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2021-22 Big East Basketball Summer Check-In: Providence Friars

What will Ed Cooley and the Friars do this season without do-it-all guy David Duke?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 11 Butler at Providence Photo by Andrew Snook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: Providence Friars

2020-21 Record: 13-13 overall, 9-10 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: Sixth, a half-game behind both Seton Hall and St. John’s thanks to the weirdness of games being cancelled due to COVID

Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #80

Postseason? Nope, and we might be able to specifically pin that on losing to DePaul in the first round of the Big East tournament. 14-13 and “didn’t lose to DePaul” might have been good for the reduced in size NIT, but we’ll never know.

Key Departures: We have to start with David Duke, who elected to turn pro following his junior season. He just barely missed out on leading the team in scoring last year at 16.8 points per game, was second in rebounding at 6.3/game, and topped the squad in assists at 4.8/game. Take all of that and combine with it the fact that Duke basically never came out of the game (37.1 mpg) and it’s going to be really hard to replace everything that he did.

Greg Gantt and Jimmy Nichols filled a lot of minutes for the Friars, mostly off the bench. Gantt, a former top 75 prospect, never quite got it in gear for PC, and averaged 4.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists before transferring to NC State, which is much closer to his Fayetteville home. Nichols added a little bit more to the Providence mix last season in only 16 appearances. The 6’8” native of South Carolina averaged 6.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, and he’ll be at VCU going forward.

Key Returners: It’s great news for the Friar faithful that Nate Watson elected to return to PC for his COVID-bonus season of eligibility. He was the guy who beat out David Duke for the team lead in scoring (16.9/game) and rebounding (6.7/game). The 6’10” big man from Virginia is maybe the very model of a traditional big, as he has one career three-point attempt, and that came back in 2018-19.

A.J. Reeves rounded out the trio of Friars (with Watson and Duke) who played and started in all 26 games last season. As such, he played a ton of minutes while averaging 9.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. Noah Horchler’s first season in Friartown led to him working his way into the starting lineup as the season went along as well as a career best three-point shooting percentage of nearly 42%. It was in limited usage, though, as he only averaged 6.7 points per game and only 7.0 in Big East contests. Horchler did use his 6’8” frame to good use on the glass as he rounded up 5.7 rebounds per game while mostly mirroring his rebounding rates from his time at North Florida.

Jared Bynum (5.8 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists) was a reliable cog in the machine. He ended up #2 on the team in assists per game even though missing time in the middle of the year due to injury meant he lost his starting job when he returned for the final six games of the season. Alyn Breed (5.0 points, 2.1 rebounds) seems to have been the biggest beneficiary of Bynum’s missed time, as the freshman from Georgia went from getting sporadic minutes to starting 13 straight games at the exact time Bynum went out.

Key Additions: Look, there’s no other way to say this. Providence has the worst recruiting class in the Big East...... at #66 in the country. Part of that may just be volume, as the Friars are adding just two freshmen this fall. Part of that is also that they don’t have a top 125 freshman. Rafael Castro (6’10”, 215 lbs.) is at #130 in the country according to 247 Sports, but between Nate Watson and Noah Horchler returning and how things generally tend to go in Friartown in terms of minutes load, I don’t know how much PC will be relying on Castro to vacuum up minutes.

Justin Minaya arrives in Rhode Island with two seasons of eligibility thanks to a medical redshirt in 2018-19. The 6’6” New Jersey native has career marks of 7.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game in 79 games played in four seasons at South Carolina. He was a regular starter for Frank Martin, so he’s not walking away from that situation for laughs. Same goes for Al Durham and his time at Indiana. He started in 88 of the Hoosiers’ 92 games over the past three seasons and was a regular fixture off the bench as a freshman. He posted career bests in points (11.3), rebounds (3.1), and assists (2.6) this past season, and between having a COVID-bonus season and IU making a coaching change, Durham has landed on the East Coast.

Coach: Ed Cooley, in his 11th season at Providence and 16th overall as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 194-135 (92-89 Big East) at Providence and 286-204 overall.

Outlook: It’s not a secret that Ed Cooley’s best Providence teams have had a ridiculously successful point guard running the show. We’ve talked about it time and time again here, about how the run of Vincent Council to Bryce Cotton to Kris Dunn to Kyron Cartwright operating at the 1 have been responsible for most of Cooley’s success in his current job. The past three seasons of PC basketball have not had that guy, that one clearly defined point guard, that lead guy occupying the big minutes and running the show. They might have had good assist rates overall, but it was never one specific guy all year long. Seemingly as a result, the Friars have struggled on the court for the most part in those campaigns, although they appeared on track to earn an NCAA bid in 2020 before the tourney was shut down.

I say all this to point out two things: Jared Bynum might have been turning into that guy last season before he got hurt, and second, David Duke turned into that guy after Bynum did get hurt. The good news is, of course, that Bynum is back for this season. The bad news is that all the team development with Duke racking up a monster-sized assist rate after Bynum’s injury is out the door with Duke turning pro. The other good news is that Providence wasn’t actually any good when Duke was being asked to do Bynum’s job and carry the offense like that.

Facts are facts: Providence was 3-1 in Big East play up until the game where Bynum got hurt, 3-6 while he was out, and 3-3 (including the Big East tournament loss to DePaul) after he returned albeit probably slightly limited. I’ll take 6-4 over 3-6 in terms of winning percentage any day of the week, that’s for sure. If he’s capable and back to form when the 2021-22 season starts, maybe Providence has something here.

Then again, Providence did that 6-4 thing with Duke.... and Duke’s gone now...... and I don’t think there’s a Duke-replacement on this roster. You can’t ask Nate Watson to do more than he’s already doing unless he suddenly develops a three-point shot out of nowhere over the summer. Someone else is going to have to pick up the slack. A.J. Reeves? I suspect that if he was capable of doing it, we would have seen flashes of it already. Alyn Breed? There’s a reason why Cooley didn’t roll with him early and then also why Cooley ended up benching him in the final few games of the year. Noah Horchler? Probably best served in his stretch four multi-purpose role. Could it be either Al Durham or Justin Minaya? I wouldn’t expect that from them, unless you want to say that Archie Miller and Frank Martin are very bad talent evaluators.

Until the Friars get their “we need someone to create a shot because Watson can’t” go-to guy problem solved, there’s clearly a ceiling on this team’s success this season. Then again, we could say “there’s a ceiling on this team’s success” every season. FUN FACTS: Did you know that Ed Cooley has never won more than 12 games in a Big East season? Did you know that he’s only done that once AND that was in 2020 when they were on track to be a middle-of-the-pack NCAA tournament #8 seed when the season was ended? Did you know that Ed Cooley has only won 11 games in a Big East season once? Did you know that Ed Cooley’s 2014-2018 run at Providence is the most consistently successful run in Friars history because they had never been to more than three straight NCAA tournaments before...... and he only went 51-39 in league play in those five years? AND one of those tournaments — the first one — might have been an absolute gift since the Friars won the Big East tournament and still ended up as a #11 seed?

But hey, if “doing just enough to get into the NCAA tournament and that’s about it” on a regular basis is what does it for you, then Ed Cooley is your guy. Maybe/probably not this year, though.