Friar fans, you need to fight that feeling. No, not the one REO Speedwagon sings about. I’m talking about that pit in your stomach that’s been there since around 6pm on December 23rd. Despite a rather unceremonious ending to the non-conference part of their schedule, the Providence Friars had a good start to the season. 10-3. That’s better than the 9-4 I predicted and they certainly are further along at this point than I anticipated, losing to the lowly Boston College Eagles notwithstanding. In a year that was supposed to be all about development of young talent to bring them along for future years this has been a fun group to watch and some of those green players appear ready to help right now, notably Kalif Young.
Young has been the most impressive of the Friar freshmen this season. The big lefty has shown impressive touch and excellent passing skills to go along with his ability to bang down low. Some of his hurried offense reminds me of Ben Bentil in his rookie campaign where he would go a million miles per hour once the ball got into his hands. The game will slow down for Young and when it does he has a chance to be a special player for Ed Cooley.
Maliek White and Alpha Diallo both had their bright spots and frustrating plays through the season’s first 13 contests. They were able to get some decent run with Diallo logging at least 10 minutes in 10 of 13 games — including playing 20 or more minutes 3 times — while White’s court time has been a little more sparse with double-digit minutes in 6 of 13 games — though he played 19, 17 and 14 minutes respectively in Providence’s last 3 games.
With conference play now looming this week history tells us that Cooley’s bench will get shorter and some of the minutes White and Diallo were getting against Wagner aren’t going to be there against Xavier. With Drew Edwards struggling to get back to form following offseason knee surgery there may be some minutes available at the two-guard spot.
Another newcomer is the one currently starting in that two-guard role and that’s redshirt sophomore Isaiah Jackson. Jackson had a year of college ball under his belt at George Mason before sitting out last season as a transfer and getting fully healthy. He has started the last 6 games in the backcourt with Kyron Cartwright and has seemingly gotten a little more comfortable on the offensive end while playing very solid defense all year. Jackson and Ryan Fazekas seem to be playing opposing roles in Cooley lineups with Jackson getting the nod when more defense is needed and Fazekas getting the call if the Friars need offense. It will be interesting to see how that limbo plays out in Big East play.
Fazekas started the other 7 games before being supplanted by Jackson and he hasn’t exactly been lighting scoreboards up like he did in the first 9 games of his freshman season. He is a valuable asset to have even if he’s just out there as a veritable decoy because all it takes is one swish to get him going. As a result, teams will honor his range and chase him around and that can open things up for others. Fazekas is 5 of his last 8 attempts from beyond the arc. If he can get hot it would help this Friars team that may struggle to score against tough Big East defenses, especially on the road.
Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey and Cartwright have been the steady hands, for the most part, and they will need to keep up their high level of play now that the opponents are better and the opposing coaches know their strengths and weaknesses from experience. Bullock has to play consistently well for Providence to make any noise at all against league foes. Lindsey’s growth has been one of the most entertaining parts of the non-conference. He seems much more comfortable in his own skin now that he’s found a role and had success in that role. Cartwright has been masterful at running the offense and he’s been able to do a good job picking his spots to push the pace and knowing when to pull the reigns and run a set. In short, these three have matured and developed as they are now upperclassmen and leaders on and off the floor.
Another player that has been part of the steady group in November and December is Emmitt Holt. Holt has brought way more scoring punch than I expected and the fact that he came to Providence with experience playing in Big Ten league play makes me think he’ll be ready for the jump in intensity that awaits on December 28th in Cincinnati. Holt’s points take pressure off Bullock and the fact that Young can rotate into the frontcourt already means that the Friars shouldn’t get man-handled inside as much as I thought preseason. Having said that, I do think the Friars are vulnerable on the glass and they certainly haven’t created a ton of second-chance scoring opportunities for themselves by having the 272nd ranked Offensive Rebound %, per Kenpom.com.
The Big East once again put forth a stellar non-conference performance. The 10 league teams combined for a 95-27 record, or a 78% winning percentage. They went 9-5 against AP Top 25 teams and there are 4 teams ranked in the top 17, including Villanova being ranked #1. Providence — fans, coaches and players alike — needs to shake off the dismal performance against Boston College and get ready for a murderer’s row start to Big East play. Road games at #17 Xavier and #13 Butler is probably not how Cooley was hoping to start off league play. Fans should be prepared to next see their Friars at the Dunk against Georgetown on January 4th with a 10-5 record after an 0-2 start in Big East play. And that will be ok. A split would be cause for celebration and 2-0 would mean the Friars could be among the ranked entering that Georgetown game. So chin up, Friar fans. The real fun begins on Wednesday.
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