and by that, I mean it is exactly zero percent of either. This is one of those rare moments where one player rises above the other nine to make a play that the others cannot make. Watson corralled the ball before dunking it, as well as two Golden Eagles, into the basket to give the Friars the lead. He would complete the three-point play at the line to extend the lead to two.

Providence would foul Marquette at the other end of the floor, where Justin Lewis would make one of his two free throws. With the shot clock off, Marquette fouled Horchler, who also hit one of his two free-throw attempts. Up by two, the Friars needed one more defensive stand in the closing seconds.

As he had against Xavier, Ed Cooley deployed his best defensive weapon against the opponent’s offensive threat. In this case, that meant matching up Minaya against number 10, Justin Lewis.

Shaka Smart drew up a play out of the timeout that involved Tyler Kolek driving to the basket with Lewis following down the lane.

Minaya battled with Lewis and prevented any sort of clean pass, and Alyn Breed took away any exit pass to Greg Elliot. This left Kolek, at 6-3, posted up against the 6-8 Horchler with the clock winding down.

Kolek, a less than 39-percent shooter inside the arc in the best of circumstances, predictably missed. Lewis grabbed the rebound, but his shot attempt came with Minaya at his feet and Horchler’s hand in his face.

Is it luck that Lewis, a 50-percent shooter, missed the shot? Or is that just good defense? The answer depends on who you ask, but any answer must include some of both. If the shot from Lewis went in, the game would still have only gone to overtime where either team would have good odds at winning.

Like they did versus Xavier, the Friars controlled what they could control against the Golden Eagles. They created open looks on offense and prevented them on defense.

Providence at St. John’s

As Posh Alexander scored his 27th point of the night, the Carnesecca Arena crowd roared. His bucket capped a 13-4 run for the Red Storm as they erased a seven-point deficit. St. John’s had the lead with less than four minutes to play.

30 seconds later, Jared Bynum calmly responded with a three-pointer from well beyond the arc. The Friars led once more. They would not trail again.

After the game, Bynum was asked why he took the shot. Put simply, his answer was confidence. But buried in the response was also the coaching of Ed Cooley. The coach that had his players doing breathing exercises in a late-game huddle against Butler and whose pep talk against Seton Hall spawned t-shirts trusted his players to trust themselves.

The Friars would score their next five from the line over a two-and-a-half-minute stretch in which they held St. John’s scoreless and forced three turnovers without one of their own. They routinely held onto the ball, broke the press, got the ball to their best free-throw shooter, Al Durham, with the game on the line. Durham shot a perfect 8-for-8 from the stripe in the final 30 seconds as Providence withstood a handful of late threes from the Red Storm.

Between two shots from Bynum and a slam from Watson, the Friars have had their fair share of late-game heroics. No great team is without players that can step up to make the big plays when called upon. The Friars have crafted a roster full of them. Justin Minaya won Big East Player of the Week largely for locking down Xavier and Marquette’s best players when they needed them most. Noah Horchler put away Georgetown with back-to-back three-pointers two weeks ago. Cooley called Al Durham “Mariano Rivera” due to his ability to knock down free throws to close out opponents. And let’s not forget A.J. Reeves and his history of hitting the biggest shots all the way back to his freshman year.

The Friars put themselves in position to make the big plays by making the little ones. There is no Jared Bynum buzzer beater without Providence stonewalling Xavier on their last possession, nor is there Watson’s dunk against Marquette without Bynum finding Horchler in the corner.

Providence has executed to perfection in the highest-pressure situations, which is a testament to the leadership and experience in this lineup. Stellar defense, lights-out shooting, and the ability to put a team away at the free-throw line are all hallmarks of well-coached teams. Great teams create their own luck through hard work and preparation, and no team has looked more prepared late in games than this year’s Providence Friars.

When a game is in the balance, Providence players consistently put themselves into better positions to succeed than their opponents. You can call that whatever you want, but no basketball coach could ask for more. It is a formula that is certainly working for Ed Cooley and the Friars.

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