(WPRI) – The chance for another memorable February and March is brewing in Providence. On the men’s side, Ed Cooley’s bunch is the only team in position to going dancing. URI and Bryant will have a chance to make an unexpected run in the conference tournament and Brown will have to qualify first (boo you Ivy League. Allow all eight to participate).
At 17-5 and 9-2 in the Big East, the Friars are primed to earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. They raced out to a 6-0 start in conference. That was enough of a cushion to accept a blow via injuries and sickness and a minor two-game skid to still have a shot at finishing near or at the top of the league. While they were on the mend, players stepped up to fill holes and keep the team afloat near the halfway point of the slate. And now, as the back half is here, the team seems ready to outperform its preseason expectations yet again.
Sunday was a glimpse of the ceiling. Composure on the road. Togetherness against a more desperate team. Execution when it was needed the most. For the first time since New Year’s Day the Friars were at full strength. And it showed.
With nine games left, can the Friars find a way to win six? 15-5 will put them in very good position to repeat. If they can get five of the seven in the month of February, they would most likely control their own fate come March when they have Xavier and Seton Hall at home to finish up the regular season.
Let’s get to the latest edition of the WPRI12 College Hoops Column.
Thoughts and observations are below. You can always reach out via email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @MHershgordon.
No. 17 Providence
Record: 17-5 (9-2 in Big East, tied for 1st place)
Last: 79-58 win vs. Butler, 70-65 win at Villanova
This Week: Visit Xavier Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Bench success can be differentiator for Friars
When a team has two games in a week, I generally gather some thoughts about how I’m going to approach the column after the first game. With a cup of coffee Thursday morning, I wrote the headline for this section knowing the Friars got 35 points off the bench and were +12 against Butler. One game of evidence would have been enough to spark the conversation. Little did we know, they’d be even better on the road Sunday. PC got 29 points from its reserves and were +24 in that category vs. Villanova. The second unit for the Friars can create a huge advantage for the program. Marquette rarely goes deeper than a true seven-man rotation. The same can be said about Xavier. And Creighton relies more on its starters than any team in the league. On the back half of the 20-game gauntlet, the play of the reserves will be under the microscope. They could be the difference in repeating or not.
Hard Truth: Will Bynum continue to come off the bench?
Ed Cooley knows he has a decision to make. With Jared Bynum back on the floor, will Cooley decide to continue to bring him off the bench? This past week had shades of 2021-22. Bynum returned to action on Wednesday night at home against Butler and immediately sparked a 15-0 run when the Friars were down seven early. Then on Sunday, and his team down seven late in the game, he went on a personal 8-0 run. He finished the day with 17 of his game-high 19 points in the second half and didn’t miss a shot (6-for-6) in the final 20 minutes. “(Starting) doesn’t really matter to me too much,” Bynum said on Sunday from Philadelphia. “The biggest part of the game is finishing out the game those last four or five minutes.”
PC Hoops with Coach Cooley
🏀 1-on-1 with Coach Ed Cooley
🏀 “Be Them Dudes” Play of the Week
🏀 Trivia Question of the Week
🏀 Five Friar Fast Facts
Record: 8-13 (4-5 in Atlantic 10, tied for 7th place)
Last: 75-70 win vs. Dayton, 72-70 win vs. LaSalle
This Week: At Saint Joseph’s Feb. 1 at 7 p.m.
Plain and Simple: The future is starting to take shape
With each passing day (and game) the identity of the URI men’s basketball program is being formed. Quotes from players regarding their approach when things aren’t going their way is proof the culture is changing. Tangible results, like the last two games at the Ryan Center, help buy-in. Execution from the rosters top players means progress is being made in the weight room, during film sessions and at practice. Known for having heady guards, Archie Miller is molding Ish Leggett, Brayon Freeman and Jalen Carey into a nucleous the team can lean on on a consistent basis.
Hard Truth: Can’t expect bumps in the road not to still happen
A big reason the Rams were able to go 2-0 this past week was due to a long stretch at home. Miller said it following his team’s 2-5 start. His team needed a few games at home that allowed them to practice on their home floor, sleep in their own beds and feed off the home crowd. Being at home was a big reason the Rams came back to defeat Dayton and LaSalle. As much as fans might think Miller’s program is making a turn, I caution them to think back to the Dan Hurley era. The climb is slow and arduous. Some early, unexpected high’s (like knocking off Dayton) is evidence the ship is headed in the right direction. But that doesn’t mean it will always stay on course going forward.
Record 13-7 (4-3 in America East, 5th place)
Last: 84-67 loss at Binghamton
This Week: Host Maine Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., Host New Hampshire Feb. 4 at 1 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Bryant has five of its final eight against teams below it
Bryant has had one of the tougher schedules through the first half of the America East. Five of the final eight games are against teams below the Bulldogs in the standings. And two of the other three games are at home. The Bulldogs have a real opportunity to finish with a winning record and build some momentum before the conference tournament.
Hard Truth: Offense doesn’t mean anything unless defense steps up
Bryant has two of the best — if not the best — scorers in the league. You could even make the argument Sherif Gross-Bullock and Charles Pride are among the best in the Northeast region. But their impressive abilities on that end of the floor don’t matter unless the entire team defends better. They’re last in the league in points allowed per game (80) and while they have guarded the three-point line well (33.3%) their two-point defense is putrid (53%). It’s a combination of allowing penetration, getting controlled on the glass, and the lack of a rim protector. If the first two improve, Bryant should see more results turn in their favor.
Record: 10-10 (3-4 in Ivy League, tied for 5th place)
Last: 80-73 loss at Cornell
This Week: At Dartmouth Feb. 3 at 6 p.m., At Harvard Feb. 4 at 6 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Aaron Cooley has filled in nicely
When Mike Martin’s squad has been shorthanded, Aaron Cooley has stepped up. Make that three straight games now where Cooley has chipped in double figure points, grabbed a small handful of rebounds and has seldom turned the ball over. He’s shooting better than 50% from the floor in that span. With Kalu Anya still out and Dan Friday oft-injured, the sophomore from Boston has provided a lift for the program.
Hard Truth: Two wins are needed this weekend for a realistic chance to reach postseason
At 3-4 the Bears need to get over .500 with the first weekend of February behind them. A 2-0 weekend is imperative. Unless they were to win out (or something close to that) it’s not realistic to think they can finish in first or second place. So with their eyes on either the third or fourth seed, the Bears need to take care of business against teams in that range. Two wins over Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend would mean a season sweep of the Big Green (and owning the tiebreaker) and a split against the Crimson. If the Bears go 1-1 it would mean they either sweep the Big Green but get swept by the Crimson (lose the tiebreaker) or split the series with both teams where more tiebreakers come into play. And an 0-2 showing would sink Bruno to 3-6 and put the season on life support.