Friars End First Semester At 8-2

LaDontae Henton

With Providence's nailbiter of a win over the University of Rhode Island on Thursday, the first semester came to a close for the Friars. At 8-2, Providence realistically couldn't have hoped for any better.

As E.C. Matthews' last second shot fell short, sealing Providence's 50-49 win over archrival Rhode Island at the raucous Ryan Center, the Friars' first semester slate of games came to a close. Providence had scraped, scratched and crawled to the finish line, having survived a devastating injury and two unexpected suspensions to finish the semester with an 8-2 record.

The devastating injury and two unexpected suspensions had sapped Providence of depth, particularly in the backcourt. Quality depth was expected to be a strength for the Friars in 2013-14. Instead, depth was now a weakness, highlighted by a number of subpar second half performances.

When sophomore point guard Kris Dunn dived to the floor after a loose ball in front of the Friar bench ten minutes into an exhibition game against RIC on November 2, no one expected a potential season-ending injury. Yet, after a RIC player rolled on top of Dunn's shoulder in pursuit of the ball, damage was done to the same shoulder that had been surgically repaired prior to his freshman year.

Medical tests were inconclusive and through extensive rehab, Dunn was able to return for four games, but a crash to the floor in a comeback win against Vanderbilt in the opening game of the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam reaggravated the injury, and although he played against LaSalle and Maryland, Dunn was clearly not right. He has not played since.

The semester ended with Dunn taking a few days away from the team "for his emotional health," as coach Ed Cooley put it. While rest and rehab are prescribed, it is entirely possible – and even probable - that Kris Dunn's season is over, a medical redshirt in the offering.

After the RIC exhibition game, Cooley announced the suspension of his 2013 recruiting class. Rumors flew that freshman guard Brandon Austin, who many thought had a chance to be the Big East Rookie of the Year and fellow freshman forward Rodney Bullock, had committed an indiscretion at a campus weekend Halloween party and were suspended indefinitely. Austin and Bullock were allowed to practice with the team and traveled to the Virgin Islands with the team, but have yet to appear at the Dunk or sit on the bench at any game.

The two freshmen reportedly had a hearing before the college's judicial board on the Wednesday prior to the team leaving for the Islands. Rumors continue to swirl about the future of the freshmen and whether they will play at all this season, and the rumors are not good. And just like that, the depth of the Friars took a critical gut punch.

The injury and suspensions forced adjustments. Senior Bryce Cotton was shifted to point guard and once again is playing otherwordly amounts of minutes out of necessity. Against URI, Cotton played 40 minutes. Against Boston College, with overtime, he played 45. With no other capable ballhandler on the roster, Cotton, already playing on a surgically repaired and still gimpy knee, has shown signs of fatigue in the second half of several games and has not shot the ball as well as he did last season. Disaster is around the next corner if Cotton goes down.

Senior big man Kadeem Batts was expected to be a dominant force in the frontcourt, which has not happened. More often than not, Batts has disappeared for long stretches of games and has not imposed his will and size on smaller opponents. While his range on his top of the key jumper has improved, Batts' inside game has been missing in action. Lack of a true point guard has certainly affected his game and where he catches the ball.

Cotton's running mate in the backcourt has been, out of necessity, sophomore Josh Fortune. Fortune was never brought in to be a 38-minute a game player at Providence. He was intended to be, at least at this stage of his career, a 10-15 minute a game player who could deliver long range offense off the bench. Instead, two seasons worth of injuries have forced Fortune out of his comfort zone. For a pure shooter, he has too many 0-4 and 1-6 shooting nights, but too many minutes have affected his game.

Overall, the Friars have been plagued by poor shooting and stagnant offense. Against URI, PC scored just 21 second half points, allowing the Rams to keep it within the point of stealing the game. Providence has missed an alarming number of wide open shots and bunnies, even with size advantages. Long stretches of poor shooting and bad offense, particularly in the second halves, have allowed big halftime leads to quickly dissipate, even against lesser teams like Vermont and Fairfield. The Friars have made fewer than 20 field goals in a number of games and shot 25-35 percent in many others. No doubt the lack of true point guard play has played a huge part in these struggles.

And yet. And yet, Providence is 8-2. Despite their struggles, despite their personnel losses, all is not doom and gloom. PC does not have a bad loss. And come March, that will be huge. They have wins over Boston College, LaSalle, Vanderbilt and URI. They have beaten every team that they were supposed to. The only losses are to a decent Maryland team in the Paradise Jam championship and to 3rd-ranked Kentucky on a neutral court in Brooklyn, a game where PC trailed by just two at the half and wore out in the second half. In short, the Friars have done everything that they were supposed to do in the first semester, despite the nagging issues.

There are other positives. LaDontae Henton has seemingly overcome his sophomore slump and returned to the effectiveness of his freshman season. That must continue. The two transfers, Tyler Harris and Carson Desrosiers, have been pluses and made their presence felt. Harris is a slithery lefty with a nice all-around game who has done damage on the baseline and can put the ball on the floor and Desrosiers has made an impact defensively, blocking and altering shots. Harris must be more consistent and Desrosiers has to be more assertive offensively and use his height to its fullest advantage.

In fact, PC's overall team defense, whether in man or zone, has been active and aggressive and largely effective. Three opponents have been held to under 50 points, fortunate considering the sputtering offense. And, although PC has struggling shooting from the floor, the team has been largely outstanding from the free throw line, a major factor in several closer than comfortable wins.

Second semester will bring additional challenges for the short-handed Friars. Games against Yale and Maine should result in wins but at a Massachusetts squad that is off to an outstanding start will be an enormous test. And then, the Big East season begins. Final resolutions on the fates of Kris Dunn, Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock will become known, sooner rather than later, but PC must prepare to face the gauntlet of their second semester schedule with a short rotation and little guard depth.

An outstanding season is still well within reach for these Friars, but each player must improve and step up their performances for that to become a reality. It may very well be that this is a bad shooting team. But if that's the case, PC can still be successful by rebounding, playing tough defense and maintaining their free throw shooting. If the Friars can collectively do that, they can dance in March.

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