Tonight, St. John's takes on the 11-2 Providence Friars, a surprise in the Big East under new coach Ed Cooley. The Friars still struggle to be taken seriously after a soft non-conference schedule; they hope to knock off the Red Storm in Queens and serve notice that this is a Friar team that needs to be taken seriously.
To get to know the Friars better, I have the pleasure of posting a question and answer session with Dave from Friar Blog and Kevin from Friar Basketball, two excellent writers and owners of a pair of independent Friar Basketball sites, Friarblog (Dave) and Friar Basketball.net (Kevin). Links to their Twitter accounts are also below.
Both have been regular contributors to the basketball roundtables, and are great sites to follow - insightful, inventive, and crisp.
The responses are long, so let's get right into it. Below, read about how the Providence basketball program has changed from Keno to Ed, what isn't known after the non-conference schedule, how to defeat Providence, the effect of Kadeem Batts' return to the floor, and how rebounding is an issue for the Friars, just as it is for the Red Storm.
See Rumble in the Garden pregame posts: Game 12: St. John's vs Providence (Big East conference opener) | Storm Warnings 12-26-2012 | Providence: Pre-Game Efficiency
Q: So, in short form - what's the difference between last year and this year, especially in style? Who has improved with the coaching change? Has anyone taken to it poorly? What are the possible concerns on offense and defense as the team goes into conference play?
FriarBasketball (FBN | Follow on Twitter): This topic has been discussed ad nauseam locally, and now that we're 13 games into the season I'm ready to progress the conversation past how Ed Cooley has instilled much-needed discipline, has the Friars playing more intelligently on the offensive end, and have improved defensively.
There's no denying order has been restored off the court, and the execution on offense is light years ahead of where it was not only in Keno Davis' three years here, but the final Tim Welsh years as well. What I'm most interested in is seeing how this team has progressed defensively, and with the level of competition we've seen I honestly couldn't give you a fair assessment of just how far they've come on that end.
A key difference this year is Cooley's willingness to go with a more traditional 4-5 combo now that Batts is back, after Keno played Marshon at power forward all season last year. If Brice Kofane's slender body can hold up in the Big East he'll give them their best shot blocking presence since Marcus Douthit in 2004. He's got big time upside as a weak-side shot blocker and has played his way into more minutes by blocking 12 shots over a two game span earlier this month and altering many others since.
FriarBlog (FBL| Follow on Twitter): Kevin hit the nail on the head regarding the differences between this year and last. Statistically speaking, it's difficult to gauge considering the competition so far.
However, the one stat that hits you in the face is three point shots attempted. The Keno Era often featured a run and gun style, where everyone was pretty much free to launch a shot anywhere on the court. If you were behind the arc, Keno gave you bonus points, and probably coupons for free drinks at the local dive bars.
Last season in out of conference play, the Friars put up a staggering 267 three point attempts in 13 games. This season, the team has taken over a HUNDRED less at 153. It's so few, it ranks at 327th in the nation.
While NBAer Marshon Brooks and transfer Duke Mondy accounted for a bulk of those shots last year, it's hard to imagine the rate of long range attempts flying under the Cooely era. The team is playing with a more structured style on offense, and on the right path to improving the abysmal assist rates from the last several years.
FBN (Twitter): Are they better? Sure, but that's not saying much. They held a number of teams to under 40% shooting in a weak out of conference schedule a year ago, and we're not too far removed from the night in which they gave up 79 points, and nearly 50% shooting, in a 17 point loss to Northern Iowa.
FBL (Twitter): Defensively, I also have concerns given the opponents so far in out of conference play. Keno's Friars actually put up some good numbers early on in the season holding opponents to well under .9 points per possessions in the first four games last year. Going forward there were warning signs during wins with the inability to stop Wyoming, Northeastern, and Sacred Heart, but there definitely wasn't a plan in place for improvement.
So far under Cooley, we've seen him yank the starters for walk-ons twice within the first few minutes of the game. Yeah, when you have 8 scholarship players it may seem unavoidable, but Cooley has created an environment where if you don't play with defensive intensity, you won't play.
The guy would have benched Marshon Brooks during his 52 point game against Notre Dame if he was lazy on defense!
Like Kevin said, how this translates in BIG EAST play remains to be seen, but the team is in a position to improve in this facet of the game.
Q: What's the effect of Kadeem Batts' (photo below: Mitchell Layton, Getty Images) return? How will it change PC's starting lineup, rotation, and style of play (if at all)?
FBL (Twitter): I'm thrilled to have Kadeem Batts back in the fold. While it may take some time for him to get acclimated, I'm just stoked to see things like I saw during the URI game -- Vincent Council using his magician passing abilities to lead to more baskets, including just being able to dish the ball to an inside man to score via low post moves. While [Batts] was gone, the Friars frontcourt didn't get much production offensively.
