Big East Burning Question: Can Providence Finish With a Winning Conference Record?Posted by Will Tucker on February 19th, 2013
The consensus at Big East Media Day in October was that Providence would remain mired in the league’s storm drain this season. Despite an auspicious (albeit banged up) recruiting class and preseason All-Big East point guard Vincent Council, Ed Cooley’s peers tabbed his team #15 in the league. We were more generous with the Friars, pegging them at #11 in our league projections. With five games remaining in conference play, they’re now 6-7 and in the midst of the program’s first four-game Big East winning streak since 2004 after knocking off Notre Dame over the weekend. They’re also right where we expected them to be in the standings, and sit one win behind ninth place. So today’s Burning Question asks: Can Providence finish with a winning Big East record for the first time since 2008-09?
Dan: Providence’s four-game winning streak should inspire some confidence going forward, as they’re playing much better basketball than we’ve seen from them in the last few years. Heading into the Notre Dame game, I thought that despite their improved play, it was still a bit of a long shot for the Friars to hit or exceed .500 in the Big East this season; I was working on the premise that the Irish would find a way to beat the Friars. The Notre Dame win is a very nice feather in the cap for Ed Cooley’s squad, though. Extending the streak to five games will be very difficult, as Providence travels to the Carrier Dome on Wednesday where Syracuse hasn’t lost since February 9, 2011. After that, Rutgers and Seton Hall should be wins if Providence keeps up its strong play, but there is no counting eggs before they hatch in the Big East, and games against St. John’s and Connecticut in Storrs will be very difficult. At worst, I think Providence finishes Big East play at 8-10, which would be a major step up from where the Friars have been so far in the Ed Cooley era, but if they can steal one from Syracuse, St. John’s, or UConn, which is very doable, the Friars can finish the year with a conference record of 9-9 or better, a great step forward for the program as it looks to compete with the likes of Georgetown and Marquette in seasons ahead.
Will: Though a four-game Big East winning streak seems like a fairly pedestrian accomplishment on paper, such streaks are hard to come by this season: Georgetown is the only team with a longer active conference winning streak (seven games). The Hoyas and Friars are the only Big East teams who haven’t lost in February, and are arguably the two hottest teams in the league. Providence itself hadn’t even won three consecutive conference games since Keno Davis’ first year in 2008-09. Unlike the porous defenses PC fielded in the Davis era (they allowed 80 points per game against Big East competition that year), Ed Cooley’s team has fashioned an energetic 2-3 zone that’s held its last four opponents to 55.5 PPG and stymied the league’s second most efficient offense on Saturday. The Friars are unequivocally rounding into form, both in terms of chemistry and physical health. So what are the chances they can parlay their recent momentum into a winning Big East record? Although blowing out Notre Dame represented a statement win over a ranked team, the Irish were clearly vulnerable and are substantially less talented than the Syracuse squad Providence will visit on Wednesday. The Friars should easily dispatch slumping Rutgers and Seton Hall, although as Dan points out, Big East chalk is tenuous this season. St. John’s will have Steve Lavin back on the sidelines when they travel to The Dunk, but the stingiest three-point defense in the league is a nightmarish prospect for the Johnnies, who shoot a Big East-worst 30% from outside. Providence has the misfortune of drawing UConn for the Huskies’ last game until next fall, and the emotions of Gampel might prove insurmountable for any visitor. Were it not for that circumstance, I would predict that Providence leaves Storrs with its first winning Big East record since 2009. As it stands now, I see Providence finishing at 9-9, with wins over the Scarlet Knights, Johnnies and Pirates. A .500 finish would be a tremendous accomplishment for the downtrodden program, and would provide a great springboard for an NCAA Tournament campaign next year.
Mike: You have to give Providence coach Ed Cooley and his gang a lot of credit. As January closed, the Friars were 2-7 in the conference and once again appeared to be fighting to stay out of last place, but since February has started, Providence has reeled off four-straight wins including last weekend’s home blowout of Notre Dame. They now sit just one game below .500 in the conference and are within realistic striking distance of their first winning record in conference play in who knows how long. While the four-game winning streak came against a group of opponents that don’t exactly make up murderer’s row, it seems the young but talented Friars have finally hit their stride and as Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said, “I hope we don’t see them in New York. They are really good.” Unfortunately, finishing with a winning record in the conference will be difficult. They need to go 4-1 over their final five games and that will have to include road wins over Syracuse and Connecticut, and Providence has not had a lot of success on the road. Beating the Orange will be the key. The Friars are good and getting better, but the Big East is still a rugged conference and the Friars are still too inconsistent to assume they will just roll over teams like St. John’s and Seton Hall. If they can find a way to beat Syracuse on its home floor, I will become a full-fledged believer in the Friars’ resurgence. But as nice as this four-game winning streak has been for Providence and its fans, the program will need to show more consistency than that if they expect to make believers out of the rest of the country.