The 2019 Big East tournament has come to an end for Providence.
After an exciting 80-57 win over Butler in the opening round, the Friars fought Villanova tooth and nail for about 33 minutes and even had the score tied late in the second-half before the Wildcats answered with a run that would eventually decide the game.
Heading into the game, we outlined a few keys for Providence, that weren’t just applicable to the match-up with Villanova, but also had been themes of the Friars’ relative surge in recent weeks. They needed to continue to be physical, pound the ball inside, and defend the three-point line.
Ultimately, they did a relatively good job in all three areas, and even though Villanova reached their season average by attempting 31 threes, they only made 10 of them, with Collin Gillespie knocking down half of those. While Providence both fouled more than they would have liked and gave up too many offensive rebounds, overall, this was still a very solid defensive performance as Ed Cooley switched defenses masterfully to keep Villanova out of rhythm and in so doing held the Wildcats to just 36% shooting on the day.
The biggest problems, though, were on the offensive end. After going 11-23 from the three-point arc the night earlier, Providence was just 5-20 from that range on Thursday. While the shooting slump was hardly unprecedented given some of their struggles throughout the season, what broke their back were their 19 turnovers, specifically those that came in the final stretch of the game when Villanova was making their run.
The end of the Big East tournament also means the end of a five-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances, something which only 11 other college basketball programs have been able to match in that time.
So, what do the Friars need to do to return to the NCAA tournament and contend for the Big East championship next year?
The reality is that they may be closer than they appear. They lose Isaiah Jackson, and potentially Drew Edwards, but otherwise everyone returns including Alpha Diallo, Nate Watson, A.J. Reeves, and David Duke. They also may get Emmitt Holt back if he is granted a sixth year of eligibility.
What are some of the off-season keys for that personnel?
1. Diallo Needs to Maximize his Efficiency – The junior forward led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals this season. In short, he did it all. However, he was better doing it from the four-spot than he was the three. More than that, Providence was at their best when he was at the four.
There were moments this season when Diallo looked like he was trying too hard to prove he was a legit big wing, undoubtedly because he had heard uneducated noise about what it would take to attract NBA eyeballs. Ultimately, his best chance of making the NBA is to be as productive and efficient as he can be. If he falls into the trap of worrying about position or the next level, it will hurt both him and the Friars’ chances of maximizing their potential next season.
2. Reeves and Duke need to take the next step – Had Reeves stayed healthy this season, it might have been a different year for the Friars. He provides the type of shot-making that no one else on the roster can duplicate and had a confidence and presence that was very unusual for a freshman.
His roommate, David Duke, was the pre-season freshman of the year in the Big East but ultimately that had more to do with his long-term potential than his realistic immediate impact.
Reeves and Duke are both going to continue to evolve organically, but if Duke can become more of a playmaker in the half-court and Reeves can stay healthy all year, they could be one of the Big East’s best backcourts sooner rather than later.
3. Watson needs to establish himself as one of the Big East’s best centers – Diallo will be the veteran and Reeves and Duke are still the celebrated local products, but Watson’s impact on next year’s success will be as important as anyone’s.
The Friars were at their best when playing inside-out this year but were sometimes reluctant to do that. Watson needs to establish himself as a key cog and that needs to begin in spring workouts. Ed Cooley can’t just tell his team that Watson is a top option. Watson has to show them on a daily basis.
4. Solidify the supporting cast – Now halfway through his college career, will Makai Ashton-Langford ever become the player Providence thought they were getting out of prep school? Where will they find three-point shooting beyond Reeves? If Holt doesn’t get back the year, do they have enough depth to their frontcourt rotation?
These are some of the questions that may not seem big when you return a foursome like Diallo, Duke, Reeves, and Watson, but are critical to establishing the depth to play through injuries and adversity that a five-month season inevitably necessitates.