Being part of the band of Basketball-Focused Programs That Happen To Have Catholic Affiliations means that going to Providence is like going to hang out with an old friend... that you plan on showing up at the reunion with your new job and then whooping up on him with physical shots in the alumni flag football game.
(What, that's not what you do at reunions? Was that over-competitive?)
We have Daniel (@TheWarriorFriar), who writes for Friarblog and Kevin (@Kevin_Farrahar) who writes for Friar Basketball - both are excellent sites that cover the surging Providence squad aka Cooley's Kids aka the Rhode Island Sneak Attackers very well. Sneak Attackers? Well, have the Friars ever had any hype in a season? Yet they remain competent, except for the Keno Years, which were like Saved by the Bell's College Years. Or the OC's Season 4.
We cover recruiting regrets (and jealousy!) where Vincent Council ranks among the New Yorkers Who Played For Providence, a scouting report on how to beat the Friar, and of course, the Providence turnaround this season.
Thanks to the fellas, check out their sites where I have provided answers to their questions about St. John's, and check back here tomorrow for a full game preview!
Daniel, Friarblog (@TheWarriorFriar): Honest answer? I sold my soul for a few solid wins. I tried to sell it for the NCAA championship, but negotiations went south when it was discovered I had already sold most of my soul and it's communal properties to try and bring Fatburger to New England. Turns out I'm not a great negotiator.
In all seriousness though, the simple answer is chemistry. The team is finally learning how to play with each other, and not just in a "play nice" sense, but in the grander sense of how these players can fill in each other's weaknesses. The defense has been much improved too, now that players are getting their asses off Twitter and actually putting an effort in. But chemistry has been key in this stretch.
Kevin Farrahar, Friar Basketball (@Kevin_Farrahar): Role clarity. Providence spent much of this season in transition and there's no better example than the point guard position. It looked like it was going to be Kris Dunn backing up Vincent Council last spring, but then Dunn has shoulder surgery that shelves him until December.
Council goes down three minutes into the season and, suddenly, Bryce Cotton gets thrown into 40 minutes a night at point guard (where he's never played before) and does a surprisingly really solid job.
In Dunn's first game back, Cooley puts the ball in his hands, swings Cotton over to the 2 and Dunn gets 13 assists. All's good in Friartown after that Colgate game. PC is 8-2 with winnable games against BC and Brown coming up, Dunn looks for real, Cotton is scoring 20+ a night, Kadeem Batts has been terrific, they got Sidiki Johnson back that night and Council is set to play in the next two weeks.
Then they lose to BC (despite 33 by Cotton) and in Council's return at Brown they gag one away in the final minute, with Cotton sidelined with a bad knee. Then it spiraled.
Long story short, it was a roster in transition. Council was slow to return from his hamstring injury, Dunn was trying to figure out where he fit in offensively, and Cotton, who had played so well with the ball in his hands, was now dependent on his point guards to get him looks - again, one that was recovering, with the other searching to see where he fit in.
Now? Council is back to playing at full strength and there is no questioning who's running this show. He's been terrific the past month and is putting up over 7 assists in Big East games. Cotton has struggled with his shot some, but is the deep sniper, and Dunn has basically forfeited his offensive game, focusing solely on defense and has been very good on that end - covering Ryan Boatright one night and Victor Rudd the next. He's led a defensive turnaround that's been pretty remarkable. Providence plays without a shot blocker and a 5'11 shooting guard, but they are defending well.
The frontcourt is beyond thin, but Batts has been the anchor inside and LaDontae Henton is coming on of late, being named to the Big East Honor Roll last week. A 39% shooter from deep last year, Henton has struggled to find his outside shot this year. When Sidiki left they swapped in Lee Goldsbrough who plays that Brian Scalabrine role: not athletic enough to play big minutes, but doesn't turn it over and has an idea of what the defensive concepts are.
And let's not forget, the scheduled has lightened. They traveled to Louisville early, hosted Syracuse, Connecticut and Pitt, and also played at Georgetown and Marquette.
Kevin Farrahar, Friar Basketball (@Kevin_Farrahar): How do you beat Providence? Attack Batts and get him into foul trouble and throw length at Cotton. Beyond Batts the Friars have no depth on the interior, and Batts has been terrific the past month or so. Council, Dunn and freshman Josh Fortune are all shooting in the mid-30s from the floor, so if you can slow Batts and bother Cotton on the perimeter you can really limit the Friars.
The one thing to look out for is the sudden burst. Providence ripped off a 19-0 run against Rutgers to close the first half on Saturday, a 23-2 run versus South Florida out of the locker room a few weeks back, and ripped off a 15-2 run against Syracuse in January. Those are just a few off of the top of my head. The key to the spurts is typically Cotton, who hits threes in quick succession very often. When this team turns defense into offense they are very often turning that offense into transition 3s for Cotton. Then the Dunk gets crazy.
Daniel, Friarblog (@TheWarriorFriar): In order to beat Providence you need to get the ball in the paint and you need to get Kadeem Batts in foul trouble. We've improved our depth by improving our bench players, but the frontcourt is still incredibly weak.
