With Providence already clinching a Big East regular season crown, Big East Coast Bias’ own Matt St. Jean and Tommy Godin sat down to discuss the importance of this game and the outlook of these teams moving forward.
Tommy Godin: Hey Matt, long time no see, huh? A lot has changed since the last time you and I sat down to put one of these pieces together. First and foremost, I want to get this out of the way before we get started and say, on behalf of me and the rest of the NovaNation, congratulations on securing your very first Big East Regular Season Championship in Providence College history! Walk me through the emotions of that day at The Dunk. Because, I mean, between the bittersweet feeling of senior night to the euphoric bliss of 12,000 of your closest friends belting our Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ it must have been an emotional rollercoaster right?
Matt St. Jean: Excited to be doing this with you again! Less of a rollercoaster than you’d expect. With the exception of a brief 2-0 Creighton lead, it felt like a celebration from when the doors opened through the trophy presentation. The players seemed loose, and you could see the pride on Cooley’s face as he met with each senior and their family before the game for the senior night festivities. It was also the last game at the Dunk for Athletic Director Bob Driscoll, who I assume is relieved to never have to deal with that building ever again after this week. Once the game started, the Friars felt comfortable and in control. It was obvious early on what the outcome would be. By the time Taylor played, the building was a full-on party. As someone that was at that building for senior night in 2020 less than a week before the world came to a screeching halt, it felt like redemption for a program that has been unlucky at times in the past few years. The students fully embraced the narrative, donning “lucky” green for the final game.
When we last did this, we talked about how a Villanova win would set them up well to hoist the trophy with a win over Providence on March 1st. Yet here we are, previewing this game with the stakes being much lower than we anticipated. This will be just the second time the Wildcats have played since the reformation of the conference without a chance to win the regular season title. What’s the feeling over there this week?
TG: Every time you mention that statistic, the crazier it sounds right? Since 2013, only one team (Gonzaga, who is playing in the gauntlet that is the West Coast Conference) has a better win percentage than Villanova, who has gone 254-52-0 in that stretch. But if you asked me about the feeling from the fans perspective I’d say that Providence coming home with the title is about as bittersweet as it gets. It is bitter, obviously, because we know we have the talent and leadership for that to be us, but on the other hand it is good for the conference from a national standpoint to really validate the competition from the top down.
I for one expected Villanova to come home with the regular season title this season, but I think that really goes to show you the talent and more so the grind that is the Big East. Providence was picked SEVENTH in the preseason conference poll. Seventh. Below 6-13 Butler. Anything can happen in the Big East and Providence’s 2021-22 season is a real testament to that. Villanova will now look forward to the conference tournament at the best sports venue in the world and really try and iron out their remaining flaws before the big dance begins again in March.
Going off of the preseason polls, a lot had to go right for the Friars to win the conference this year and a lot DID go right, fortunately for you. Whether it be leadership, luck, coaching or whatever else, what do you most contribute this season’s success to?
MSJ: Depth. It seems like the Friars have six starters. Five of those players have scored 20 points in a game at least once, and the other, Justin Minaya, won player of the week at the end of January for his defense. Jared Bynum, who won player of the week in back-to-back weeks, has come off the bench for essentially all of conference play. Four different Friars have notched a double-double, including Ed Croswell, who is not one of the six top guys. Alyn Breed, the fourth guard on the depth chart, came into the game against Xavier and sank five free throws to seal the game in triple-overtime. You never know which Friar is going to be the one to beat you, but you can be damn sure that at least few of these guys are going to be playing at the top of their game every night.
I got through all that without mentioning Nate Watson, a preseason first team All-Big East selection. Watson had 20 against Nova the last time, and yet the Cats still won thanks to a takeover from Gillespie. How do you feel about the odds of Villanova completing a sweep of the Friars? Can Gillespie do it again? Will he need to?
TG: Believe it or not, I feel more confident about this game at The Finn than I did when we sat down for our first article just a couple weeks ago.
Anytime Villanova is home at the Finneran Pavilion we have a good shot of winning no matter who we are playing. In fact, just two conference teams have ever won there (Butler 2016, Marquette 2022). However, I do not think this game is going to be a cakewalk for the Wildcats by any means.
In the first game it took a career high performance from Collin Gillespie to sneak by on the road in a raucous environment. This time, I expect Providence to take Collin Gillespie out of the game, or at least try their best to. Connecticut really laid down an outstanding blueprint on how to beat Villanova in their last meeting, and I know the Friars will be studying the tape on that one.
