David Duke and the Friars are up against the wall. (Photo/Stew Milne)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
It’s time for both the Providence Friars and Rhode Island Rams to shake out of their doldrums, stop repeating the same old mistakes and stand up and be counted. The clock on this bizarre, hopefully never-to-be-repeated season is ticking.
The Friars (9-10, 5-8 Big East) are looking at a sub-.500 finish for the first time in 10 seasons, or Ed Cooley’s first season (2012) on the job. Starting Wednesday afternoon (4 p.m. tip) against Connecticut, the Friars own zero room for additional losses over their final six games. Somehow fighting to a 10-9 Big East finish (5-1 close) could push the Friars back into the NCAA Tournament mix but after watching Cooley’s team slide out of the conference race is that some far-fetched hoop dream?
Rhody sits at 9-11 overall and 6-7 in the Atlantic 10. The Rams’ last losing season (8-21) came in 2013, or Dan Hurley’s first season in Kingston. The Rams have just four games scheduled the rest of the regular season. At this point the focus clearly needs to be on the A-10 Tournament in Richmond, which isn’t scheduled to start March 10 in Richmond, Va.
Here’s a look at where both programs sit as the stretch drive awaits:
PROVIDENCE (9-10, 5-8):
This Friar team has become a victim of false expectations, some of its own making and more from the misguided observations of others.
The `official’ Big East predictions come from the league’s 11 coaches. Providence popped up at third in that poll, trailing only Villanova and Creighton. One has to wonder, in retrospect, why?
This Friar team returned an all-league guard in David Duke, certainly an excellent piece around which to build. Inside there was senior Nate Watson, another building block and experienced player but also one that had averaged just 9.0 points a game a year ago. There was also A.J. Reeves, a junior shooter who averaged 7.4 points last year and was a career 36 percent 3-point shooter.
It was certainly understandable to project Duke as a top tier guard and Watson as an elite low post scorer, although not nearly as elite as the team’s shining star (17.9 ppg, 6.8 reb, 61%FG shooting) has performed. It would not have been fair to project the trick-or-treat Reeves as a consistent performer. Until he develops better ball skills, can create for others (career 82 turnovers/80 assists) and find his way to the foul line (1.7 FTA per game for career/2.2 this season) more often, Reeves will remain only a nice piece to the puzzle.
After those three players Cooley’s roster was filled with question marks and transfers who needed to be good right away. Three months in, the questions remain.
Of the returning Friars, only redshirt junior Jimmy Nichols (three games) had ever scored in double figures. Everyone expected him and Greg Gantt to morph into a Bullock or Alpha Diallo type player. It’s not even close.
That brings us to the transfers. Both Horchler and Jared Bynum practiced against a veteran Providence team a year ago. That certainly helped inoculate them into the program but nothing checks the box like playing time. Horchler is a keeper, especially off the boards. He’s about what I expected and his shooting range is a plus. Bynum was a steady presence at point guard in the season’s first 11 games before badly injuring his groin. He owned a nearly 4:1 assist/turnover ratio and played like the only true point guard on the roster. His shortcomings, however, were clear. as he was averaging just 5.8 points on 28 percent shooting.
The stat of the season: since Bynum was hurt vs. Creighton back on Jan. 2, the Friars are 2-7. Goodnight Irene.
Cooley took two other transfers last off-season, power forward Ed Croswell from La Salle and Syracuse guard Brycen Goodine. Croswell has made a mild impact, especially off the boards, but he doesn’t play as tall as his listed 6-foot-8 and seems to get swallowed up by Big East big men. He’s also been a victim of Watson’s success since Cooley doesn’t need to play both low post guys at the same time.
Goodine has seen only token minutes, even through Bynum’s nine-game absence. Is he a lead guard, a combo guard? He looks like he needs to gain 10 pounds of muscle to play Big East wing defense and thus far his ballhandling choices are a bit suspect but lack of minutes leads to an unfair grade at this point.
Maybe more concerning were the internal expectations in Friar Town. The refrain of “Cooley’s gone to five NCAA Tournaments in six seasons” is nice to toss around to recruits and boosters but it guarantees nothing. Each season is its own unit, each roster often dramatically different. What happened three years ago with Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock won’t help Greg Gantt beat UConn.
For that reason Cooley’s patented plays, the Flex sets and combination defenses may have helped Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil thrive but may not be the right fit for Noah Horchler.
A constant influx of Big East-level talent is the only way to continue the NCAA gravy train. Right now there are too many players with Incomplete grades in that department. You have Duke and Watson, plus the dangerous but inconsistent Reeves, and then questions.
One other thing. I sense a disconnect to what is a successful season at PC, and what an off-year like this really says about the program. Getting to the NCAA’s at Providence is a really big deal, for the school and for Cooley. It keeps the pump prime, helps bring in the needed money and shows recruits that the program belongs in the upper tier of the Big East. But fans want more. After 10 years they want to see Cooley’s teams make an NCAA Tournament run. Period.
It’s fair to fault Cooley and his staff for the lack of development of some of the players on the current team. That’s what college basketball is all about, recruiting players who can one day produce and keep getting better. But the pandemic really hurt this team. Unlike some schools, PC was shut down all summer and Cooley didn’t bring his players to campus. Some improved on their own, others did not.
That’s certainly one reason why right now Providence has too many candidates who may be Big East contributors one day, but not enough who have shown they can be reliable, known quantities.
RHODE ISLAND (9-11, 6-7):
The expectations for this season’s Rams team also have proven to be wildly off base.
Far too often in college basketball the so-called `recruiting gurus’ place a label on a teenager and that travels along his collegiate path. The Rams are an excellent example. Just because Jalen Carey went to Syracuse out of high school why did we think he’d be a star in the Atlantic 10? Makhel and Makhi Mitchell were coming in from Maryland, so they must be studs, right?
That stuff means nothing, zilch. So do the `Top 100′ ratings. The examples are endless. In ESPN’s Class of 2017 ratings, you didn’t have to be Red on Roundball to slot Marvin Bagley and DeAndre Ayton in the top three. Guard Makai Ashton-Langford was 38th. Providence native Kimani Lawrence (Arizona State) was 57th.
Luka Garza, in line to become a two-time All-American at Iowa, was Number 100. Nate Watson and Fatts Russell didn’t make the cut.
The point is just because someone is `a transfer from Such and Such U’ it means nothing. Can they play, how will they fit into a program, is he selfish or a problem child? Those are the things that matter.
David Cox began this season with a eight key players who began their college careers elsewhere. His chore was to mix that talent in around Russell, the diminutive scoring point guard who will leave Kingston one day with his name all over the record books. Underachieving big man Jermaine Harris was the other key returnee who began his run in Kingston.
It just hasn’t worked. Is there talent on Rhody’s bench? There may be more talent, 1-through-10, than on Providence’s, to be honest. Antwan Walker can play on my team any day. Jeremy Sheppard clearly can score in major college games. But the pieces do not seem to fit and the weeks-long foot and leg injuries that Russell has battled basically short-circuited any hopes for a top-end run.
Now is it Cox’s job to find the right chemistry for his roster? Of course. Does he own legit excuses why it all hasn’t come together? Yes, starting with a pandemic and continuing with the lack of Russell’s one big-time skill: explosive speed.
The thing about the Rams is if Fatts can ever get to 90% they’ll have a chance in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. No one in that league scares everyone else. There are several good teams, dangerous teams, but no knockout artist.
St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and VCU own the veteran chops to be picked as favorites but URI has already beaten the Bonnies and the Rams. Rhode Island and Hope will remain linked through March.