Friday February 26th, 2016

What happened to Providence?

A team that was 14–1 and ranked No. 8 on January 4 was flying high as recently as Jan. 24, when the Friars went to Philadelphia and knocked off No. 4 Villanova in overtime. At the time SI.com considered Providence, then 17–3, a lock for the NCAA tournament and projected a No. 3 seed.

But something changed after that win over the Wildcats. It started with an eight-point home loss to No. 7 Xavier, a quite respectable loss but one that kicked off an eight-game skid that has seen the Friars go 2–6 and thrown them uncomfortably close to the bubble, if not outright on it.

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Its body of work earlier in the season has kept Providence afloat in the NCAA tournament discussion despite its recent struggles, but things came to a head on Thursday night when the Friars lost by 18 points (70–52) on the road to Seton Hall, a team fighting for its own NCAA hopes. This should have been a competitive game between two teams with something to prove, but instead it only underscored the different directions these teams have been trending as the end of the regular season barrels closer.

After going through a rough 1–4 stretch in January that featured four games against top 15 teams, the Pirates have won seven of their last eight and, at this point, have played themselves into SI’s projected tournament field. The win over the Friars only strengthens Seton Hall’s case, which has a chance to really make a statement when it hosts No. 5 Xavier, which beat No. 1 Villanova this week, on Saturday.

Providence, meanwhile, is running out of time to strengthen its resumé before Selection Sunday. The Friars have three regular-season games left: vs. DePaul and Creighton and at St. John’s, and only the game against the Bluejays is an opportunity for a top 100 win (Creighton is currently No. 89 in RPI). That leaves the Big East tournament as Providence’s only real chance left to get a meaningful win to cement its place in the field of 68. Barring a further collapse in their final three games the Friars could make the NCAA tournament regardless, but they would face an uphill road as a potential low seed and as a team that has not been playing good basketball down the stretch.

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How did the Friars go from a top 10 team to one fighting for its NCAA tournament life? Most notably, Providence has been shooting progressively worse since the calendar year turned. After shooting 46.3% from the field and 35% from three in seven games in December, the numbers dipped to 38.1% from the field and 26.3% from behind the arc in January. Through six games in February the Friars have continued to see their two-point shooting percentage dip but have improved a bit from three, shooting 33.5%.

In Thursday’s loss to Seton Hall, Providence shot a putrid 28.4% from the floor and went 4 of 24 from behind the arc, mustering only 52 points—31 of which came from forward Ben Bentil, who was ejected in the final minutes for a flagrant-2 foul. Bentil has emerged as the Friars’ leading scorer this season at 20.3 points per game, but on nights like Thursday when the team’s next two leading scorers, Kris Dunn and Rodney Bullock, combine for 10 points it leaves little other sources for offense (the Friars’ bench playing time is among the bottom 50 teams in the country). It should be noted that head coach Ed Cooley said afterward that Dunn and Bullock played under the weather and hadn’t practiced in three days, which certainly explains their performance against the Pirates but not Providence’s overarching downward trend or shooting woes.

The Friars have a very good defense, ranking No. 23 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, but if they are going to turn things around and get back to being the team that beat Arizona in November or won at Villanova in January they’re going to have to start shooting the ball better. Defense can carry a team far, but a team that is prone to poor shooting and essentially relies on three players to carry the offensive load can be left in a precarious position in single-elimination tournaments, like the Big East and NCAA ones will be. Making a run in the upcoming Big East tourney could really do a lot to lift this team’s confidence, but do the Friars have it in them?

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