Spirits are high for St. John's after the road conference-opening win against the West Virginia Mountaineers. The Red Storm hope to stretch their three-game winning streak with another win on the road in Providence against a much-improved Friar club. Who are they? How are they different than last year's team that languished at the bottom of the Big East standings, yet defeated the Red Storm in Carnesecca Arena?
1. The Friars seem to be playing this defense thing this year. How did this happen? Was it just the loss of Greedy Peterson? What are the Friars doing differently on defense?
A. The defensive effort is better this year, but they are still capable of giving up huge nights (see 88 points versus a BC team missing two of its top players). While [Greedy] Peterson takes a lot of the blame for the defensive effort of a season ago, it was a full team effort. Last year's group was just dysfunctional on and off the court.
On-court, the biggest difference this year is a group of newcomers who are more willing to defend and the addition of 6'9, 250 lb redshirt freshman Kadeem Batts who pairs with sophomore Bilal Dixon to give Providence much more of an interior presence than they had a season ago. Heading into this week Dixon was leading the Big East in blocked shots and was third in rebounds.
I'm still not sold on the defensive effort of this bunch, but it is improved over a season ago. Davis effectively mixed and matched defenses against Syracuse after going mainly with a 2-2-1 full court press in the out of conference schedule. The 2-2-1 leaked at times, and playing a matchup 2-3 zone slowed Syracuse at times. They held Rick Jackson to two field goals after the big man went 13-17 against them in Providence last year. A poor shooting Syracuse team was left wide open at times from three and made PC pay.
2. Program-wise, is there a better feeling for the Friars' future under Keno Davis with the hot start? Or are there still deep concerns?
A. Davis has rebounded nicely from last spring, which felt like a never-ending series of embarrassing hits. While there are many in Providence who haven't bought in, an 11-3 start and the recent commitment of Ricky Ledo, ESPN's #13 junior and Scout's top shooting guard in 2012, have things looking up. Syracuse in the dome was an awful matchup for such a poor shooting and inexperienced group, but Providence was a rimmed out three away from making it a one point game with two minutes to play.
The competition hasn't been great, but this is a flawed roster that has played above expectations. Seven wins in the Big East combined with the commitment of one of the top three shooting guards in the junior class will help reassure Friar fans that this team is headed in the right direction. They need to win on Saturday as Pitt comes to town next, followed by three straight road games.
3. A number of Friars aren't shooting all that well from beyond the three-point arc. Which players are most likely to have a breakout performance against a defense that allows shooters open shots from the perimeter? In other words, who is a better shooter than he has shown so far this year?
A. Make no mistake, this is a poor shooting team. Marshon Brooks has greatly improved over last season, averaging over 23 points and 9 rebounds heading into the Syracuse game. He kept it going with 27 points (17 in the first half) against the Cuse zone. He's the one Friar that will make St. John's pay for leaving him open.
Vincent Council is shooting better from deep, but is more of a distributor. If anyone is going to surprise you from outside, it may be sophomore Duke Mondy who came to Providence with the reputation as a shooter. He's struggled to hit consistently from three, but is a better shooter than the numbers tell.
Don't be surprised if the 6'9 Batts steps out and hits from deep once or twice, as he did against the Orange. He can shoot and actually might be PC's second best shooter from deep. The freshman is still finding his offensive niche, but can make teams pay if left alone.
PC is not a good enough shooting team to make teams pay for leaving them open from three.
4. Keno Davis seems to be shortening his rotation. If he's really going to play 7 players, who is most crucial to Providence's success? Who can the team least afford to have in foul trouble?
A. Brooks and Council are the two kids Providence needs on the court. Both played 40 minutes against Syracuse. Each has carried the offense in their own way: Brooks is scoring 25+ seemingly at will, while Council is the tone-setter, leading the conference in assists without many teammates who have proven they can consistently score at the Big East level. If PC were to play without either they would be in big trouble.
Dixon and Batts are important, but interchangeable. Brooks will slide to the four if either get in early foul trouble.
Expect the Friars to play eight, or maybe even nine guys on Saturday night. They shortened the rotation against Syracuse to counter that zone, but freshman point guard Dre Evans should get five or six minutes backing Council, while freshman big Ron Giplaye is limited offensively, but battles hard underneath at 6'6. Davis has gone with Brooks at power forward often, but if Brooks stays in his traditional small forward spot Giplaye should get 8-10 minutes a game. Freshman Bryce Cotton is an undersized two off of the bench who is a serviceable defender and good shooter from the corners.
Freshman Gerard Coleman can be an offensive x-factor for Providence. He's a slasher who scored 18 points on 8-12 from the field against Alabama.
5. How are the Friar newcomers? Who deserves more time on the court?
A. I've covered the freshman class above. As far as who deserve more court time, this isn't a deep team and if you can play, you're seeing minutes. Last I checked Coleman was the second leading freshman scorer in the Big East. The Boston native was a universal top 50 kid and was ranked in the mid-30s by Scout.
The rest of the group are purely role players who'll have good days and bad. Giplaye is an energy big who can draw fouls and grab you five boards in five minutes. Evans is a good shooter when left open and Cotton is a bit of utility player who does a lot of little things that this team didn't do a year ago.
6'9 English import Lee Goldsbrough may see the court, but has had trouble keeping up with the speed of this level. He can shoot from deep and isn't afraid to get his nose dirty, but he's a ways away.
Transplanted New Yorker and now Midwesterner Peter a/k/a Pico writes for Johnny Jungle, doing the Calm Before the Storm posts and also for the Church of Bracketology. Pico is also on Twitter, @ECoastBias. Add the East Coast Bias to your .rss feeds; or follow by email.