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Friar Weekly: The Big East Rollercoaster

Any fan of a Big East basketball team signs up for a roller coaster ride that starts at the end of December and goes throughout the first few weeks of March, wrapping up at Madison Square Garden.

During that time there are emotional highs of knocking off ranked conference opponents, and the lows of being bested by a team you thought you had. From top to bottom the Big East is competitive and offers new chances every night to build a case for the NCAA Tournament.

For Providence, those highs and lows were exemplified this past week during their first two home games in conference play. After coming off a road trip where the Friars split to a 1-1 start, Providence returned to the Dunkin Donuts Center to face Marquette and #5 Xavier. After the Friars started to show some identity and play tough during their road trip, fans were starting to feel a bit more confident in the Friars, but still remained skeptical. And once again, these two games showed the Friars could play competitive and beat anybody – including themselves.

The Friars kicked off their home schedule with an overtime loss to Marquette.

This loss was deflating like a hot air balloon that had the hot air suddenly turn off mid-flight. It wasn’t that the Friars lost, and it wasn’t that the loss happened in overtime, and it wasn’t just that Marquette’s Markus Howard almost dethroned Marshon Brooks’ Big East scoring record. It was that the Friars had the game, saw the Golden Eagles claw their way back in, regained control of the game, and then in the last two possessions turned the ball over each time, allowing Marquette to regain some lost ground and tie the game. All the Friars had to do was score on one of the possessions and they more likely than not would have walked away from a hard fought battle with a W, but turnovers allowed a forced overtime to slip by the Friars.

The bitter loss just made the win over fifth-ranked Xavier that much sweeter. The Friars, feeling the punch in the gut they had been dealt from Marquette, returned to the Dunk to face the Musketeers in front of a sellout crowd. After a little run by the Musketeers in the first few minutes, the Friars stopped taking hits and decided to punch back.

The result? The Friars took the lead and controlled it throughout a large majority of the game. Not only that, the Friars showed the conference and fans alike that yes, maybe that early OOC performance was the learning curve the Friars needed to be the team they were projected to be.

Statistical Anomalies

The Marquette matchup may be remembered as one of the most fascinating games from a statistical standpoint, because nothing makes sense about it. On the one hand you have Marquette, who had 52 points from Markus Howard on a next-level effort with 17-29 shooting effort, including 11-19 from 3. Marquette was 50% from the field 3 for the game. And yet, other than Howard’s 52 points and 16 from Andrew Rowsey, Marquette starters and bench players alike contributed almost nothing. These two players made up 72% of Marquette’s total points.

And then you have the Friars. Providence had four players in double digits, fouled far less than Marquette (17 fouls compared to 28, resulting in 41 free throw attempts compared to Marquette’s 16), and they outrebounded the Golden Eagles 39-28. But they only shot 16% from 3 and turned the ball over 16 times compared to Marquette’s 13.

How do you explain a game with numbers like that? Logic dictates that a team who has more than three times the amount of attempts from the free throw line and shares the scoring a bit more should win. Likewise, a team who scores 50% should win – and they did, but needed overtime and huge last minute of regulation to do it. Marquette, for all they did, almost lost this game. Even then, it would have been a crazy game to look at from a data standpoint.

When you can’t look to data, look to the court. This game isn’t easily explained by the box score because it’s so divisive in many ways that you would have needed to watch the game to have understood it. In my opinion though, this game came down to the two turnovers at the end by the Friars.

All the Friars had to do to escape the Marquette Golden Howards was score in the last minute of the game. Two possessions, one basket. That was it. And in both possessions, the Friars couldn’t even get a shot off. This gave the Golden Howards a chance to tie the game and force overtime (even win it in regulation, which luckily for the Friars they couldn’t do because they somehow missed the game-winning 3 at the buzzer) where they would escape with a win.

Still, this is yet another memorable Marquette matchup, which seems to be a reoccurring theme with the Milwaukee Big East team. The bat game, the slip-n-slide game, multiple games that have gone into overtime – yeah, Marquette just may have started to become a great rival.

“We Are Providence”

“The Dunk: where ranked teams go to die!”

That quote from Doug Gottlieb was tweeted when the Friars knocked off Notre Dame in 2013 during a conference game. It was an appropriate tweet because no matter how good or bad the Friars are, they always seem to find a way to knock off a high-ranked foe at home. It’s almost tradition. The tweet has aged like the finest of wines. But “knocking off ranked foes” isn’t the Providence identity.

All season the discussion of identity has been brought up by Cooley, the media, and fans alike. Who were these Friars, and what did they need to do to right their struggles and win games?

It took remembering that part of who the Friars were – knocking off ranked foes – to remember who they were.

The Friars dealt Xavier only their second loss of the season, but it was the fashion the Friars did it in that was impressive. When the Friars got hit, they hit back. When Xavier came out of the gates in the second half looking to dismantle the Providence lead, the Friars held on and kept the Musketeers at bay. Rather than chuck the ball up court for fast breaks that could result in turnovers, the Friars held the ball on a defensive rebound and kept control. Rather than put up questionable shots, the Friars made the extra pass. When Providence went to the line, they hit their free throws.

In short, Providence played like a classic Ed Cooley team: tough, intelligent, together, and – most of all – confident.

Xavier is no joke of an opponent. Karem Kanter came off the bench for Xavier and scored 24 points on 10-15 shooting. Xavier grabbed 44 boards compared to Providence’s 28. And after 16-14 Xavier with 13:49 left in the first half, Xavier never led the game again.

The Friars have been looking to prove themselves, and against Xavier they did. If the Friars can carry this momentum and play at this level in the remaining 14 Big East games and in the Big East Tournament, there is no doubt the Friars will be dancing come March. By then, everyone will know exactly who the Friars are, but against Xavier everyone got their first glimpse of who Providence really is – a team that can come ready to play and will hit back.