PROVIDENCE (WPRI) – For the last two years, winter around here has become longer. The annual tradition of meaningless Patriots games from mid-December to mid-January and then a run continuing into February seems to be becoming a thing of the past.
The positive that comes from Saturday night’s result in cold and miserable Buffalo is that there’s a bit more time. A bit more time to finally begin a project I’ve thought about for a while.
See when the playoff run ends, college basketball is the main show in town. It’s what makes this market exceptionally unique compared to others across the region.
I’ve loved every minute of the four seasons covering PC, URI, Brown and Bryant. The more content we’ve produced, the more interaction we’ve had with the Friar faithful, the Rhody Ruckus, and the strong pockets of Bulldogs and Bears supporters. Those conversations are the most gratifying feeling about the job. It’s knowing the lifeline of these programs deeply crave the coverage of their teams.
And it’s because of those experiences that I branch out and start this new venture. Beginning today, and every Monday through the end of the season, I’ll have a weekly college basketball column.
It will be meant to serve as a guide, a compass for your favorite teams, players, and coaches.
There will be weekly updates on each program, but the goal of this space will serve as an area to touch on the less talked about topics. The ones that aren’t in the headlines. The ones behind the box scores.
And being raised a hoops junkie in Philadelphia, the three leagues I grew up on you did too. They’re the same three leagues that dominate our area. The Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the Ivy League. That allows for a different point of view. An objective eye that always remains fair and balanced yet tough and measured.
Alongside of the hard work of my colleagues in the market – in both TV and print who do a great job chronicling the programs through game stories, features, analytical reviews and podcasts– I hope this will also become part of your routine.
The sport now takes center stage. And what better way to head down the stretch than to have more coverage of the teams you so passionately root for.
Record: 14-2 (4-1) – 2nd place in Big East
Plain and simple: Senior leadership will help navigate rocky road
A reminder wasn’t necessary, but Covid is still running rampant and has postponed three straight games. PC’s inability to practice at full strength might hamper the group’s progress and confidence as the meat of the conference schedule is around the corner. Not an ideal situation for Ed Cooley and the Friars, who have as good of a chance to win the program’s first Big East regular season championship as any team in Friartown has ever had. It’s easy to believe the experience and leadership will help keep the team focused. A 14-2 record, with the wins PC has, doesn’t happen without it.
Hard truth: Noah Horchler needs to create his own shot
In the first 14 games, Horchler greatly benefited playing alongside AJ Reeves. He shot the ball better than 45% from deep with the majority of those makes coming off the catch-and-shoot. In the two games Reeves has been out due to injury, Horchler has missed all six from downtown and is 3-for-12 overall. For an efficient scorer, this two-game skid is one of the worst over the course of his 103 career games. Keeping the defense honest is a must for Horchler. That entails making a concerted effort of putting the rock on the deck. That can be a one or two dribble pull-up, getting to the paint for a floater, or all the way to the rim. If the defense has to account for something other than a spot-up jumper, close outs won’t be as strong which will alleviate some pressure.
Record: 11-4 (2-1) – tied 5th in Atlantic 10
Last: 81-68 win at Massachusetts on Jan. 15
Plain and simple: Soft, early conference slate crucial for Rams
With the talent David Cox has assembled, it’s fair to expect URI will open league play 4-1. Rams will be heavy favorites against bottom feeders LaSalle and George Washington this week. At the quarter pole of the season, the team should put itself in position to stay near the top the league and contend for an A10 title. After all, it is easier to ride the momentum of early wins than try to play catch up after a rocky start. And looking down the line, only one meeting against St. Bonaventure, St. Louis and VCU is a major advantage and could be the difference in finishing in the top four.
Hard truth: Not one win offers blueprint to compete against A10’s best
The non-conference slate was intentionally weak. As Cox admitted, “We are reclaiming our culture to be perfectly honest with you. That’s our No. 1 focus.” And a way to do that and create buy-in from your team after a subpar year is to schedule softer opponents. And that’s what happened. And that’s completely understandable. And for the most part the Rams have taken care of business at 11-4. But a strength of schedule that ranks in the bottom half of the league and 177th in the country doesn’t create much confidence that the Rams can consistently beat the top tier teams. Two nice stretches against Providence in early December offer glimpses of hope. Now the question is can Rhody bottle up that play for a full 40 minutes night in and night out.
Record: 9-10 (1-3) – tied for 7th in Ivy League
Last: 76-74 loss at Princeton on Jan. 15
Plain and simple: Lilly Jr. is the best rookie in the state
In the basketball hotbed that is the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia), Mike Martin and his staff found a diamond in the rough. Guard Kino Lilly Jr. is not only the frontrunner to win Ivy League Rookie of the Year but also he’s without question the best freshman guard in the state. His numbers pop off the screen at 13.7ppg on 46.8% from the floor including 40% from distance. And like all good guards he makes his free throws (34-of-40, 85%). Deeper than the numbers, the poise and pace at which Lilly operates is highly impressive. He has a calm demeanor on the floor which served him well in “up games” against North Carolina, Creighton, Syracuse and Maryland. Lilly has the makings to be the focal point of the Bears for years to come.
Hard truth: Bruno needs more production from Gainey
On Nov. 8, Mike Martin said “the talent & depth is the best we’ve had here in my time.” And he is spot on. All-Ivy caliber talent Tamenang Choh, transfer Paxson Wojcik, Dan Friday and a deep bench led by Lilly Jr. is a solid core to contend for an Ivy League playoff berth. The piece the team needs to step up to get over the hump is 2019-20 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Jaylan Gainey. His numbers have taken a bit of a dip from his last season and now 19 games into his senior year, he hasn’t taken the next step offensively. In his career, Brown wins 67% of its games when he scores in double figures. The way that happens this year is if he becomes more active on that end. That’s crashing the offensive glass and calling for the ball an extra time or two per game. The potential and athleticism is there, now it’s about going out and doing it.
Record: 7-8 (4-1) – tied for 2nd in NEC
Plain and simple: Non-conference struggles paying off in NEC play
Picked as one of the favorites to win the NEC at the beginning of the year, the Bulldogs challenged themselves early. Though trips to URI, Clemson, Houston, and Cincinnati were largely noncompetitive, the experiences against high-major competition are beginning to pay off in league play. A win at home Monday night over a struggling St. Francis (PA) team will give the Bulldogs a 5-1 record in the league.
Hard truth: Lack of primary ball handler late in games could be costly
The NEC is defined by heady guards and parity up and down the league. Tight games are the norm. The Bulldogs have made a quick turnaround under Jared Grasso but for the past two seasons it was Michael Green III at the controls. Green opted to transfer to Robert Morris this offseason and while his transition hasn’t been smooth in Western PA the same can be said for his former team. Local product Erickson Bans and George Washington transfer Tyler Brelsford have been given opportunities to take the reigns; neither has taken complete ownership of the role. Their margin for error is smaller due to the uncertainty at point guard, but they do have enough top end talent to win the league.