Friars Finding an Identity – But is it Enough to Top Villanova?

Providence College opened the Big East tournament with a commanding 80-57 win over Butler on Wednesday night. They’ll have only hours to recover before returning to the floor to take on top-seeded Villanova.

In a setting such as this, with virtually unprecedented turnaround time, the preparation becomes slanted towards a quick crash-course or review of your opponent, given that you’ve already seen them twice this season, but more of an intense internal focus.

For Providence, a team that has started to better discover their identity in recent weeks, the recipe against Villanova, and potentially even beyond that, will be very similar to what it was against Butler and what it has been in recent weeks.

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Be the more physical team

This version of the Friars isn’t going to win a pretty game of skill and precision on most nights. But they’re a gritty group that has shown resilience and their style of play needs to reflect that. They’re going to bang and bump, but attempt to do so without fouling, in an effort to be the more physically aggressive team.

They’re going to “gang rebound” as the coaching expression goes, or send multiple bodies to the glass on both ends of the floor. They’re going to welcome, or maybe even initiate, contact on both ends of the floor including hard screens, block-outs, defensive bumps on the weak-side of the floor, and more.

Eventually, that style often wears out an opponent. Whether or not that continues to be true this week, when the Friars have the extra mileage of a play-in game on their legs, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is a style they’ve been successful with as of late and are committed to.

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Play inside-out offensively

When the Friars go 11-23 from behind the three-point line, like they did on Wednesday, they’re going to win the game more often than not. That’s true of most college basketball teams. But the season has shown that the Friars are, statistically speaking, not a great shooting team and so they’ve got to be able to find ways to win even on nights when their long shots aren’t falling. That starts with getting the ball in the paint and attacking the rim.

There are multiple ways that can be done, all of which fall into the same physical style mentioned above. The first is to throw the ball inside and get low-post touches. While Nate Watson had only four points on Wednesday night, he came into the game over 15 points per game shooting 55% from the floor over the course of his last eight games. It’s not just traditional post-ups though as Alpha Diallo and Isaiah Jackson have been going inside more frequently as well.

Providence’s offense often allows various cutting opportunities, especially when Ed Cooley returns to his roots and runs the flex offense. The second way is to attack the rim off the dribble, whether that’s in transition or the half-court. Increased dribble penetration means increased trips to the free-throw line where they can get easy points.

By putting constant pressure on the rim, Providence also contracts the opposition’s defense, which in turns gives them more room and rhythm from behind the arc. In other words, attacking the rim isn’t just more effective than relying on their jumpers, it’s also the best way to be more accurate with their jumpers.

Don’t get beat from three defensively

The general feeling inside the Friars locker room in recent weeks is that they’re not going to get beat by twos. The emphasis on three-point D is nothing new for a Cooley coached team, or for any program up to speed with modern trends or statistics. The reality though is that the Friars weren’t defending the arc as well early in the season as they historically have, but they’ve recommitted to it in recent weeks.

On the surface, the best example of that might have been their overtime loss to Creighton. In their opening match-up of the season, Creighton was 13-29 from behind the arc, converting just under 45% of their threes. Last week, they were 9-38, just under 24%. Ironically though, the best statistical indicator of three-point defense is actually the number of attempts, not makes, allowed. That’s an area they’ve done a good job of against Villanova this season, allowing 22 and 23 attempts respectively against a team that averages over 30 per game. This might be the most important factor in Thursday’s game as Villanova attempts more than half their shots from behind the arc and averages nearly 11 made threes per game.

Providence College takes on Villanova today at noon in the Big East quarterfinals. The game can be seen on FS1.