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Providence misses a big opportunity

February 19, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Ryan Arcidiacono made the driving layup with a second left in the second overtime, you could almost hear a pin drop in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. It was the same Dunkin’ Donuts Center that had been rocking for a lot of the previous two and a half hours.

And when a last-second three-pointer by LaDontae Henton missed harmlessly, a heart-breaking loss was complete and a muted exit from the building had begun. The question now is if it’s also the beginning of an exit from something larger.

There’s no way around it: Providence needed Tuesday night’s game. Their NCAA Tournament profile doesn’t have much to distinguish it save for a convincing win over Creighton at home in January, so a win over another top ten team in Villanova would do wonders for their profile. The Friars have an RPI in the 50s and are 2-5 against the top 50, so they don’t have a lot of wins to brag about. They have no room for any bad losses the rest of the way because of this.

Providence doesn’t have a bad loss, although the double overtime loss to Seton Hall in the Big East opener is one they would surely love to have back. Seton Hall has played better, so that doesn’t look so bad now. But the important thing is that the Friars just don’t have the wins. Their best win aside from Creighton is their win over Xavier, which was at home, plus the Musketeers are also a bubble team. In all, they have a collection of nice wins that just don’t move the needle.

Still, this team only knows how to continue fighting, and that’s what they will do.

“I’m hurt for our seniors,” said head coach Ed Cooley. “I’m hurt for the effort that these young men showed. At the end of the day, the best leaders get their team ready for their next game, and we have four more opportunities in the regular season for us to still live a dream. We’re still right there. If we play with that energy and that focus the rest of the season, we’ll find ourselves in a good situation at the end of the day.”

It’s not as if the Friars haven’t had opportunities. They lost to Kentucky in Brooklyn and let one get away at UMass that was there for the taking. They got blown out at Villanova before dropping one on Tuesday. The non-conference schedule wasn’t loaded with quality win opportunities, in some part because teams like Boston College, La Salle and Maryland have underachieved.

Providence still has opportunities left, but they are limited. They still play Marquette at home and go to Creighton, but only the latter would move the needle (Marquette’s RPI is lower than Providence’s), and winning in Omaha is certainly easier said than done. They could also get a chance in the Big East Tournament, but that would require that the Friars break out of a funk there as they have lost five in a row and ten of 11.

That’s a big part of why Tuesday night’s loss was a missed opportunity. The game was very much there for the taking, and the Friars came out of the gates on fire. Villanova burned two timeouts before the second media timeout as Providence led 22-13. The Friars later had the lead in overtime, and were right there despite Henton not scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 20.1 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime, just his third field goal attempt of the game. They were there despite a tough shooting night from Bryce Cotton. But what Cooley called “game-changing turnovers” hurt them both in regulation and overtime. They had 19 of them on the night, and many came at crucial junctures.

The missed opportunities on the night were in some ways symbolic of the season as a whole.

For that matter, Cotton is symbolic of this team. He has sat for exactly 43 minutes this season in 27 games. In Big East play, he has sat down for three minutes. Cooley has said that Cotton “leads the world in minutes,” and no one can debate that. In fact, in Big East play, Cotton’s average of minutes per game has gone down in non-overtime games because he now averages almost 42 minutes per game. On Tuesday night, he looked like he might be gassed, and he wasn’t shooting well. But along with nine assists, he hit a clutch three-pointer and also had a terrific baseline drive and reverse layup that made a few highlight reels, the latter of which sent the game to double overtime.

Providence has battled admirably all season long. The Friars have been under-manned for much of the season due to injuries and suspensions, with the backcourt being hit disproportionately. There hasn’t been any doubt about this team’s effort from the coaching staff on down to the last walk-on. Whether it is ultimately enough for an NCAA Tournament bid is debatable, and Tuesday night was one more missed opportunity.

“I told my team in the locker room, sometimes you give your heart and soul, and you leave it out there, but in life you don’t always win,” said Cooley. “We may not have won today, but we won in other ways today. Trust me when I tell you, we won a lot of different ways today. We just didn’t win the most important thing, and that was the game.”

Ultimately, the Friars now have much to do in order to get the most important thing out of the season: an NCAA Tournament bid.

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