PROVIDENCE, R.I. – As Providence College enters the 2011-12 season, there’s a tale of the new and the old. The new is reason for optimism, the old is reason for patience if you’re a Friar fan, and there was a little more of the old on Saturday as the Friars narrowly escaped their second exhibition game with a 76-75 win over a UMass-Lowell team that projects to be one of the best in Division II.
Last season was a forgettable one in Friartown, at least once Big East play began. The Friars looked improved in non-conference play, especially defensively, but they did that against a weak schedule. That became apparent once they started losing games in Big East play en route to a 4-14 mark, which led to the end of the Keno Davis era and the hiring of Providence native Ed Cooley to take his place. Cooley’s hire brings excitement because of his track record and being a hometown hero, but the story doesn’t end there.
The areas for improvement are numerous. The most notable is at the defensive end, where the Friars allowed opponents to shoot nearly 45 percent from the field, including 47.5 percent in Big East play, and they were also out-rebounded badly in conference play although they had a slightly positive margin for the entire season. But they weren’t exactly stellar offensively, either, shooting just 42.4 percent for the season and having eight more turnovers than assists.
Much of that team is back, so the improvement will have to come from the same players that produced last season’s bad output. The only newcomers are true freshman LaDontae Henton and redshirt freshman Brice Kofane, with true freshman Kiwi Gardner awaiting an appeal to an NCAA ruling that his initial eligibility doesn’t meet NCAA requirements.
The Friars aren’t lacking backcourt talent with junior Vincent Council and sophomore Gerard Coleman projecting as the starters. They also return sophomore Bryce Cotton, but after him there isn’t any depth unless Gardner is ultimately deemed eligible. Cooley said there is no timetable for finding out the results of their appeal with Gardner’s eligibility.
The frontcourt has a few more bodies, but the jury is out on how much they will produce as there’s no one who strikes you as a solid post scorer. Bilal Dixon is the seasoned veteran, but he needs to be a better factor on the boards and still hasn’t been able to stay out of foul trouble consistently. He’ll be pushed by Kofane, who’s lanky but has potential as a complementary player, and Henton, who could be a nice player for them down the road. Lee Goldsbrough has been an intriguing talent and had some good moments in the exhibition game against UMass-Lowell, and sophomore Ron Giplaye will be in the mix as well.
There is also Kadeem Batts, who had his moments last year, but he’s also a symbol of another issue that plagues this team: intangibles. Cooley said after Saturday that Batts will be suspended indefinitely, “because right now I don’t feel he’s doing the right things off the court to earn his way on the court.”
The Friars have some talent but also some questions from a talent and experience standpoint. But the big concern will be intangibles. Cooley talked about having to coach effort and having to address toughness with this team, and those questions may linger. Not only that, but they need to show a better basketball I.Q. as a whole, something he talked about when noticing that they took just six three-pointers on the evening compared to what they’re trying to do offensively.
“Obviously, our strength isn’t three-point shooting, so we’re trying to get our guys stuff around the basket,” Cooley said. “We’re trying to use precision, meaning passing and cutting, and we’re not getting that.”
There is some excitement for the future in part because of the new coach, as well as what has happened in recruiting. The Friars have secured commitments from two of the top players in New England, hometown kid Ricardo Ledo and Connecticut native Kris Dunn. Both will give the Friars an instant boost of talent when they arrive next year. But for this season, it’s more likely that the Friars will look a lot like last year than a new team.