PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Since Ed Cooley came home, Providence has largely fought an uphill battle. The Friars weren’t the most talented team in the Big East to begin with, but injuries, suspensions and NCAA issues have constantly left them having to dig deep into their bench. It left them basically never resting Bryce Cotton, the departed guard who was the picture of the program’s toughness, battling injuries and becoming the best player not named Doug McDermott in the Big East last year – far more than anyone would have imagined when he first arrived on campus as a complete unknown.
They completed the great story with a Big East championship last year, one no one saw coming except the people in the locker room. Providence likely needed the Big East championship to get into the NCAA Tournament, as the Friars’ seed was right near that of the last at-large team in the field after they beat a ranked team in Creighton to take home the title.
Now another year has arrived, and once again the hope for fewer, if any, depth issues comes with it. For the most part, so far, so good. The one blemish has been a torn ACL suffered by redshirt freshman Rodney Bullock, which means the beginning of his college career will have to wait another year. While depth isn’t a concern yet, youth is, as the Friars are going to need freshmen to contribute.
Last season, the Friars struggled with depth in the backcourt, going most of the season without a real backup guard. That area will be a question once again this season, at least initially, as the Friars have a healthy Kris Dunn but otherwise have competition for minutes. If he stays healthy, Dunn should be one of the best guards in the Big East, and few are better defensively. On Saturday, he looked very good running the show and created for his teammates often.
“In the second half, his energy just turned the entire thing around,” said Cooley. “He’s as talented and as athletic as any guard in the country.”
Who plays beside him is an open question. On Saturday, Kyron Cartwright started alongside Dunn, and the lefty showed some potential with his jumper, though his body has a ways to go and he needs to work on his right hand. Given his size (5’11”), he will probably guard the point guard more often. They also have Junior Lomomba, who sat out last season after transferring from Cleveland State. The player with the most upside, if you consider him a guard, is freshman Jalen Lindsey. He’ll play a wing at 6’7″, and he’s already showing some toughness as he played Saturday with a dislocated index finger on his shooting hand about a week earlier.
Cartwright impressed in Saturday’s exhibition romp over Stonehill, and looks like he will start going forward. Cooley said his ball handling is a big key in that.
“When you’ve got multiple ball handlers on the floor, you’re really hard to guard,” said Cooley. “We want to play with two points guards as much as we can. That’s always been a system I enjoy coaching.”
The frontcourt has better numbers and fewer questions. The Friars can hang their hat on senior LaDontae Henton at one forward and Tyler Harris at another. Henton can score and rebound, and he has improved as a defender. He should be one of the best players in the Big East. Harris had a quietly good year last year, but they’ll need more out of him this season. Carson Desrosiers was the other starter on Saturday, and he was a steady presence inside for them off the bench last season.
Helping out the veterans are promising freshmen Ben Bentil and Paschal Chukwu. Bentil is well-built and skilled, and if Saturday is any indication he’ll be too good to keep on the bench. Chukwu can be a rim protector in the middle and has steadily improved his offense, though that will need more adjusting to the college level. Lindsey could also see time more as a small forward depending on matchups.
Given the numbers they have up front, Bullock’s injury at first glance doesn’t hurt depth very much, at least not right now.
The Friars have just two true road games in non-conference play, trips to Kentucky and Boston College. They play Florida State and Notre Dame at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut as part of the Hall of Fame Tip Off, and later play Miami at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Home highlights include visits from UMass, arch-rival Rhode Island, America East contenders Albany and Stony Brook, Ivy League contenders Yale and Brown.
Providence is like a lot of the Big East in the second year of the current membership. A lot is unknown about how good they will be, and that can be said for the conference both this season and looking ahead. After Villanova, the conference looks wide open and doesn’t contain a lot of teams that look like good bets to be NCAA Tournament teams this season. Providence can be one of those teams, but they will need some young players to emerge as the season goes on for that to happen. The uphill battle continues, but in a different fashion this time around for the Friars.