#31 Providence 2019-20 Preview

-Matt Cox

Key Returners: Alpha Diallo, Nate Watson, AJ Reeves, David Duke, Maliek White, Jimmy Nichols, Kalif Young, Emmitt Holt
Key Losses: Isaiah Jackson, Makai Ashton-Langford
Key Newcomers: Luwane Pipkins, Greg Gantt

Outlook: Providence has been a model of consistency in the Big East for the past half-decade, but ‘Steady Ed’ Cooley fell short of that reputation last year. The Friars finished below .500 in conference play for the first time since Cooley took over for Keno Davis in 2011, and a 5-year NCAA tournament appearance streak came to a screeching halt. With how high Cooley has raised the bar for success in Rhode Island’s capital, it’s fair to say the 2018-19 campaign was a minor disappointment.

However, the win-loss resume and the advanced analytics would agree that last season was merely a bump in the road for Mr. Cooley. The Friars’ stingy defense served as a safety net, preventing any major free fall down the Big East standings. Last year was a friendly reminder that as long as Cooley is holding the clipboard, you can take it to the bank that Providence will trot out a top-50 defense when it’s all said and done (as they have in each of the past five seasons). The Friars checked in with the top defensive unit in the Big East last year, completely shutting down the 3-point arc and forcing turnovers with octopus length across all five positions. With the defense cemented as a constant, the uncertainty lies on the other side of the ball, where shoddy point guard play and a dearth of outside shooting scarred the Friars’ offensive efficiency.

Heading into last season, we more or less declared Makai Ashton-Langford the ‘X-factor’ for the Friars offense, who stood next in line to succeed Kyron Cartwright as the primary ball handler and creator. Cartwright’s ability to consistently knock down highly contested shots was uncanny. He routinely bailed out the Friars in late shot clock situations when the flex offense failed to generate an open look.

Shame on us for letting the shiny ribbon of hype wrapped around Ashton-Langford blind us, as we quickly learned he was far from ready to assume this role. When MAL wasn’t sling-shotting bricks at the backboard, he was flinging the ball into the stands, eventually forcing Cooley to shuffle his perimeter rotations on the fly. He called upon highly touted freshman David Duke and veteran Maliek White to co-pilot the offense, but Ashton-Langford’s shooting and turnover contagion seemed to infect them as well. For some teams, shoddy point guard play is less harmful. For Providence, the point guard is the axis on which the entire offense tilts - just refer to this positional assist rate breakdown, courtesy of Jordan Sperber:

Letting a young, blue-chip prospect take the offensive wheel proved to be a failed experiment, so Cooley turned to the transfer wire in search of a proper point guard replacement for 2020. While it’s entirely possible that Duke, a former top-50 recruit himself, takes command of the lead guard spot this season, the path has been paved for UMass transfer Luwane Pipkins to seize the reins.

‘Electric’ is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Pipkins after watching him torment slower, less athletic guards numerous times in the A-10. The frenetic pace in which he played at UMass was partially system-driven, but he’s internally wired to play in the fast lane. It’ll be interesting to see if the coaching staff places a restrictive ‘speed governor’ on him, given Cooley’s historical preference to play at a methodical pace offensively. Regardless of how that tempo tug-of-war plays out, Pipkins’ is a high-level shot maker and cheetah-quick off the dribble, both of which will come in handy in those aforementioned late shot clock “burn” settings.

Pipkins will also be tasked with serving up the sharpshooting AJ Reeves, one of the lone bright spots of the Friars backcourt last season who missed 9 games in the middle of the season with a foot injury. Before going down, Reeves had emerged as a lightning rod for a Providence offense in dire need of a spark, but he was never able to regain his form after returning to the lineup in late January. With no other reliable sources of offense on the perimeter, it’s no wonder the Friars finished dead last in the Big East in 3PT%, converting an abysmal 29% of their attempts from long distance.

This lack of inside-out balance put the onus on the forwards to carry the offensive torch, as Nate Watson and Alpha Diallo shouldered an interior-intensive scoring attack last year. Diallo and Watson thrive in Cooley’s flex offense, and the patented baseline screening action allows them to catch the ball 6-8 feet from the basket, typically isolated in a favorable matchup. Per Synergy, over 25% of the Friars’ offensive possessions ended with a shot either 1) out of the post, 2) off a screen or 3) off an offensive rebound.

After losing his starting job to Watson last year, Kalif Young is back to provide meaningful minutes off the pine, while a trio of 6’7 wings in Jimmy Nichols, Kris Monroe and freshman Greg Gantt were hand-picked by Cooley and his staff to flourish in the flex offense - though, all three will take a back seat to journeyman Emmitt Holt if he ends up reaching even 75% of his true self. Holt was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA early this summer, and was arguably the Friars best player during the early portion of the 2016-17 campaign. It’s hard to see Holt returning to that peak form nearly three years after the fact, but his quest for revival is a story I’ll be tracking closely.

Bottom Line: As I alluded to in the intro paragraph above, Ed Cooley’s system is effectively immune to being shook by any major roster turnover. This consistency is apparent in the chart below, which shows the teams with the smallest range in their final kenpom.com ranking from 2013 through 2019:

Screen Shot 2019-06-21 at 2.37.09 PM.png

With Diallo and Watson returning as the gears of the Providence flex offense grinder, along with the much needed addition of a proven point guard commodity in Pipkins, I’d be stunned if the Friars weren’t vying for a single digit seed next March.

The key will be whether Pipkins can recapture the magic he displayed in ’17-’18, when he was fully healthy and mentally engaged:

Here’s to hoping the hesitant, hamstring-hampered Pipkins we saw last year is dead and buried.