Story highlights include:
- The difficulty in winning four Big East games consecutively
- Experience of veterans taking pressure off of underclassmen
- Once overlooked prospects, Batts and Cotton having a high major impact
- Dunn, Goldsbrough changing the defensive identity
Left for dead, Providence has done what was unthinkable at the end of January. In just over two weeks Ed Cooley’s team has picked themselves off of the Big East mat with a four game winning streak, and suddenly the Friars are looking at meaningful games late in the season.
That it’s been nine years since the Friars have gone on such a streak is a testament to where PC has been in recent seasons, but it’s also indicative of how difficult it is to string together this type of run in the Big East.
How difficult is it? The longest winning streaks in the conference right now are owned by Georgetown (7 straight wins), Providence (4) and Louisville (2). Currently, no other team in the Big East has strung together more than one win. That group includes seven teams that could dance in March and an eighth (Connecticut) that would be on their way as well if they were eligible.
Seemingly overnight, Cooley’s players have slid into roles perfectly suited for them, but not coincidentally it has all come together for one of the more veteran teams Friartown has seen in a while.
Developing veteran core
There haven’t been many framed jerseys and hugs from mom on Senior Day in Providence of late.
Last year’s Senior Day consisted of a sendoff to Bilal Dixon. The year prior the only scholarship seniors were Marshon Brooks and a redshirted Ray Hall, while the year before that it was just Sharaud Curry and Brian McKenzie who were the departing seniors.
The last time Providence had a winning record in the Big East (2009) they were loaded with experienced seniors – boasting the only roster in the country with five 1,000 point scorers.
While this year’s bunch doesn’t have near that kind of upperclassmen depth (they have one senior), what they do feature is a trio of veterans capable of taking over a game with a supporting cast that is readily, and effectively, playing their roles.
The turnaround has started with Vincent Council. Now Providence’s all-time leader in assists, Council has responded exceptionally to being benched for the first 10 minutes of the Connecticut game and appears to be back to full health after struggling to return from a hamstring injury that cost him over two months.
The senior finished with 15 points, 10 assists and five rebounds before fouling out in a comeback effort that fell short against UConn, and he hasn’t looked back since. In conference play he’s once again leading the Big East in assists – his 7.7 per game are well ahead of Peyton Siva’s 6.3, and a full two per game better than Michael Carter-Williams who’d averaged over 10 per game for much of the season.
There’s no substitute for experience at point guard, and Council certainly has that, having played nearly 3,700 minutes in his career (3,693). Had he not gotten injured earlier in the year he would have also broken Donnie McGrath’s PC record for minutes played as well (4,128). Only eight Friars have ever played over 3,700 minutes (Donnie McGrath, Ryan Gomes, Geoff McDermott, Curry, Joe Hassett, Bruce Campbell, Jamel Thomas, Otis Thorpe).
Council’s impact has gone beyond the numbers. He’s the calming force on this team and he’s playing at a perfect pace right now.
Council may be the only departing senior this year, but he’s not the only one from his recruiting class having a major impact right now.
Council and Kadeem Batts are the only two remaining players from Keno Davis’ seven man class of 2009. After Batts was redshirted as a freshman, he showed occasional flashes in the past two seasons before exploding in his fourth year on campus.
ESPN’s 60th ranked power forward in their 2009 recruiting rankings is playing like the best forward in the Big East right now. After winning the conference’s Player of the Week award last week, he torched preseason first teamer Jack Cooley in leading PC to victory over #21 Notre Dame with 20 points on a variety of step backs, fade aways and jump hooks. Batts was a monster in the first half of that one, making 7-9 shots.
He’s scored over 20 points in four of five games, with the exception being a foul-plagued afternoon at Villanova. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Batts is the most improved player in the league on Saturday. It’s hard to disagree at this point.
Then there’s the shooter.
Bryce Cotton continues to lead the league in scoring, snapping out of a 5-21 slump on Saturday by making 8-14 from the field and 3-6 from deep. He wasn’t even ranked or scouted by ESPN coming out of high school, and has improved as much as any player in the country in the past two seasons.
Now in his third year, he combines with Council and Batts to give PC one of the most experience trios in the Big East. A year ago Cotton tied a school record with 1234 minutes played – a total he could eclipse if PC goes deeper into the postseason in 2013.
While the mass exodus of the pre-Cooley era has left PC without the depth of veterans they expect to have in coming years, the trio of Council, Batts and Cotton are carrying the load and allowing their less experienced teammates to slide into comfortable roles.
Carrying the load, but not all of it
In season’s past, averages of five points, four rebounds and two assists would have led to disappointment for the team’s top incoming freshman – at least in part because Providence has had such little veteran presence that they’ve needed freshmen to step in and play 35-38 minutes right away.
Not this year.
Kris Dunn’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but his defensive impact over the past month has been enormous. He’s checking 6’9, 235 pound Victor Rudd one day and blocking the last second shot of 5’11 speedster Ryan Boatright on another.
The Friar defense has made a stunning and rapid turnaround, holding Villanova, Notre Dame and Cincinnati to sub-40% shooting during the run, while keeping South Florida off of the scoreboard for the first seven minutes of the second half. Dunn has been the catalyst for the improvement – a defensive leap forward that Cooley credits for the winning streak.
LaDontae Henton is third in the conference in free throw shooting and fourth in rebounds (conference games). After making just two field goals in a two game span he’s gone 12-22 the past two.
Josh Fortune is confidently stepping into open looks now.
Ted Bancroft can give a defensive lift in a pinch.
And Lee Goldsbrough, a veteran without the floor experience, is making believers out of more and more people in Friartown with each passing game, including his coach. We’ve certainly been guilty of overlooking him in this space for the past couple of years, but he’s played his way into the lineup, and the headlines, in February.
Goldsbrough is much more competitive on the glass, makes up for a lack of athleticism with intelligence on defense, and has only turned the ball over twice during the four game winning streak (a span of over 70 minutes of playing time).
Goldsbrough’s story is a terrific one during the most enjoyable run of basketball Providence has seen in four years. Cooley said he didn’t have confidence in the junior earlier in the year, and Goldsbrough himself has admitted to struggling in that area throughout his career, but he’s found it now and in the meantime carved out a niche as a player who draws charges, effectively hedges on guards, and pulls down an occasional rebound in traffic – rebounds he simply wasn’t capable of getting a year ago.
Like so many who have transferred from Providence in recent years, few would have blinked had Goldsbrough left last summer. The same could be said for Cotton after his freshman year, or Batts earlier in his career. When the results aren’t there early, it’s easy to look ahead to who’s coming.
Success at Providence will come with player development. Batts is the 60th ranked power forward turned potential all-Big East performer. Cotton was a barely blip on the national recruiting radar. Goldsbrough still isn’t even listed among Providence’s 2010 signees on ESPN.
The early departures at Providence had put them in a cycle in which inexperienced players were thrust into situations they weren’t ready for. Now, the deeper Friars have only one player in the top 10 in minutes played in the Big East, and a threesome leading them who’ve played a lot of basketball at this level.
With Council rounding into form the Friars have their general back, and with the continued emergence of Batts and Cotton the three veterans are carrying the scoring load while the rest of the roster has fallen into place around them.
PC has found their rotation and a defensive identity, and suddenly, Friartown is a lot more interesting during the season’s home stretch.
Email Kevin at email@example.com