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2023-24 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Providence Friars

Can Kim English pick up where Ed Cooley left off? Is that even possible, given the entire history of the Friars program?

Providence v Kentucky
What can Bryce Hopkins accomplish with a new head coach calling the shots?
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Team: Providence Friars

2022-23 Record: 21-12, 13-7 Big East

2022-23 Big East Finish: Tied for fourth with Connecticut, lost the conference tournament tiebreaker by way of having a worse NET ranking than the Huskies.

Final 2022-23 Ranking: #40, up from their preseason ranking of #55

Final 2022-23 T-Rank Ranking: #55, up from their preseason ranking of #67

Postseason? They lost five of their final six games of the season, including a seven point defeat against UConn in the Big East quarterfinals and an eight point loss to Kentucky as a #11 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Key Departures: Three of the starters from the NCAA tournament are gone. Ed Croswell was #2 on the team in points and rebounds last year, which was his fifth season of eligibility. Same goes for Noah Locke, who spent three years at Florida and one at Louisville before wrapping up his collegiate career with the Friars and chipping in 11 points a game and shooting 39% from long range. Jared Bynum had a year of eligibility remaining after averaging 10 points a game and leading PC in assists at 4.3 per game, but he elected to spend it as a grad transfer at Stanford.

Clifton Moore is the last normal departure from the team, wrapping up his one year in Friartown with 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds while playing in every one of PC’s games. This was the fifth season of college hoops for him, so it’s not a surprise that he’s done, even with just 24 appearances in two years for Indiana back in the day.

That moves us along to the unusual departures, and there’s two of them. Alyn Breed is no longer on the roster after getting arrested for pointing a gun at his girlfriend back in early April. He was, of course, immediately suspended from the team, and the case was still officially open when he entered the transfer portal in early July. In terms of on the court contributions, Breed played in 32 games this past season, started nine times, and averaged 4.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists.

And of course, we can’t talk about key departures without pointing out that head coach Ed Cooley is no longer with the program. Three days after Providence’s season ended with four straight losses, Cooley was announced as the new head coach at Georgetown. I feel like that qualifies as an unusual departure.

Key Returners: You don’t get much more key returning guy than Bryce Hopkins, who probably had a case for Big East Player of the Year when the calendar changed from January to February. Hopkins led the team in scoring and rebounding at 15.8 and 8.5 per game respectively, and dishing out 2.3 assists per game on top of that didn’t hurt. PC’s other returning starter is Devin Carter, who you might remember as “that dude with the hair.” He started all 33 games last season, and contributed 13.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and a team high 1.8 steals per game.

There are just two other players with notable roles last season that return for 2023-24, and it feels like their roles were intertwined with each other. Jayden Pierre appeared in all 33 games and averaged more than 11 minutes a night. That’s pretty good news for a freshman, but he was playing double digit minutes and sometimes more than 20 a game in the first half of the year before seeing his time dwindle to usually single digit runs over the final month of the season. Corey Floyd was a redshirt freshman last year after sitting out at UConn before transferring, and for pretty much all of November and December, it looked like he was going to struggle to get on the court. But as Pierre’s minutes started to dwindle, Floyd’s went up, including double digit outings in each of the last four games of the season.

Key Additions: As you would expect from a team with a coaching change and just four notable returning players, there’s quite a few new faces here. Three of them are freshmen, but I think we can safely say only one is expected to be a major contributor immediately. That’s Garwey Dual (6’5”, 190 lb., Guard, Carmel, Indiana), who is ranked #38 in the country in the 247 Sports Composite system, and he did commit to the Friars after the coaching change. Dual is the third best commit for Providence since the year 2000 according to 247, trailing only Ricky Ledo, who never played for the Friars due to academic reasons, and Kris Dunn, who was a two-time Big East Player of the Year.

There are four transfers on the roster, with three coming from just one location. We’ll start with the total stranger, as Will McNair (6’11”, 265 lb., Forward, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) comes to Rhode Island after three years at New Mexico State and playing for Mississippi State last season. There’s a pretty decent chance that he’ll be PC’s starting center as he’s the most experienced big man on the roster and generally speaking, you don’t decide to play a fifth year to just sit around on the bench. He chipped in 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 12.6 minute a game, but that’s partially because Tolu Smith was chewing up minutes in the middle for the Bulldogs.

