Key Returners: Emmitt Holt (returning from injury), Alpha Diallo, Isaiah Jackson, Kalif Young, Makai Ashton-Langford
Key Losses: Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey
Key Newcomers: David Duke, AJ Reeves, Jimmy Nichols, Kris Monroe
Outlook: Plagued by injuries, the 2017-18 Friars underwhelmed in many predictive rankings (63rd KenPom, 62nd T-Rank, 55th Haslametrics), but Ed Cooley still managed to get Providence to the Big East Tournament final and into the NCAAs for the fifth straight year. Cooley is just 1-5 in the Big Dance, but he’s inarguably done a great job building the Friars back into a consistent tournament team after only two appearances from 1998-2013.
After losing his premier perimeter option (Kyron Cartwright) and big man (Rodney Bullock), Cooley faces an uphill battle to push that NCAA streak to six, but signs of life also exist. Emmitt Holt, impressive in his first year out of junior college in 2016-17 (spent his frosh year at Indiana), appears on track to return from an abdominal injury that cost him all of last season (great article on him from the Providence Journal), and Cooley’s last two recruiting classes have been stacked with talent. If he can get the young talent to buy into playing his typically stingy mix of man-to-man and zone, the Friars have the athletes to stay near the top of the Big East.
As mentioned, Cooley will mix it up on defense, and though he greatly prefers playing man-to-man, he consistently has the lanky guards and wings to play an effective and bothersome zone. Often in the Big East tournament (except against Villanova), he went to a 2-3 zone that allowed his team to extend and frustrate perimeter players with their length:
Cooley is also #teamzone on baseline out-of-bounds plays (something that will surely make my colleague Matthew very happy), and he has the players to continue to mix in the 2-3. Returning wings Alpha Diallo and Isaiah Jackson are both physically imposing, and freshmen AJ Reeves, David Duke, and Kris Monroe all bring 6’5-6’7 size as well. That gives the Friars some versatility in any kind of defense, and with switchable bigs in Holt and Jimmy Nichols, another freshman, Cooley has to be excited about the tools with which he will build his defense. They do lose Jalen Lindsey, the team’s best perimeter defender, so things aren’t all daisies and roses on this end, though.
Providence will also have size in the paint, as developing sophomores Nate Watson and Kalif Young are both loads. Watson was mysteriously horrendous on the glass, though, as his defensive rebounding rate matched that of the Friars’ 5’11” point guard, Cartwright, at a dismal 9.3%. Neither is a top-of-the-line shot-blocker, but they’re both huge bodies and can be assets if they position themselves properly on the back line of the defense. I don't think the Friars will be Top-20 good on defense, but settling somewhere around 35-40th for the fifth straight year is clearly attainable.
On the other end, Cooley hasn't had an offense inside KenPom's top 90 since 2014-15, despite having Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil for one of those years and Cartwright/Bullock the last two. The Friars' offense primarily features two aspects: some flex action early in the shot clock in hopes of getting mismatches either on the block or the perimeter, and if/when that fails, a heavy burden falls on the team's lead ball-handler to create for himself or others. In the seven seasons since Cooley took over, Providence's primary point guard has never finished outside of the nation's top 20 in assist rate (percentage of team baskets assisted by the player while he's on the court):
This just goes to show how reliant the team is on its PGs to initiate offense. Of course, Cooley has had an excellent run of players at that position, and this year he'll look to sophomore Makai Ashton-Langford (247's #44-ranked recruit in 2017) to take the reins. Ashton-Langford struggled mightily with his shot as a freshman, as evidenced by his abysmal 39.1% eFG, but with his pedigree and a season to further digest Cooley's system, he's a terrific bet to be a typical "breakout sophomore".
Diallo returns as a double-digit scorer on the wing, a rim-attacking wing whose size often gives him an edge on the glass or in the post against smaller guards. This makes him a great fit for the plethora of inverted swing sets that put big men on the perimeter and guards on the block. Holt's return as a versatile inside-out option and similar rim force will be key in helping replace Bullock's production (assuming he's able to regain enough weight to bang inside). But the real offensive key may be Duke, a dynamic athlete who can play either guard spot. Like many of the Friars, his outside shot is still a work in progress, but he could be an impact piece right away for a team that's thin in the backcourt. Reeves also has the makings of an offensive weapon as a freshman, and his shooting potential should appeal to Cooley.
Bottom Line: Providence doesn't appear to have a terribly high ceiling this year, but with Cooley and the pieces to play tough defense, the Friars should stay consistent in the middle of the Big East and fight for another NCAA at-large bid. The best case scenario probably includes Duke and/or Reeves emerging as a real weapon (plus major development from Ashton-Langford and a healthy season for Holt), hopefully giving Cooley a chance to improve his opening round record come March.