A big day by A.J. Reeves went for naught as PC’s defense and rebounding let down at Georgetown. (Photo: Georgetown Athletics)
By KEVIN FARRAHAR
For the third time in the past three weeks, Ed Cooley called his Providence Friars “soft” after a loss. It’s a refrain that’s getting a bit old.
Following Saturday’s 73-72 loss at Georgetown, in which PC saw a 15-point first half lead slip away, it was his team’s effort on the glass that drew Cooley’s ire: “47-33 (Georgetown’s rebounding advantage). Seventeen offensive rebounds. That should be your stat, the end of your columns, end of your sports talk shows. 47-33, Friars lose. Turn the damn TV off and go have a beer, because that’s the entire effing game.”
While that may have been the decisive factor Saturday, for a program that has prided itself on its defensive ability under Cooley, the glass isn’t the only thing weighing down a Friar team that owns a 9-8 record and is running in place in the Big East.
Defense has been the constant for Providence under Cooley. The Friars have been ranked in the top 50 nationally of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings every year since 2015. The last time PC wasn’t in the top 50 was the 2014 Big East Championship team, but that group’s 114.6 adjusted offensive efficiency is the best of any Cooley team since this program turned the corner and started making NCAA Tournament appearances — by a good margin, in fact.
Cooley would have been thrilled if he knew in November that this group would be ranked 48th in the country in offensive efficiency heading into February. Providence has not been a top 50 offensive outfit in Pomeroy’s rankings since 2015. Their national rankings since 2015? 92, 101, 101, 164, and 75.
Since defense has so long been a staple, what has hindered PC this season? The interior and the loss of an elite stopper on the wing.
Alpha Diallo certainly had his detractors thanks to questionable shot selection at times, but he was one of the best defensive wings in the country as a senior last year. Synergy Sports ranked Diallo in the 95th percentile of all defenders in the country, and when combined with David Duke (83rd percentile), and the versatile interior defense of Kalif Young, the Friars featured three terrific defenders.
The expectation was that Greg Gantt would be able to fill the role of the versatile wing defender. Cooley, in fact, began to loop Gantt in with Duke in the off-season when asked about his team’s top defenders. But Gantt and fellow wing forward Jimmy Nichols have really struggled to stop dribble penetration as PC’s “big wings.” Synergy ranks Gantt in the 32nd percentile nationally, and Nichols 30th on the defensive side of the ball. Duke has dropped from 83rd to 38th.
A season ago, Providence was ranked in the 66th percentile defensively. This year PC ranks 28th overall.
PC has continued to defend the 3-point line effectively (opponents are shooting under 31% from 3), but Cooley’s “tough two’s” mantra is being put to the test this year. Opponents are shooting 51.5% from inside the arc, which would be just the second time that teams have shot over 50% from two against PC under Cooley.
Dribble penetration has killed the Friars. Providence is ranked in just the 6th percentile in the country on shots around the basket (not including post ups). It also doesn’t help that the Friars lack any sort of a shot blocker. In 11 Big East games, PC has just 26 blocks as a team, or a bit more than two per game.
Another significant dip from a year ago is in forcing turnovers. Pomeroy had PC 44th in the country in turnover percentage last year, a number that has fallen all the way to 276th this season.
It will be interesting to see where Cooley turns once Jared Bynum returns to the lineup. Freshman Alyn Breed has given the offense a lift, and while the sub-six foot Bynum is certainly not a defensive stopper, Cooley could look to a three guard lineup if Gantt and Nichols continue to get torched off the dribble, while not hitting the glass. At least Bynum and Breed have a chance at staying in front of their man.
Some of Cooley’s best coaching has come when his team needed it in February (6-2 last year, 5-2 in 2017, 5-1 in 2013). If the 2020-21 Friars are to experience a similar turnaround they will likely need to do so by rediscovering what Cooley has built his program on: defense and toughness.
Right now both are lacking.