PROVIDENCE, R.I. – If you envisioned Providence being 7-2 as they head into a break for final exams, you could easily have been right. There are plenty of games on the schedule to date that were winnable ones. But chances are, you didn’t think they would look the way they have thus far. You probably figured they would have a few more than five scholarship players healthy to go. After Thursday night’s 72-57 win over arch-rival Rhode Island, the Friars are defying logic, and one wonders if they have to continue it and for how long.
Before the season, freshman Kris Dunn was known to be out for about a month or so of games. Then Ricardo Ledo was deemed a partial qualifier by the NCAA, meaning he would sit this year aside from practice. It was once the season came that it got out of hand. First, it was Vincent Council, the senior point guard who was the anchor of the team, going down with a hamstring injury that will ultimately shelve him for about six weeks. Bryce Cotton has played hurt at times, including Thursday night when he was clearly limited from a knee injury suffered the prior game.
“When Vince strained his hamstring, I looked at the bench and thought this was going to be a long first semester,” said head coach Ed Cooley. “Our players have done an unbelievable job, because we’ve played with (Bryce) Cotton at the point, who never played there, then we played without him, then with him, then without him.”
One almost wonders if Gerard Coleman, who transferred to Gonzaga in the off-season, wished he stayed just from a playing time perspective. It’s gotten so bad, the Friars have had to play walk-on Ted Bancroft significant minutes, even playing him every second of their overtime loss against Penn State because Cotton had to sit that game. Coming into this season, Bancroft had played 35 minutes in two seasons.
So in light of that, Cooley is easily believed with his opening comment after Thursday’s win.
“I’m just happy that we get a break. We need a break,” said the Friar mentor. “We limped and hobbled to the finish line today.”
Providence isn’t far from being 9-0, having lost a buzzer-beater to UMass and by three in overtime to Penn State (prior to Tim Frazier’s season-ending injury). But the Friars could also easily have another loss as well, having narrowly pulled out the season opener against NJIT.
For all the personnel issues this team has had, the Friars have not had slippage defensively. Only UMass has shot at least 40 percent from the field against the Friars, and opponents are shooting below 38 percent from the field on the season. They force over 15 turnovers per game as well, inducing 20 against Rhode Island.
The Friars aren’t without their issues aside from health and depth. They aren’t a big threat from long range, shooting below 30 percent from behind the arc on the season. They also have more turnovers than assists, and they’ve posted this 7-2 record against a schedule not exactly loaded with NCAA Tournament locks.
Fortunately for them, reinforcements are coming. Dunn was thought to be a possibility for Thursday night’s game but did not play. His debut could come soon. Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson will be eligible to play in their next game after final exams, giving them another body up front to go with LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts, who combined for 44 points and 24 rebounds on Thursday night.
Council may not be far away from the end of his recovery, and the Friars would be happy to have their floor leader back. They’re also hopeful that the long break will allow Cotton to heal more, and he’s been instrumental to their success thus far.
“These players have been everything and more that I could expect given what we’ve gone through,” said Cooley. “The fact that we’re getting to a point to rest right now is a credit to them.”
Cooley said he plans to give the team 72 hours of rest. For what they’ve done thus far, no one could argue with that. In addition, it’s clear they will need it, as Big East play is just three games away. Providence has a 7-2 record that has come in a fashion that surely no one expected, and if this helps them build depth, the limited numbers early will prove to be a blessing in disguise.