Providence’s struggles to start the season can’t be traced back to any one specific problem. There are clearly a variety of overlapping and compounding issues currently plaguing the Friars as they’ve now lost four of their last five.
One consistent theme though, that first originated last season and has continued to hinder Ed Cooley’s club ever since, has been the lack of reliable point guard play.
Prior to the 2018-19 season, the point guard position had been a bit of a staple for Cooley’s programs. Vincent Council put up huge numbers upon his new coach’s arrival, Bryce Cotton led the team back to the NCAA tournament, Kris Dunn was a lottery pick, and Kyron Cartwright went dancing every year of his college career. At their best, the Friars even featured two of those guys at the same time.
Ironically, the lack of point guard play since hasn’t been because of poor recruiting efforts, but actually in spite of them. Makai Ashton-Langford was a consensus top 50 prospect in the country when he committed to the Friars in the spring of 2017 after decommitting from UConn.
This was a guy who had won at the highest levels of both prep and grassroots basketball, collecting MVP awards and even out-dueling the likes of Dennis Smith and Tremont Waters in the process.
A year later, Cooley did it again when he landed David Duke, another local product from the same AAU program and one who, while he hadn’t yet achieved the same levels of success, had an even higher upside and national profile after starring at the Adidas Eurocamp in Italy.
Revisionist history will claim that Ashton-Langford was overrated by recruiting experts like myself and Cooley alike. While that may be true, the missing context is that Ashton-Langford was wanted at the very highest levels of college basketball. Rick Pitino and Louisville were desperately hoping to land a visit in the spring of 2017 and even Kentucky had gotten involved at one point.
The simple truth is that Ashton-Langford was a dominant high school player with one of the most impressive resumes of any point guard in that national class. His game didn’t translate to the college level as most expected for a couple of reasons. His limited shooting ability was a factor, but not an unexpected one. Instead, the disconnect had much more to do with a surprising inability to defend, create for others, and finish plays himself, all areas in which he had thrived in high school.
With Ashton-Langford not living up to early expectations, Duke was given the opportunity to have the ball from day one last year as a freshman. The only problem is that, while he was reminiscent of a young Kris Dunn in some ways, he didn’t have another primary ball-handler and decision-maker to play alongside like Dunn did.
His instincts and feel for the point guard position were still a work in progress, and there was simply no hiding that last year as he put up 2.1 assists versus an equivalent 2.1 turnovers per game with equally inefficient shooting numbers.
The addition of Luwane Pipkins was supposed to rectify that this year, allowing Duke to move off the ball. But neither he nor senior Maliek White have been able to steady the ship. And while Duke has made clear and significant strides since his freshman season and may well end up evolving into the big lead guard that many of us projected years ago, it actually wasn’t an overwhelming surprise that he wasn’t, and isn’t, able to single-handedly operate as a pure point guard.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer in front of the Friars this season. Not with a roster that just doesn’t seem to fit together as hoped. What the Friars have needed in the worst way for the better part of two years, is a table-setting point guard; the type of guy who can handle pressure, run the team, and deliver balls to PC’s scorers in their spots (in other words A.J. Reeves for a clean look from downtown or Nate Watson on the block).
They don’t need him to be a dynamic creator (that’s Duke’s job) but they do need him to be willing to share the ball, slide off it at times, and be a ball-mover and spot-up shooting threat from the second side of the floor while simultaneously defending at a high-level on the other end of the floor.
If they could miraculously add any one type of player at mid-year or guarantee themselves a certain prototype in their 2020 recruiting class, it would be that.
Providence’s difficulties aren’t directly attributable to any one player or specific problem, but the point guard position has not gone as planned over the course of the last three years and a lot of the issues that are plaguing the team now can be traced back to that fact.