- Matt Cox
Key Returners: Rodney Bullock, Kyron Cartwright, Emmitt Holt, Jalen Lindsey
Key Losses: Ryan Fazekas (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Makai Ashton-Langford, Nate Watson, Dajour Dickens
Postseason Projection: 6 - 9 seed
Outlook: If the NCAA handed out an award for the most bi-polar team in basketball last year, Providence would certainly be a finalist for the trophy. After losing two stars in Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn prior to last season, many experts predicted the Friars to take a tumble down the Big East standings. Even after an encouraging 10-2 start in the non-conference slate, the stubborn skeptics were quick to point out the lackluster competition and absence of any marquee wins (even though those victories were by significant margins). Once the Big East action cranked up, these same critics finally got the ammo they needed to justifiably beat their chest, as Providence got off to a dismal 4-8 start in league play. But Ed Cooley’s inexperienced and unproven squad refused to go away quietly – a big home win against Butler just a few nights before Valentine’s Day sparked a 6-game win streak to close out the regular season, placing the Friars in a 4-way tie for 3rd place, which inevitably earned them an at-large berth in the First Four play-in game.
Unfortunately, the roller coaster season leading up to Selection Sunday revealed one final plunge before the unpredictable ride was over. After building a 17-point cushion against a talented USC team in Dayton, the “cracks of youth” began to show as the Friars watched that lead evaporate into thin air…
The lessons learned from that 2nd half meltdown should be well engraved into this year’s squad with almost everyone returning for the 2017-18 campaign (apologies to Ryan Fazekas), including two 2nd team all conference performers in Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock. Standing just 5’11, Cartwright appears to be somewhat of a black sheep compared to the army of 6’7 forwards that constantly surround him on the floor, but his playmaking ability is imperative to a team that struggled to score consistently on the offensive end last year. While Cartwright’s passing effectiveness (7 assists per game and 41% assist rate) was no shock to Friar fans, his improvement as a 3-point shooter last season (39%) displays his continuing development as an all-around offensive threat. And thanks to an exceptional job by Ed Cooley and his staff on the recruiting trail, Cartwright will also get the opportunity to mentor one of the premier point guards in the 2017-18 freshman class, Makai Ashton-Langford. Ashton-Langford possesses a bigger frame than the undersized Cartwright, but is pegged as a similar playmaking lead guard as his elder teammate Cartwright. Bullock saw his efficiency improve ever so slightly in a much more featured offensive role last year, but he has yet to post an individual O-Rating above 100 in each of his first three seasons in Providence. Both him and Cartwright must further polish their finishing abilities to lift the trajectory of the Friars’ offensive ceiling.
While Bullock and Cartwright’s counting stats earned them All Big East honors, Emmitt Holt and Jalen Lindsey were under the radar gems last year. Holt’s reemergence to D1 relevance was a revelation for Ed Cooley and his staff – he played one season of junior college ball after transferring from Indiana two years prior. With no true 5s on the roster, Holt essentially assumed the “center” position, leading his team in both defensive rebounding and shot blocking on a per minute basis, despite standing just 6'7. He was equally as effective on the other end as a midrange slasher, using a quick first step to attack slower bigs off the bounce. Holt's elite finishing at the rim was a major reason he ranked 15th in the conference in effective field goal percentage – just ten spots behind the 3-point marksmen Lindsey. Lindsey’s shooting regimen last offseason must’ve been the work of wizards – he transformed from an abysmal 26% 3-point brick layer as a sophomore into the 2nd-best long range bomber in the conference, nearly doubling his 3-point percentage from the year prior (Lindsey cashed 48% of his 161 3s).
Ed Cooley’s masterful coaching work last season was most apparent on the defensive end of the floor. Utilizing an array of interchangeable hybrid wing/forwards - Alpha Diallo and Isaiah Jackson, to go along with Lindsey and Holt - Cooley constantly mixed up defenses between man and zone looks to confuse opposing ball handlers, which helped the Friars force the 4th-most turnovers in the conference. They were also rock solid on the defensive boards and with reinforcements slated to join an already loaded front court (a pair of top-150 recruits in Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens), expect the Friars to be sound on the glass yet again.
Bottom Line: Betting against Ed Cooley and his Friars has proven to be a fool’s errand in recent years. Providence has punched their ticket to four straight NCAA tournament appearances and a fifth seems to be well within grasp. Despite playing in a loaded Big East, Providence's well-coached veteran returning core, combined with an influx of bona fide young talent, makes the Friars a safe pick to finish in the top half of the league for the fifth year in a row.