February 09, 2016

Experiencing another untimely slump, Providence's season is beginning to play out much like the last.

The 20th-ranked Friars hope to change that trend Wednesday night by reversing their dubious history at Marquette, a traditional roadblock on their Big East schedule.

After rising to eighth in the Top 25 off a 14-1 start and later earning a breakthrough overtime win at Villanova on Jan. 24, Providence (18-6, 6-5 Big East) has fallen to the middle of the conference pack by dropping three of four. The Friars have lost two straight for the first time this season after a 72-60 defeat in Saturday's rematch with the current No. 1 Wildcats followed a 77-70 setback at DePaul last Tuesday.

Providence encountered a similar slide last year, splitting its final 10 conference regular-season games after winning six of its first eight.

"It's a long season, but we're still in good shape," coach Ed Cooley said. "It's tough with the way we've played lately. We don't need anybody being negative. It's not the end of the world because we lost a basketball game. It's a journey and you teach and encourage and we'll look to continue to improve.''

Winning at Marquette (15-9, 4-7) would qualify as an upgrade, as Providence is 0-9 all-time on the road in the series with the Golden Eagles winning the last six in Milwaukee by an average of 18.8 points. They also upset the then-No. 8 Friars 65-64 in Providence on Jan. 5 when star freshman Henry Ellenson rejected Kris Dunn's 15-footer at the buzzer for their 12th victory in the schools' last 14 meetings.

The young Golden Eagles have been expectedly inconsistent since, losing three straight in mid-January before winning three in a row. They've struggled defensively in dropping their last two, with Seton Hall shooting 50 percent in a 79-62 victory last Wednesday and then-No. 6 Xavier going 13 of 20 from 3-point range in Saturday's 90-82 win.

Marquette trailed by one with 2:15 left but turned it over on three consecutive possessions as the Musketeers pulled away with a 7-0 run.

''Turnovers have been our Achilles heel all year,'' coach Steve Wojciechowski said. ''We have some amazing turnovers at costly times. Against a team like Xavier, there isn't any margin for error. You can't have empty possessions.''

That could be an issue as well against Providence, which leads the Big East with 15.3 takeaways per game and has the conference's reigning defensive player of the year in Dunn, second in Division I in steals (3.18 per game). The junior guard had five as the Friars scored 24 points off 19 Marquette giveaways in last month's matchup.

Providence also tops the conference in 3-point percentage defense (30.8) but has been vulnerable inside, an advantage the bigger Golden Eagles exploited by shooting 62.5 percent inside the arc in the previous meeting. Villanova did as well on Saturday, outscoring the Friars 32-14 in the paint and finishing with a 46-29 rebounding edge.

The Wildcats capitalized on Ben Bentil's ankle injury that held the Big East's scoring leader to two rebounds, though the standout sophomore still managed 20 points in 34 minutes.

"He toughed it out,'' Cooley said. ''He hadn't practiced since leaving the floor the other day, but a talent like that is tough to keep off the floor."

Bentil had 28 points and nine rebounds against Marquette last month, but Dunn committed a season-high seven turnovers and the Friars shot 37.7 percent. They've been held under 40 percent in each of their last three losses.

Ellenson compiled 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in the last matchup and is averaging 21.3 points over his last three.

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