There is a chance that Providence goes a little smaller in the middle, because one of the other three transfers is Josh Oduro (6’9”, 240 lb., Forward, Gainesville, Virginia). When you have a guy who led George Mason in scoring (15.6) and rebounding (7.9) and he’s only got one year of eligibility left, you probably want to make the most of it. The other two guys coming over to Providence from George Mason were a little bit more of role players for the Patriots last year. Davonte “Ticket” Gaines (6’7”, 190 lb., Guard, Buffalo, New York) spent two years at Tennessee and two at GMU before now, and he started all but one game that he was available for over the past two seasons. Gaines averaged 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds this past season, and shot 34% from long range, too. Justyn Fernandez (6’5”, 208 lb., Guard, Richmond, Virginia) is going to be at Providence for a while (presumably) as he was only a freshman at GMU this past year. He worked his way into the starting lineup as the season went along, averaging 5.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game in Atlantic 10 action.

And finally, in case the three George Mason transfers didn’t tip you off......

Coach: Kim English, entering his first season at Providence and third season as a Division 1 head coach. He went 34-29 in two seasons at George Mason with an 18-16 record in Atlantic 10 play.

Outlook: If this was an Ed Cooley roster for Providence, I’d spend the next 700-800 words telling you about why I believe in them as a tournament team.

But it’s not an Ed Cooley team, is it?

Cooley has taken his show down the Atlantic coast to Georgetown, and he’s been replaced in Friartown by George Mason head coach Kim English. There is a certain kind of comedy here, as GMU can easily be declared as part of the Washington, D.C., area, in the DMV area of Maryland and Virginia at the very least. Cooley goes south, English goes north after just two years on the sidelines in Fairfax.

We don’t know enough about English as a head coach to make any serious statements about what Providence will be under his direction. He didn’t guide the Patriots to any kind of a renaissance after the relatively consistent but not particularly interesting Dave Paulsen era came to an end. They did go 20-13 last season, which was GMU’s first 20 win campaign since 2017, but that’s about the nicest thing that we can say. We also can’t really derive any serious trends from just two years of English running the show. Too many of their KenPom-style advanced stats were too different from one year to the next, and too many of them got worse going from Year 1 to Year 2, most notably turnover rate as they were one of the 60 worst teams in the country in that department.

The Patriots did have two things that they were consistently good at under English’s direction. They were good at scoring off the pass, ranking in the top 60 in assist rate in both of his seasons. They were also good at defensive rebounding, ranking in the top 40 in terms of rate in both of his seasons. Those are two quality things to be consistently good at, but I don’t know enough about Kim English as a coach to tell you that’s what he wants his teams to do or if that’s just what happened.

I’m highlighting English as a tactical enigma at this point of his career to highlight the idea that we don’t know what to expect, but perhaps more importantly, Providence fans are expecting a lot. They have gotten to see eight NCAA tournament teams in the past 10 seasons, and yes, I’m giving them credit for being projected as a #8 seed in 2020. Before the Friars missed the tournament in 2019, Providence was on a streak of five straight NCAA appearances, something that had never happed in program history. Heck, they had never been to four straight NCAA tournaments, and they hadn’t been to three straight since 1978. In 2022, Providence went to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997.

Things have changed in Rhode Island. Local guy made good Ed Cooley changed the direction of the program and has ultimately created a tough scenario for Kim English. Given the current emotions pointed in Cooley’s direction, it’s possible that English gets a little bit of leeway as he gets his feet set at Providence. He’s also not starting with a blank canvas, because you can do an awful lot worse than starting off with a star player in Bryce Hopkins who should be Preseason All-Big East First Team when late October rolls around. English might also benefit from having three guys from last year’s George Mason team on the roster who can act as interpreters and go-betweens for the returning PC players.

What’s the ceiling for Providence this season? I have no idea where to set it. I think this can be a tournament team, as I alluded to at the start of this section. Who’s to say what could happen if Providence is coached by a guy who isn’t packing up his office in the middle of practice as the season comes to an end? If English is a high major coach, if Hopkins can be Hopkins again, if the GMU transfers fit in and translate to the Big East, if Garwey Dual plays like a guy with a teeny-tiny outside shot at being an NBA Draft pick after one season.... maybe it all works out.

Or maybe Ed Cooley was the greatest coach in Providence basketball history and it’s going to be very hard for anyone to live up to the standard that he set.