Attacking in the paint, even with Batts playing at such a high level, has been a problem for PC. And if you can force the Friars to turn the ball over you're giving yourself a golden opportunity, but I guess that's the same for any team you'd play huh?
Kevin Farrahar, Friar Basketball (@Kevin_Farrahar): I saw Council at Patterson (NC) during his prep year and thought had a chance to be special. While it's hard to argue that the Big East's all-time leader in assists hasn't been, especially playing on poor teams for much of his career, he's inefficient enough from the field to keep him underrated. Plus, playing on poor teams tarnishes the legacy a bit (PC won 4 conference games in his first three seasons).
Where he ranks on Friars from New York list might depend on if we're including Long Island and the rest of the state. PC has had good luck with New York guys. Lenny Wilkens, Billy Donovan and, of course, Shammgod come to mind, but I'll be interested to see how Council is remembered in comparison to say Jamel Thomas, who I thought was terrific here. He played a huge role on the '97 Elite 8 team as a sophomore and was on a island his last two years, but still managed to lead the Big East in scoring as a senior. He was quietly Providence's 3rd leading scorer by the time he left.
Daniel, Friarblog (@TheWarriorFriar): Pretty high up given his dishing ability. Don't tell Jim Boeheim that Council is actually good enough to surpass a Syracuse player unless you want a lecture and be told to go win a pulitzer elsewhere!
Hard to say where he'd fall on a list, but that's because I personally see Council's time in Providence as bittersweet. He did so much for Providence and I'm so glad to have seen him play as a Friar, but at the same time if he didn't have a ding dong coaching staff for his first two years of college he could have become a lottery pick. I sincerely believe that.
Daniel, Friarblog (@TheWarriorFriar): Finally! I'm glad someone else is acknowledging that the "Catholic 7" is an ESPN-invented term and has no bearing on what this conference represents or what we proclaim to be affiliated with. It's gotten ridiculously annoying, and even ESPN is buying into their own hype when they talk about potential teams ('Butler isn't catholic so would it fit?' YES. YES IT WOULD.)
I have no problem saying I think ESPN was a huge factor in the destruction of the Big East - not only did you have former BC AD say that ESPN told them what to do, but you have had ESPN columnists going out of their way to deny ever being involved. Why would you even have to deny it if you weren't involved in the first place? The mind wonders. But there's also no concrete evidence, so it's hard to take these accusations all that seriously.
I do, however, fully and completely blame the greed of the presidents. If it wasn't for the Pitt and Syracuse presidents making backdoor deals, as well as that ding dong in Storrs begging her ass off to get into the ACC, we probably would still have the Big East we all know and love.
If greed hadn't gotten in the way of tradition we'd all be fine, but that's like debating the wind - you can try as you might, but it's all pointless in the end. On a business level it makes sense and I understand it, but I don't like how it played out. Felt too shady to be a respectable business move.
As for names? There's only one: the Big East. It's what we are, it's what we've always been, and it's what we'll continue to be.
Or just the "FU ACC" conference.
Kevin Farrahar, Friar Basketball (@Kevin_Farrahar): I've always rooted for Big East teams in the tournament, but feel like that will be taken to another level once the new conference is formed. It's hard to downplay a league that is doing damage in March and fan bases of the basketball-only schools leaving the Big East will have a massive chip on their shoulder these first few seasons.
I'm dying for the first Syracuse/St. John's NCAA game.
Kevin Farrahar, Friar Basketball (@Kevin_Farrahar): The Sidiki situation has been quiet, all we know is he left the team for personal reasons and his name was off of the roster soon after. Anything beyond that is pure speculation. It was a move that wasn't worth making, and an interesting subplot for Providence fans this weekend will be JaKarr Sampson coming to PC and how that relates to Johnson.
I'm not sure if St. John's fans realize how close Friar fans thought they were to getting Sampson, but the rumors were definitely swirling that Cooley had him. I never fully bought in there, but the larger point is that Cooley and his staff spent a lot of time recruiting Sampson and Nerlens Noel, and to a lesser extent Chris Obekpa early (until it became apparent PC was out of that race by this time last year).
Sidiki was on board in January and the thought was that with Dunn and Ricky Ledo signed Providence was positioned to go for the grand slam with Sampson and/or Noel. In hindsight, it seems very unlikely, but they went after both with everything they had (coaches brought their families to the their games, brought current players, etc).
The result was neither coming to Rhode Island and with Sidiki gone Providence basically has one player over 6'6 who you have to account for.
A more conservative approach might have done them well. I'd advocated at the time that they go after JUCO power forward Majok Majok, who had committed to play for Cooley at Fairfield before being deemed ineligible late. Providence was recruiting him in the fall, and whether it was academics or something else high majors stopped recruiting him.
The suggestion got some snickers, and still may, but he's an 11 and 10 guy at Ball State who certainly could have helped more than what is left on the roster. He had 18 at Indiana.
Providence is painfully thin up front and seeing Sampson will be reminder of not only what could have been, but also that they may have been better served to try to find a solid two-year fill in for this season and next.