Ed Cooley’s personality is beginning to show in his Friars. We first saw it 10 days ago at Villanova when his team, losers of seven of their previous nine games, fell behind 10-2 and looked to be on the brink of a blowout – and another lost season.
Instead, Providence rebounded from their slow start to take a halftime lead, came back once again in the second half and won it on a Bryce Cotton three in the closing seconds after nearly collapsing late.
They rode that momentum – and stifling defense – to a 54-50 victory over Cincinnati and suddenly found themselves in position to win a third in a row as they headed to Tampa to take on a stumbling South Florida bunch.
Throughout PC’s struggles in January, Cooley insisted that his team was better than it was showing. To some, it sounded like a coach trying to instill confidence in a group that had lost theirs. Now, it looks like he might have been right.
Bouncing back once again
They were lit up by South Florida early on this night, trailing 10-2, then 20-7, and finally 34-20 in the first half to a team that hadn’t cracked 50 points in their last two games.
This looked like the same old Friars early, with a porous offensive team getting what they wanted on their way to 36 points and an 11 point advantage by the break.
Were the strong defensive efforts against Villanova and Cincinnati an anomaly? That question was answered right away.
Providence came out of the locker room playing perhaps their best basketball of the season, turning terrific team defense into fast break opportunities.
They held USF without a field goal for the first seven minutes of the half, and scored on 12 of their first 13 possessions on their way to a stunning 23-2 run that sapped the energy out of the Bulls. Providence carried the night from there, winning 76-66 for their third straight victory.
Suddenly, the Friars are riding a three game winning streak and they’re doing it behind their defense – music to the ears of all in Friartown.
It was just two weeks ago that PC fell to 2-7 in the conference and couldn’t get a stop in the halfcourt set.
Ten days later, the defense is coming together as roles are being more clearly defined.
In Providence’s last loss (in overtime to Connecticut) both Vincent Council and LaDontae Henton came off of the bench. Cooley struggled to find a consistent rotation, juggling through a variety of failed combinations, but he seemingly has the right one now.
That rotation not only includes, but features, Kadeem Batts on the interior. The junior was once again a force on Wednesday night, following up a 25 point, 9 rebound effort versus Cincy with 24 more (8-16 from the field, 8-10 at the line). Not only has Batts proven himself to be a capable Big East big man, but he’s quietly been one of the better interior players in the conference over the past month. He’s scored over 20 points in three of the last four games, and he’s becoming a focal point in the half court.
Bryce Cotton remains the go-to scorer, but the Friars have proven they can win without the Big East’s leading scorer getting hot. He had 13 on 3-11 shooting, but still managed to dish out six assists. In his past two games Cotton is only 5-21 from the field and 3-16 from three, and yet the Friars won both games. This is a positive development for a team that couldn’t support Cotton when he was tearing up Boston College to the tune of 33 points in a December loss.
Now tied for second all-time in assists in the Big East and nearing the school record of a Providence legend, Vincent Council has found his footing after a huge night against Connecticut. He’s averaging eight assists over his last five games.
Then there’s the defensive effort of Kris Dunn. It may not be coincidental that USF went off in the first half when the freshman went to the bench with two early fouls. He’s proving to be an impact defender for Cooley, one capable of harassing point guards 94 feet and troubling bigger forwards in a half court game. His defensive versatility is key and he played a more controlled offensive game on Wednesday, making a pair of key buckets in the second half run.
The Friars got a big lift from LaDontae Henton (he started hot, making a pair of early threes, but didn’t get another shot over the final 7:30 of the first half) who was a much more efficient 7-9 from the field for 19 points and seven rebounds.
It all adds up to a third straight conference win, two coming on the road, and a 5-7 mark in the Big East.
Where Providence typically begins to trend downward in mid-February, this group is playing its best basketball of the season as they enter the season’s final stretch.
Cooley vowed to bring tenacity and defense to Providence, and while he’s still in the early stages of his rebuilding project, Friar fans are seeing more signs of a turnaround in Friartown.