Tyrese Martin is the type of impact transfer the Friars need (Photo: PC Athletics)
By KEVIN FARRAHAR
There was a lot of soul searching, and a bit of panic, across Friartown following Providence’s 73-61 loss to Connecticut on Tuesday night.
The hated Huskies, boosted by the return of star guard James Bouknight, led by as many as 18 points — and perhaps more troubling for the Friar
faithful, they were simply too physical and athletic for PC. Bouknight re-introduced himself to the Big East with a loud tip dunk in the first half, and finished with 18 points on 7-13 shooting in 25 minutes off of the bench.
There may not be more than a handful of players in the country who can match Bouknight on sheer athleticism, but beyond him Connecticut was simply too athletic for PC across the board.
Ironically (and alarmingly), it felt like watching one of Providence’s Big East games from a decade ago. PC was slower to the ball, taken advantage of in the paint, and its star players were completely taken out of the game.
David Duke made just 3-of-16 shots. Nate Watson went 3-of-9 with one defensive rebound.
Providence won’t be alone in having their hands full with UConn this season, or going forward. Bouknight is a likely lottery pick come the spring, while Dan Hurley recently welcomed back a pair of uber-athletes in freshman wing Andre Jackson and sophomore shot blocker Akok Akok.
Both had been shelved for much of this season due to injury and both were top 40sih recruits coming out of high school. Ed Cooley said that UConn is the Big East’s deepest team, and he’s probably correct.
These are heady times in Storrs. Connecticut hasn’t seen the NCAA Tournament since 2016, but Hurley’s current group looks primed to make a late season push in their first season in the Big East since the conference broke off from football schools in 2013. And this might just be the
Look at Hurley’s last two recruiting hauls. This year he welcomed two big-timers in swingman Jackson and bruising big man Adama Sanogo. Maybe more importantly for this year’s team the Huskies welcomed transfers URI’s Tyrese Martin and Howard guard R.J. Cole. Those are called Impact Transfers, the type every Big East team (including Providence) could use.
Hurley’s 2021 recruit haul is currently ranked 10th in the country per 247 Sports. The star may be a Philly point guard, Rahsool Diggins, that he stole out from under Villanova’s eyes. There’s a popular clip making the rounds on UConn Twitter of Dan Hurley saying, “People better get us now. That’s all. You better get us now because it’s coming,” after a loss to Villanova a season ago.
There is a budding swagger and confidence in Connecticut — the type that Ed Cooley brought to Providence in 2011 when he vowed to “win big” and then promptly won a Big East title in his third year leading the Friars.
That Big East title kicked off a string of five consecutive seasons with an NCAA Tournament. Over the past seven years PC has won at least ten conference games six times, winning 12 Big East games for the first time in program history last season. It’s the greatest stretch of winning in PC’s 40-plus seasons of Big East competition.
So, why did last night feel like a case of Connecticut sprinting to the top of the Big East mountaintop as Providence gasped halfway up to catch its breath?
These Friars lost their identity this year. Emotions are always going to be high after PC plays UConn, and higher when it looks like it did last night. There are macro-level trends in terms of recruiting and development that have led to this speed bump of a season, but for this year it comes down to one thing: Providence simply isn’t defending at the level they typically have under Cooley, and certainly not well enough to do damage in the Big East.
Providence’s defense has been ranked inside Ken Pomeroy’s top 50 nationally every year since 2015. Last season they were ranked 27th in the country, and the five years prior they were 41st, 36th, 40th, 28th, and 42nd. They are currently ranked 81st.
PC’s offense actually has its highest efficiency ranking per Pomeroy since 2015. The Friars rank 70th nationally, marking just the second time since 2015 that they have cracked the top 80 in the country in offensive efficiency (last year they finished 75th). They reached the NCAA Tournament in all but one of those seasons.
So, where has the defensive breakdown taken place? It would appear to be a communication issue, or as Cooley likes to say `being connected.’ PC is giving up 1.239 points per possession to roll men off of pick and roll opportunities. That ranks in just the 6th percentile in the country. That’s a far cry from the 2016 and 2017 teams that were in the 89th and 92nd percentile in slowing roll men off of pick and roll.
PC also ranks in the 13th percentile in defending cutters, a dramatic change from the past four seasons when Providence’s percentiles were 86th, 85th, 79th and 75th nationally per Synergy Sports. That speaks to a communication breakdown, and likely an issue that has been exacerbated by taking a careful approach to returning last summer/fall, a lack of non-conference games, and the departure of three defensive anchors in Alpha Diallo, Kalif Young, and Maliek White at three critical positions.
They say seniors win in college basketball, after all, especially at a place like Providence.
With the defense leaking, Providence has lost its identity this year. Connecticut’s 46 points in the paint last night were the latest example. Advanced defensive metrics help paint a picture, but at times basketball can be a simple game to break down. Providence isn’t keeping teams out of the paint and they aren’t cleaning up the glass when they get initial stops.
“I thought their urgency and desperation was much greater than ours. I thought they were more physical than we were on the defensive and offensive glass,” Cooley said following last night’s loss. “Giving up that many offensive rebounds and not being able to keep them out of the paint
was our kryptonite.”
It’s been Providence’s kryptonite throughout this season. Until PC defends as it mostly always has under Cooley, the Friars will have a difficult time keeping pace with the upper echelon of the Big East.