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Friar Weekly: So…Now What?

As it turns out, the Friars may be in a tougher situation than originally anticipated.

Providence, which was selected fourth in the Big East preseason and an anticipated Sweet 16 program, may not be who they were thought to be.

Since the beginning of the season the Friars have struggled with the exception of a few games. They have beaten everyone they were supposed to, and lost to teams they were likely going to lose to, but they didn’t look great in either the losses or the wins. The goal in the minds of many fans was to escape the non-conference schedule without any bad losses, show some improvement both on the court and in coaching decisions, and then contend in the Big East.

The plan went awry on Saturday when the Friars headed to Amherst to take on regional foe UMass.

This puts the team in a bit of a tough spot, and has fans on edge. If the Friars had just put up an egg and lost to a bad opponent, well, nothing can be done about that. Duke, Kansas, and Florida all had the same thing happen to them this past week, so it’s not like this is something unique to Providence. However, it’s the fact that the Friars aren’t playing well and losing to bad teams that will create anxiety in even the most dedicated and optimistic of fans.

In years past when the Friars had put up losses to bad opponents (think Brown or BC in the last couple years) they recovered by coming out sharper and making up ground for it in conference play. Fans will now be watching to see if Providence responds to this loss in a similar manner. It’s hard to say that fans ‘should be used to getting losses like this by now‘ because we’ve gotten them in years past since, frankly, the expectations are higher this year.

Still, fans should allow Cooley and his team to adjust from this loss and look for Providence to make up ground in conference. While this in itself is a concerning thought, with a tougher Big East than ever since the reformation, fans should be seeing this as an opportunity. The harder the conference, the more opportunities to get key wins that, should Providence get them, outweigh the one bad loss thus far.

So, now what? From a record perspective, fans should be looking to see no more bad losses in nonconference, hope to make up lost ground by the UMass loss in conference, and look for improvement in critical areas all the while. What are these areas? I’m glad you asked.

Coach Cooley’s Christmas List

In order to understand what Head Coach Ed Cooley wants for his team this Christmas, I checked out what Cooley put on his Amazon wish list. (Just kidding.) Instead, I watched his team play and figured out what Cooley must be wishing for.

Here’s what Coach Cooley is asking for from Santa this year:

1. Improved Free Throw Shooting

Now ten games into the season, PC ranks 271 in the NCAA in free throw shooting. They’re shooting an abysmal 66% from the charity stripe, but what this doesn’t account for is missed opportunities on things like the front ends of one-and-ones, or how many and-ones weren’t converted. Like with most statistics, the number only scratches the surface of a much deeper story, and the story of this number is ‘Providence must learn to convert on these opportunities because it will cost them more than enough games if not.’ Look at the URI for a great example, where PC shot 47% on 10-21…and lost by 7.

2. No More Turnovers: 

Can someone explain how a team with this many guards is averaging 14.5 turnovers per game? No? And I don’t know if Cooley can either. Still, a number like this immediately raises some red flags, but it’s the story behind this number that’s extra concerning. Bad passes, carelessness with the ball on the drive, getting pick-pocketed after pulling a defensive rebound, bad inbound passes, the list goes on. The Friars must tighten up ship here, lest they want to see their season go down the gutter because teams made them cough the ball up more than a cat coughs up hairballs (which I’m assuming is a lot in order for this pun to work).

3. Playing with Grit

Cooley has talked quite a bit about how his team is playing without a lot of mental toughness or grit right now, and after the loss to UMass on Saturday Cooley called himself out for this.

I have previously said that this team plays uncharacteristically softer compared to the usual “junkyard dog” toughness Cooley teams play with. Seeing Cooley acknowledge this yet again in a loss, while also noting that his coaching is to blame, gives me the hope that the transparency he’s giving in these post-game press conferences will result in a tougher, more rounded PC team.

4. No More Injuries 

Yeah, yeah – every Friar fan is familiar with this one, as is Cooley. But with Maliek White and Alpha Diallo both on the injury list right now, Cooley must be visiting every mall Santa in the Rhode Island area asking for speedy recoveries for both these guys – and that nobody else on his team gets injured.

It’s Really Not All Bad

Providence has, by and large, been playing poorly. Perhaps the worst they’ve looked all season was against Brown last Wednesday. It was good to see, however, that PC at least looked tougher against UMass. They did not play better on a technical level – their free throws were terrible, and the defensive lapses were unforgivable at times. But mental toughness and playing with heart doesn’t always translate to mechanics, and that’s okay. If they’re showing they give a damn on the court, that’s a better place than where the Friars were just a few games ago, where they were playing bad and didn’t look like they cared at all.

Against UMass, you could see the heart was there, even if the skills weren’t at times. That’s a good thing to start seeing, because the Friars cannot win without playing with heart. Pushing the ball and playing with energy on offense and (at times) locking down the defense is exactly what playing with heart looks like. Watching back-to-back empathetic dunks from Nate Watson is what heart looks like. This team not quitting when they were down and overcoming the deficit in scoring (for a time) was playing with heart. Once the costly mistakes are improved upon (free throws and turnovers) the Friars will be able to win a lot more games like these.

Towards the end, when UMass seemed to have the game in hand, Providence was making a final push – and for a second I actually believed they may do it. It sounds silly, but seeing the Friars leave it all on the court was inspiring. It’s what fans expect from this team, always, and seeing Providence show that again is something that fans should feel hopeful about – even when the current situation feels bleak.

Still Plenty to Hope For

The negative feelings in the fan base are understandable right now, and I’m sure the team and coaches are feeling down as well. But there’s still plenty of season left and the Friars have shown that they find a way to success. There has been some improvements seen from Brown to UMass in terms of mental toughness, and if Cooley can work out the technical ailments plaguing the Friars this will become the team fans thought they would be. Cooley taking ownership and recognizing the needs of his team should be the first sign of encouragement for fans.

Bad performances and rough losses do not kill a season in December, no matter what doubters may say. The Friars have a week off – giving them enough time to rest up their injured and get their able-bodied focused and ready to finish the nonconference strong. Best thing for fans to do now? Finish your holiday shopping because, holy Hannah, it’s somehow already mid-December.

Oh, and be patient, trust the process, all that jazz. It’s mid-December, we’re 10 games into the season, and there’s still reason to be optimistic and trust in Cooley.