Cooley: “Team isn’t ready for the moment yet.”
If Providence was sharp in practice the last couple days, you’d never have known it at the tip of their noontime start at the Big East Tournament. Cincinnati came out firing on all cylinders, and the Friars looked more like they just got out of bed.
Ed Cooley wanted to speed up the pace of the game against a big Cincinnati team, but it backfired initially. Providence started out in a man-to-man defense that was shredded to pieces for the first eight minutes, giving the Bearcats a quick 18-4 lead. Cincinnati was playing well and with urgency on both ends, and the Friars made it look easy for them by not going with zone defense from the start and looking completely spooked on offense. At one point midway through the first half, Providence was shooting 12% from the field. The Bearcats seemed to intimidate Providence early with their physicality, and it paid off for them.
Mick Cronin felt his team could wear the Friars down and out:
“A couple things strategy-wise, they lost to DePaul, who pressed them. I’ve got to say they only turned it over 7 times, and it’s not like we were stealing the ball. We were just trying to throw body blows and wear them down… We were trying to take their legs. They (PC) don’t have quite the depth that Ed’s going to have once he gets to his third and fourth year rebuilding the program.”
After being down as much as 26-8 in the first half, a switch to zone defense began paying dividends and a late full court press forced some turnovers, sparking the flagging offense. Providence went on a 15-5 run as Bryce Cotton (12 points) began to shake the aggressive Cincinnati defenders off, as Providence cut the lead to 8 points at the half.
In the second half, Providence seemed to settle in defensively, but the teams traded baskets (or misses) with the Bearcats as the game wore on, which certainly wasn’t going to win the game for the Friars. Providence did a much better job involving Kadeem Batts (14 points) in the offense after halftime, but Providence couldn’t get anyone else on track or the Bearcat lead under 6. After twice gaining momentum within six points, Sean Kilpatrick hit crucial threes from the top of the key in both instances to once again extend the Bearcat lead.
With Providence really only playing six players in the game, Ed Cooley couldn’t afford to extend the full court press for any stretch in the second half without gassing his team. As a result, the Friar perimeter offense desperately needed to heat up if they were to catch the Bearcats. Providence tried in vain to get their all league shooter Bryce Cotton going from beyond the arc, but Cotton was as cold as ice from deep, going 0-7 from the 3 point line. Vincent Council, Josh Fortune, and Kris Dunn struggled as well, and were a collective 3 for 17 from the field. Providence shot 28% from the field for the game, and that more than any other stat told the story in the game.
In the last few minutes, fouls and breakaways allowed the game to get away from Providence resulting in a 61-44 final, but the game was really a 6 to 10 point differential for most of the 2nd half. Despite Ed Cooley’s frustration with the loss, he did put the Friars’ Big East season in proper perspective:
“I expect to be in big games as we move forward. I think our program has come a long way over the last year. First and foremost, not playing on Tuesday and getting to Wednesday I think was important as a growth piece for our program. I thought we made a big jump from a year ago in conference play to get to where we were… I don’t know if we have more basketball games left in us. But if we don’t, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this year… Today is not indicative of the future for us.”
Providence will wait in anticipation of receiving a possible NIT bid, although the hopes for a home game or two may now turn into a road trip with the last two losses. Providence was picked last in Big East in the preseason, and overachieved in conference this year, and when a team does that, it’s difficult to take your play “to the next level” in the conference tournament against familiar teams. Providence had to nearly play their best in almost every Big East game they won this season, and the view here is that they simply didn’t have an extra gear to go to in New York when Cincinnati stepped up their play under the bright lights of post season play. At the very least, Friar fans do have the most anticipated basketball season in many years to look forward to next year.