With that being said, not having a game on Saturday could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Villanova. I have been saying for weeks now that Villanova’s top priority should be getting healthy before tournament time. Injuries to Bryan Antoine, Brandon Slater and Collin Gillespie have really been hampering the Wildcats ceiling over these past couple of weeks. Between getting an extra couple days of rest and being back at home, albeit with students on spring break, those factors combined should be enough for Villanova to pull through in what is sure to be a dog fight.
Speaking of dog fights, Providence has been in enough of them this year to say the least. The Friars are 10-1 in games decided by less than five points, including a couple of overtime games. Seemingly finding the formula to finish close games, what is the forecast and overall vibe looking like in Friartown for tournament season and how much will the adversity they faced in the regular season carry over with them in March?
MSJ: Playing at The Finn is a scary proposition for sure. The Friars are tough, experienced, and battle-tested, and all that wasn’t enough in front of their home crowd. How that translates on the road will be interesting. Doubly so when you consider that Villanova is healthy and surely highly-motivated.
As for if Providence’s close game performance will carry over to the postseason? That’s the big question. The optimist in me says it will, especially because much of that record is due to the team executing well under pressure. Having a veteran team and a veteran coach certainly helps with that. The pessimist says that all it takes is one hot team to end your season. At the end of the day, only time will tell. But I think Providence fans are pretty happy with what the team has already accomplished. Beating Villanova, and in turn getting a win over every Big East team for only the second time in program history, would be the cherry on top.
This game doesn’t have massive implications for the Big East, but it could be a big deal for NCAA tournament seeding. If Villanova wins, it seems likely they’ll end up in the East region, at home at the Wells Fargo Center on the second weekend, while the Friars would be pushed somewhere further from New England. I know Jay Wright has this team’s sights set higher than a Big East crown. Is this team good enough to do it?
TG: If you asked me that question a couple of weeks ago, I would be hesitant to entertain the thought of going all the way, but now I’m not so sure that they can’t make a run. Is this Jay Wright’s most talented team ever? No. Is it his deepest team ever? Also no. But this team has a lot of ingredients you need in a recipe for a deep run.
Let’s take Collin Gillespie for example. He is the likely winner of the Bob Cousy Award for most outstanding point guard in the country and rightfully so. He has been the anchor of this team providing consistent quality minutes every time he steps on the floor. In fact, he is the only player over the last 20 years to average 10+ points per game on 40% shooting and less than two turnovers a game for four straight seasons. Gillespie is the unrivaled leader of this team going into March and a damn good one at that.
Next we have the role-players and unsung heroes of the team that, although it may not show in the box score, contribute massively to the teams success. Caleb Daniels, Brandon Slater, Jermaine Samuels and Eric Dixon are not afraid to get their hands dirty if it is for the betterment of the team. Their play over the last few weeks has been improving and if they can continue their hot streak going into tournament time that would be huge for the program.
Lastly, I want to talk about Justin Moore who I believe could be the x-factor this team needs to cut down the nets in April. Moore has all of the talent needed to absolutely take over a game offensively. He is a tough bucket in the paint with a soft touch from beyond the arc. This team needs him to step up and deliver in the tournament if they have serious National Championship aspirations.
In 2018, Villanova failed to capture the regular season crown from Xavier, but went on to win every tournament game, including the national championship, by double digits. Now this is a VERY different team than the one we saw in 2018, but if history repeats itself Villanova will find themself cutting down the nets in the coming months. Although it is frankly doubtful, having the east region at home in Philadelphia would be a huge advantage for the Wildcats and you know what they say, anything can happen in March!
Finishing up here, the Friars have had a memorable and historic season and will certainly be looking to continue to do so in the tournament. Looking beyond that, the Friars have five fifth year students and two seniors on their roster. What are the 2022-23 Friars going to look like and what are your ‘way-too-early’ expectations and goals moving forward?
MSJ: Those role players will be the key for Villanova going forward. Everyone knows Gillespie can beat you, but can Slater or Dixon? I think we’ll find out tonight. The Friars are going to do everything they can to stop the back court from having the kind of game it had last time, so it’ll come down to Slater, Samuels, and Dixon against Horchler, Minaya, and Watson. At least, if Providence wins, that’ll be how that happens. Taking Gillespie and Moore away is much easier said than done.
It’s definitely too early to be looking ahead, especially with this group. The Friars honored six seniors on Saturday, but Reeves and Minaya should have eligibility remaining. Will they take it? Croswell and Bynum should return, and Cooley has two freshmen that have been stashed on the bench all season. With the transfer portal, though, who knows what the roster will look like. I’m confident in Cooley’s ability to find veteran talent. I also want to stay focused on this year. This group is a special one, and I don’t think their story is finished being written quite yet. Let’s see what March has in store for them. That starts at the Finn tonight.
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