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Another disappointing season in Providence

The Friars have their backs up against the wall... again.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Every college student gets assigned that one paper they don’t want to write. That essay due at the end of the semester that seems pretty simple on the surface. Then, they forget about the paper until the week it’s due. Suddenly, every night gets spent in the library trying to make sense of the project and get it done. After a few all-nighters, they cobble something together. It falls just short of the assigned length but manages to get a passing grade. It would have been an easy A if they started weeks earlier, but alas.

The Providence Friars are that student.

This is becoming a pattern for Ed Cooley. In 2017, the Friars were 4-8 in Big East play with six games remaining. They won all six en route to an NCAA tournament berth, albeit as one of the last teams in.

Providence entered the 2018 season 25th in the nation per KenPom. It took dramatic wins over Creighton and Xavier in the Big East Tournament to definitively move the Friars off the bubble and into the tournament.

2020 brought more of the same. After getting as high as 19 on KenPom, a disastrous non-conference showing dropped the Friars to 88. Yet again, they saved the season late. Providence ripped off six consecutive wins to finish that season and won eight of their last 10. Five of those wins were against ranked opponents. Had the NCAA tournament been played, they certainly would have made it.

Once more, the Friars find themselves in a do-or-die position. This year’s team was picked to finish third in the Big East. The roster features highly-recruited players like David Duke, A.J. Reeves, Greg Gantt, and Nate Watson. Transfers Jared Bynum and Noah Horchler were supposed to help fill out the roster and provide a spark. Instead of reaching new heights, this team has failed to meet expectations throughout the regular season. Providence has significant ground to make up with just a month left before the Big East Tournament. Seventh in the conference standings and at .500 for the season, this is certainly not the performance anyone expected.

This year is not beyond saving, but there are far too many “what ifs” throughout the schedule. For a team with expectations this high, the reasons for the losses start to ring hollow. Losing to Indiana and Alabama on a neutral site isn’t terrible, but neither game was competitive. Beating Seton Hall on the road in overtime is a great clutch moment, but should the same heroics be needed to take down DePaul at home? What about the three losses to Creighton, Xavier, and Georgetown? Three losses by four points wouldn’t hurt too badly if they weren’t do to self-inflicted wounds. And now, there’s really no excuse for a team this talented coughing the ball up 16 times against Seton Hall and only scoring 43 points at home.

It seems like few of the hopes for this Providence roster have materialized. David Duke and Nate Watson have been as advertised, with the former being a contender for Big East Player of the Year. The rest of the lineup has been disappointing. Duke’s classmate A.J. Reeves has shown improvement and played well for stretches, but he has not been the consistent scorer many expected. Jared Bynum ran the point efficiently, but an injury has kept him out for over a month.

Cooley remarked that his recovery has been “very slow” after Wednesday night’s loss to Seton Hall. In the frontcourt, forwards Greg Gantt and Noah Horchler have underwhelmed. Gantt has yet to score in double-figures and has struggled with turnovers. Horchler has been productive on offense and an asset as a rebounder, but he has also been clearly overwhelmed by Big East size at points. Both have struggled mightily on defense.

Cooley has prided his teams on a defense-first mentality. His philosophy has been to clog passing lanes and frustrate opponents, and it’s worked to pull off some tremendous upsets. That defense has yet to be seen this season. The Friars have let opponents score at will near the basket, allowing a shooting percentage of 51.6 percent inside the arc. And if they miss, opponents have had very little trouble corralling their own shots for another try.

Offensively, Cooley relies heavily on a point guard that can run the show. With guys like Luwane Pipkins, Kyron Cartwright, Kris Dunn, and Bryce Cotton at the position, his offenses have been productive. In 2019, the team had no true point guard, and the offense sputtered. It was the least efficient in the conference according to KenPom. That problem has resurfaced with Bynum out, and freshman Alyn Breed stepping up has not been enough to remedy the situation. Providence has turned the ball over at least 10 times in five of the seven games since Bynum got injured.

Duke and Watson have been the answer for most of the season, but it’s clear that the load has taken its toll. Duke is being asked to run the offense while creating his own looks and cover for his teammates’ mistakes at the other end of the floor. Watson has never been the best defender, and now he doesn’t have guys like Kalif Young or Alpha Diallo around him to help shoulder the load down low. Both players have seen some struggles as of late, and, with not enough talent around them to step up, Providence has now lost six of their last eight.

Once again, the Friars have their backs up against the wall at the end of the season. The schedule ahead does them no favors. Next up are the Red Storm, fresh off an upset over Villanova and riding a five game winning streak. Providence gets St. John’s twice over the next month, and they’ll also face UConn two times in less than a week. The Huskies seem poised to take advantage of the Friars’ woes down low. Games at DePaul and against Xavier will be no easy feat, and then the season finale is against Villanova.

If Cooley and the Friars are able to pull off one more last-second run, this could be the most impressive in his tenure. The tendency to underperform before saving everything at the end is alarming, however, and fans will be left with many questions unanswered should the Friars fail to make the tournament again.