We've seen the great things that Council has done at the point the last several seasons, so adding another option he can trust on the floor within a more disciplined offense will only make everyone better. It will also mean less PT for Bilal Dixon, Lee Goldsbrough, and Ron Giplaye, but those guys are definitely more suited for limited roles off the bench.
FBN (Twitter): He's working the rust off, but even a rusty Batts is a superior offensive option to the other bigs getting minutes - Bilal Dixon, Ron Giplaye, and Kofane. If you aren't familiar with these guys, take that as more commentary on how lacking PC was than an endorsement of Batts.
Cooley can slide LaDontae Henton to small forward and play Batts with Kofane or Dixon and go with a much bigger lineup. We saw flashes of that versus URI on Friday night, and a Providence team that had really struggled on the glass dominated the Rams in that department. For Kofane, playing off of the opponent's biggest big man may free him up some to do what he does best - help and protect.
The offense of Batts will be one of the more intriguing subplots of the second half. He's such a better finisher than any big not named Henton (for the sake of this conversation, I'm not considering LaDontae a big), but taking that a step further, he looked like the team's best scorer in two occasions when I saw them in the preseason.
He was aggressive in facing up from 17 feet and scoring with his back to the basket. For a player whose assertiveness came and went as a freshman, it was a marked difference.
The suspension led to a bit of an interesting dynamic with Batts. One of my hopes this season was the tough Cooley would bring out a more aggressive side to him, but after being suspended for 11 games I wonder how much he's looking to fit in versus becoming more of an offensive presence. He has a higher offensive ceiling than he's showed on the court to this point of his career. How long it takes, or if it comes together will be key for the future of the program.
Q: What is the key to defeating the Friars?
FBL (Twitter): The key to defeating the Friars this year is obviously slowing down the pace and limiting the offensive damage of the 3 C's (Council, Coleman, and Cotton). Council and Coleman will probably get their points, but more so if left in transition. Bryce Cotton has been more of a catch and shoot offensive threat, so teams that have found success shutting down PC's offense have not allowed to the sophomore guard to get any easy looks.
Rebounding is also going to be a huge issue for Providence all season, considering a freshman (LaDontae Henton) and a sophomore guard (Gerard Coleman) are the two best total rebounders so far.
FBN (Twitter): Agree, Dave. Rebounding is a question mark heading into the Big East and establishing tempo will be key. With the return of Batts this will be a better halfcourt offense, as Henton and he can both score inside, but even with the strides made by Coleman and Cotton this season this team lacks pure outside shooters.
Depth is an obvious concern as well. If Council gets into any sort of foul trouble at all it will be a problem on that night. Looking longer term, there are many in Providence who question if Council will wear down playing 39 minutes a game in the Big East. I'm less worried about that than most, as one of the more underrated improvements under Cooley has been this team's conditioning.
If the Friars had NCAA Tournament hopes I'd be more concerned about him running out of gas come March, but this is a team that is more focused on improving week to week.
FBL (Twitter): I agree, Kevin; the conditioning of the team will definitely help, and Council already has been logging serious minutes the last few seasons. What terrifies me (like you said) is the foul trouble concern. A few quick fouls and a bad call here and there can seriously alter the flow of the Friars offense. Any time I see Tim Higgins take the court this season, I'll get more nervous than usual.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current status of the basketball-only schools in the conference realignment/ movement?
FBN (Twitter): As far as the basketball-only schools go, my concerns lie more with how committed they are to each other than the current state of their programs. Say Villanova decides to continue to pursue big time football and Notre Dame eventually leaves for a big-time football conference, the basketball-onlys will be even more desperate.
I do think realignment this fall posed a problem for teams like PC on the recruiting trail, and I'll be interested to see whether top recruits view the new Big East as the power it once was.
The actual health of the basketball-only programs seems to be on the upswing. Purnell can stabilize DePaul, PC is in much better hands with far greater talent coming, and not yet worried about Villanova, even with their struggles this year.
How about the start Seton Hall is off to? I know some folks rolled their eyes when Kevin Willard got a million dollar per contract (I was one of them), but they've got a pretty good core now that Pope is back and playing so well along with Edwin and Theodore. Im not sure if wins over Wake Forest and Auburn will be quality wins come season's end, but 10-1 is 10-1. Long term, we'll see if Willard can recruit at a high level, but they're playing well heading into conference play.
And I think St. John's is going to be more than fine. I love Harkless and caught Amir Garrett and Darrick Wood at Bridgton this summer and believe, they will both help.