Leave it to the Providence Friars to keep things interesting in late February.
While many teams are feeling good about which side of the bubble they’re on, and a few are playing to get on the right side of the bubble, the Providence Friars are the “chaotic neutral” team that seem to follow no discernible pattern. They’ll play a strong first half against one of the bottom teams in the Big East, only to get completely decimated in the second half. Then, days later, they’ll blow out a “right-side-of-the-bubble” Big East team in a way that nobody watching the Friars has seen from Ed Cooley’s squad this year. They’ll show setbacks in struggles and massive improvements in wins.
But I think I’m starting to get this team and where they’re headed – particularly into next season. The question I have is will there be enough this year to get on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday, and what does “enough” look like?
Before I deep dive into what exactly this team is (and isn’t) I want to particularly call out Nate Watson. Last year’s effort had built some expectations for him going into the season, and early on I wasn’t sure if he would make the jump I was hoping he’d make. Better late than never I suppose, because Big Nate has come through in a big way these last few games.
There is plenty to rattle off regarding Nate: his touch around the rim has smoothed out and he’s converting on those post plays that he struggled to complete at the beginning of the season. He’s playing tough both mentally and physically, fighting for those rebounds and defending aggressively. Speaking of his defense, I like where he’s headed and how he’s making it a real pain for both shooters who want to drive and frontcourt players who want to post. But all this is small potatoes to his biggest improvement in my opinion: he’s not racking up fouls on defense like he used to.
Watson was always a tough defender. I liked that about him. But you can’t defend well for very long or very effectively if your opponent is drawing fouls on you every time they go to the hoop. It’s a fast recipe to find yourself back on the bench – and playing more cautiously when you’re not. Watson’s most important improvement, therefore, has been his ability to avoid drawing those ticky-tack fouls while still defending aggressively. The block that he made against a St. John’s shooter in transition – you know, the one he sent into orbit – is a highlight reel example of a much improved defensive IQ with which he can make those plays without making contact. Thus, Big Nate spends more time on the floor, can continue to be effective on defense, and – you guessed it – can find his groove on offense – and stay in it.
This is going to be pivotal for the Friars for the rest of this year, as well as in the seasons to come. Though I’ve highlighted a major defensive improvement, the offense will be just as important because this team needs some scorers.
Putting the Ball in the Basket
It would be generous to say that this team has struggled on offense this season. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a struggling Friars team that’s dead last in scoring offense and scoring percentage in the Big East. They’re shooting just shy of 42% for the season, including 39% in conference games.
But let’s not harp on the offensive woes that have been beaten to death by anyone discussing the Friars this season – myself included. Instead, let’s have a real conversation about where we go from here. How do the Friars find ways to score points and win games?
I personally don’t mind the idea of leaning on Alpha Diallo to score. I don’t believe he’s the leader this team ultimately needs – that will likely be Watson, David Duke, Makai Ashton-Langford, or Maliek White – but I believe he’s the scorer this team needs. The concern I’ve had with him is he tends to rush his shot, often heaving up prayers mid-step or when the shot clock is winding down. When he sets, takes his time, and finds his opportunity, he’s the best scorer on the team. And we’ll need him to do that.
I’m very high on Watson scoring in bunches now for two reasons: we need more opportunities in the paint, and it allows the Friars to play in and out a bit more – creating better looks from long range for White, AJ Reeves, and Drew Edwards. I’m optimistic about Duke’s shot continuing to find itself, but I think White, Edwards, and Reeves will be strong scoring options in the backcourt throughout the rest of the season – even while Reeves continues to find his footing. I think if they can find more opportunities like they did against St. John’s (thanks in part to the defense collapsing on Watson) their numbers will increase during the remainder of the season.
The Friars have struggled tremendously this year, but I think we may finally be seeing the light at the end of that tunnel. When you look back on this season and see their shooting, it won’t tell the improvement story that I’m hoping will come to fruition based on what I’ve seen of late. The good news is that improvement can translate into next season and you’ll (ideally) see a huge jump in offensive production then.
The question, however, is what will this mean for the remainder of the season? With four games left before the Big East Tournament, will the Friars have enough offensive firepower in them to pass Marquette, sweep Butler, and win one at Creighton? And what does their situation mean for the NCAA Tournament?
We Can Dance if We Want To
The NCAA Tournament dream is not dead. I said that last time – the true last game of the season for the Friars is the last game they play. Whether that be the first round of the Big East Tournament or a postseason bid, the Friars are still in control of their own destiny.
But it won’t be done in the regular season anymore.
If (and it’s a big “if”) the Friars win out in the regular season they’ll have two road wins and a win over Marquette – a marquee win and a good way to make a statement at the end of the season. That still only puts the Friars at 19 wins, .500 in conference. They’re going to have to do some damage in the Big East Tournament – if not win it outright.
The question is, can they? To which I respond, why couldn’t they? Sure, they haven’t always played well, and if they come out like they did in the second half against Xavier they’re going to lose, but if they play the way they did against St. John’s with a full 40 minutes of effort – which at the beginning of the season was debatable – there’s no reason why the Friars can’t surprise the conference and take the crown for themselves. Is it going to be easy? No. Is it a long shot? I guess to a degree. Is it unreasonable? Absolutely not. When this team plays to their potential they can run with anyone in the conference. The Friars are, in many ways, their own worst enemy. And that will ultimately factor into whether or not they overcome this challenge to dance for the sixth year in a row or not.