Team: Providence Friars
2018-19 Record: 18-16, 7-11 Big East
2018-19 Big East Finish: Three-way tie for eighth, which was also a three-way tie for last. Ended up with the #8 seed in the conference tournament by way of tiebreakers.
Final 2018-19 KenPom Ranking: #79
Postseason? Earned a #4 seed in the NIT, but lost 84-72 in the first round to Arkansas
Key Departures: Isaiah Jackson was the only senior on the roster last year, averaging 9.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. Makai Ashton-Langford (3.7 points, 1.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists) deserves mention here, but not because of what he provided to the team on the floor. He was a top 50 prospect that either didn’t live up to the hype or didn’t quite fit in to whatever the Friars had going on in his two seasons in Rhode Island.
Key Returners: Providence returns their top three scorers from 2018-19. Alpha Diallo is the top name after electing to withdraw from the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game, all of which were the best mark on the team. Nate Watson (11.7 points, 5.2 rebounds) will anchor the Friars in the middle again after a very strong sophomore season, while AJ Reeves (9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds) looks to bounce back from an injury hampered freshman season.
Key Additions: There’s only two new names to know this year for Providence. The first is Luwane Pipkins, who is a graduate transfer from UMass. Pipkins, a Chicago native, averaged 15.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.7 rebounds in 90 career appearances for the Minutemen. He earned starting nods in 79 of those, so he’s been through a thing or two in the Atlantic 10 during his career. He was top 30 in usage rate per KenPom.com last season and top 25 in assist rate. The other guy is Greg Gantt. Ranked #64 in the country by 247 Sports, Gantt is the full and sum total of Providence’s recruiting class this season. He’s a 6’7”, 195 pound small forward from North Carolina where he ranked #3 in the state in a recruiting class that has seven of the top nine guys heading to Major Six programs. In fact, Gantt is the only one not going to the ACC.
Coach: Ed Cooley, entering his ninth season at Providence and 14th season overall (162-110 at Providence, 254-179 overall)
Outlook: 2018-19 was a weird year for the Friars. It snapped Ed Cooley’s NCAA tournament streak at five straight seasons. That is the longest tournament streak in PC history, and you have to back to 1977 and 1978 to find when they last went to back-to-back tournaments before that. It was also just the second time in his college coaching career — the first was his first year at Providence — where Ed Cooley’s team finished under .500 in league play.
If you dig a little bit under the surface, one thing comes jumping out at you which explains some of the problems that Providence had. The big time thing that Ed Cooley has been known for since taking the job running the Friars is a impressively productive point guard. Whether it was Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton, Kris Dunn, or Kyron Cartwright, you could set your watch to Ed Cooley creating one of the top assist rate point guards in the country year in and year out.
In 2018-19, Maliek White had the best assist rate on the team which ranked him #362 in the country. Actually, that’s not 100% fair. Makai Ashton-Langford was actually better, but MAL was a virtual non-entity until AJ Reeves got hurt in mid-December, and by the end of the season, he had devolved back into a non-entity. His rate is technically better, but he just didn’t have the minutes played to rank in the KenPom top 500.
In any case, MAL’s 25.4% rate comes nowhere near the top 100, which is the whole point here. Providence didn’t have that go-to lead guard that was been a primary feature of Ed Cooley’s offense, and it resulted in the worst offensive efficiency while Cooley has been in charge of the program.
The surprising thing is that Providence was actually pretty good as a team at sharing the ball, ranking #33 in the country. But the lack of a central figure draws a direct line to the Friars missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years.
The bad news, to a certain degree, is that Makai Ashton-Langford transferred to Boston College. The good news is that Luwane Pipkins appears to be exactly the kind of central figure that Cooley likes to have running his show. Heavy minutes, heavy usage, fantastic assist rate, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a career 35% long range shooter. Plug in Pipkins into the lineup, re-distribute Isaiah Jackson’s minutes around the rest of the returning roster, not to mention the debuting Gantt, and in theory, Providence should be back to the kind of team that we’re used to seeing from Ed Cooley.
That is to say, an NCAA tournament bubble team.
Look, I like Ed Cooley, both as a coach and a person, or at least as a public persona. But here’s the deal: He’s been to five NCAA tournaments and has had a better seed than #9 once, and that #6 seed resulted in a first round loss to Dayton. Ed Cooley’s record in the NCAA tournament as a result: 1-5.
Unrelated: Ever wonder why we keep hearing Ed Cooley’s name pop up for various jobs that open up every year? Interesting.