This past Sunday, I (along with the rest of America) saw the New England Patriots win their sixth Super Bowl. For me, it was equal parts incredible (seriously, nobody gets tired of winning and I won’t apologize for it) and shocking. All throughout the regular season I didn’t think the Pats had it in them to do it. The playoffs alone seemed questionable at points, and when they did make the playoffs I told myself that if they made it the AFC Championship game I would be happy, win or lose. And they won, convincingly, in both the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl.
Now my attention turns back to the Providence Friars, who are struggling just like my Pats did in the regular season. The wins feel a little too close for comfort, the losses feel like they shouldn’t have happened, and there are question marks that need answers. At the same time, the Friars have the potential just like the Pats to make something happen. The million dollar question is whether or not the Friars can pull it together in time to make it happen.
So in today’s column I’m going to take a look at two key issues I feel are keeping the Friars from being as competitive as they could be. I don’t promise answers to these challenges, just a bit of deeper conversation on them.
Also, if you’re not a Pats fan and you need to be upset that I said nice things about them, go ahead and do that. I’ll wait.
It’s hard for me to talk about the Friars and not bring up the glaring weakness that is their offense. Just listen to broadcasts of PC games and you’ll hear commentators harp on the Friars for being in last place in the Big East for offense production. It’s as frustrating to hear as it is hard to ignore, and many are wondering how we ended up here.
There’s an argument being made right now that we don’t have very many scorers on the team, and I guess that could be part of it. Alpha Diallo and AJ Reeves are two of our best scorers, despite Reeves struggling a bit since he’s been back. Nate Watson is also able to put points for us, but can be hot or cold and hasn’t made the sophomore year jump that I think many fans expected, a la Ben Bentil. The rest of the team has been struggling, and the challenge isn’t so much “we don’t have any scorers” as it is “we don’t have a person who can score in bunches and reliably.” In other words: Bryce Cotton ain’t walkin’ through that door.
But let’s entertain a different notion: it’s not the lack of shooters, it’s the lack of confidence. If you look at the roster in terms of talent, we have a team laden with shooters, but it hasn’t translated onto the court. Watching this team over the past few games, I think the reason is that nobody is rising up to be “the guy” as players like Cotton, Dunn, and Cartwright had. Without confidence, there’s a lot of talent with no ability to execute. I think it’s most evident at the end of games where players on the floor will pass and move the ball, seemingly looking for an opening with nobody taking the shot when an opportunity presents itself. I don’t understand what the concern is – missing? Upsetting teammates or the coach? – but right now Providence lacks confidence more than they lack a capable shooter.
.@CoachCooleyPC after the loss to Georgetown.
— PC Men’s Basketball (@PCFriarsmbb) February 7, 2019
And I’ll be honest: I don’t know where I would start to fix that. If your shot is awkward you practice and adjust. If it’s off, you practice and realign your shot. But confidence? I really don’t know. That’s a job for Cooley, and I have the faith that he’ll pull it off, but that’s his task. If we are able to gain that confidence in our offense, there is plenty of time to make noise. Maybe the NCAA’s are a long shot, but the NIT is within the realm of possibility, and we could always win the Big East Tournament again and get the auto-bid…if the confidence arrives.
After watching the Friars drop their third in a row, this time to Georgetown, I mentioned to my game-watching companion that it’s becoming apparent that we have no leadership on the court. Without a floor general, I insisted, the Friars aren’t able to close out games, maintain leads, or respond when their opponent goes on a run.
My friend however, pointed out a flaw in this: Diallo is our on-court leader for now, but it’s also the first time we’ve had one that isn’t a point guard. Without a point guard leading the way, how will Cooley’s system translate? The lack of consistent guard play hurts, but the lack of leadership coming from the guard position may be hurting more.
I had to stop and consider this because I think it’s very accurate. I think about the Seton Hall game, for example, where costly end-of-game turnovers kept the Friars from completing a sweep and earning a crucial road win over the Pirates. Two things happened amidst all those turnovers: Diallo wasn’t taking charge in the leadership role, resulting in turning the ball over twice, and, because we have guards who are still growing and learning, they’re also not taking charge, which meant the Friars weren’t scoring or playing cohesively on offense.
Alpha Diallo hits a three-point basket to reach 1,002 career points.
— PC Men’s Basketball (@PCFriarsmbb) February 7, 2019
Now I called out Diallo’s two turnovers specifically because as the leader on the court, Diallo is expected to make the plays in crunch time, but he’s struggled to do that. These aren’t necessarily ‘he didn’t score when he should’ type plays, but more those plays relying on mental focus and toughness. I compare it to his struggle with hitting the front end of 1-and-1 free throws earlier in the season. A leader on the court needs to make those mental toughness plays, because those are the plays that turn close losses into close wins. Likewise, turning the ball over in crunch time may not be totally on him, but as the leader, he needs to step up and ensure those plays don’t happen with the game on the line.
Regarding guard play, I think MAL and David Duke are both stepping up and really showing their potential without hitting their ceiling, but it’s a game of patience, which is why there is a lot to be optimistic about despite this year possibly being an NIT or no-postseason year. Consistency and confidence will be key in their development, and right now they’re not at the level where they can carry a team, but they’re getting there. And once they do get there I think the leadership role will shift and become balanced between them and Diallo, akin to Dunn/Bentil and Cotton/Batts. To sum it up, we need consistency in our leadership, and we need more leadership in the backcourt – both of which I believe is coming, but I don’t know if I can say it’s coming this season.
The Last Game
When the Friars are struggling you get a lot of upset and frustrated fans airing grievances. A sort of “game” develops in which people attempt to decide when the season is “over” for the Friars. Did it end after the loss to Georgetown? Did losing on the road to DePaul put the nail in the coffin? Is there still hope to be found, but it’s rapidly fading? These debates echo through the channels of Twitter, Facebook, and message boards, and nobody has a definite answer.
Well, almost nobody – I have an answer. When is the Friars season officially over? When they’ve played their last game of the year. Until then, anything can happen. The Friars have proven, time and time again, that they can surprise. Back in 2014, I said that the Friars could win the Big East Tournament. They did. Last year I put a bet that, despite a rocky start, the Friars would make the NCAA Tournament. They did. I’m not bringing this up to brag about my successful predictions, but rather to make a simple point: the Friars aren’t done no matter where they’re at today, because come the Big East Tournament, it could all look entirely different.
The league is wide open, the Friars need to capitalize on the opportunities that are presented, and, as long as there are opportunities to seize upon, I wouldn’t count out Ed Cooley and the Friars.