Well, that didn’t go as planned for the Providence Friars.
After riding high momentum from the out of conference closeout, I thought the Friars had found their groove. Given their strong finish and the lineup of Big East opponents to start conference play, I didn’t think it unreasonable for the Friars to start off with a 2-1 conference record. Now, instead, the Friars have gone 0-2 and must take to the road where the Georgetown Hoyas await them on Saturday.
But, despite the rough start, I don’t think hope is lost for the season. In fact, this isn’t even unfamiliar territory. The question is, will the Friars of this year respond the way previous Friar teams have in years past? Are they capable of doing so? Let’s take a look at two key seasons where the Friars started with similar struggles, as well as where this season could go from here.
2014: Friars Open Big East Season 0-2
It was Ed Cooley’s third year, and fans were starting to get a feel for what it was like to win after a surprisingly confident turnaround the previous season in which the Friars made the NIT and did some damage. Concerns quickly arose when the Friars lost back-to-back OT games, first to UMass on the road and then at home to Seton Hall, the latter of which was a single-point, 2OT loss on New Year’s Eve. It didn’t help that the Friars traveled to Villanova a couple days later and had a 30 point blowout loss to the Wildcats.
Providence answered this punch to the schedule by going on a 5-game win streak, including a key win over #20 Creighton in Providence, to regain their footing. The season progressed with the narrative being the Friars needed to do “just a little more” to get into the Tournament. That “little more” was keep winning, so the Friars did – right up to reclaiming the second-ever Big East Tournament Championship.
If the previous season introduced Cooley’s ability to turn teams around, then starting in mid-January, 2014 solidified it. Since then, it’s become almost normal for fans to hang their hats on the belief that things will only truly be chaos if the team is struggling hard in February.
Personnel-wise, 2014 was loaded with talent, but it’s talent that I believe the 2019 team can match if they put it together. We’ve seen what this team is capable of during games like Texas, and it does feel familiar to a team with Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts, LaDontae Henton, and Carson Desrosiers. The most glaring difference may be in the free throw shooting, but with Cooley’s fortified effort in having his team practice them, I’m not sure I’m going to stress about it yet.
2017: Slow Start Leads to Strong Finishes
Just like 2014, the 2017 Friars were starting Big East play by coming off an OOC road loss – this time to Boston College – before going 0-2 to start. Though the losses were both road losses to top-20 teams (#17 Xavier and #13 Butler), two more losses after a win at Georgetown (with a single-point loss at DePaul) put the Friars at 1-4. The frustration and worry that Providence might not be dancing come March was palpable.
The season had started with the understanding that the Friars might not make the dance that year. After all, the loss of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil to the draft could cause any team to miss their mark. However, the Friars responded to their 1-4 start by picking momentum up in mid-February, winning their last six games thereby finishing the conference season 10-8 and earning their way into the First Four.
The 2017 loss in talent from the previous season is relatable to the 2019 Friars, and, before the argument that we added elite talent comes into play, it must be remembered that freshmen can struggle, and right now the one that scored in bunches is out with an injury and no timeline for return. Not ideal, but it does equalize the Friars to 2017 a bit, when it took them until more than halfway through the conference to get things together. Much like 2017, this year’s Friar squad may just need to hold on long enough to put them in position to close the conference strong. And given what we’ve seen from the Friars already, they have the talent and capability, the question lies in whether or not they can execute.
2019: Where Are We Headed?
So it turns out this season isn’t the first time Ed Cooley and the Friars have found themselves in a tough spot. The roster might look different, but the situation is the same.
And that’s not the only thing that’s stayed the same. The team still plays with a toughness that Friar fans have come to love from Ed Cooley’s coaching, they’re just looking to find consistency with it. The Villanova game last Saturday had a tough start, but fans should also remember that, despite struggling in the first half, the Friars clawed their way back in and almost made for a huge win. I don’t buy the belief some have held that the Friars played like they didn’t care because, if they didn’t care, they would have lost by 30 instead of six.
Consistency is their struggle, as it has been all season. When they play consistent, Providence heads to Texas and wins convincingly. When they play inconsistent basketball, they start from behind and have to claw their way out. The Friars will be tasked with putting together a more consistent effort early in the game so they aren’t trying to pull themselves out of the hole they’ve dug, but that is challenging when the team itself is still looking for consistency from individuals. But it’s too early to write the Friars off, because the past has shown us that even teams coming on late can still make noise and find their way into the Dance.
It should also be encouraging to see how quickly some players have turned it around. Makai Ashton-Langford is the poster child of this turnaround, going from an unreliable backup to a trusted, consistent player in the span of a month and change. And yes, I realize he made a mistake at the end of the Villanova game. It was hard to digest, but it also happens, and if he learned to execute better for next time, it’s time to take that hit and move forward.
Things don’t come easy in Friartown; the injury AJ Reeves sustained is evidence enough of that, but Ed Cooley doesn’t need easy to succeed because he and his players find a way to overcome the difficulties. Buckle in because it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but there are still good things to come from this team.