In the early part of the college basketball season, a lot of our time is spent trying to find signal amid the noise — be it the small samples of what our eyes see on the floor or what the numbers are saying. We’re seven games into the Friars’ season, and while that’s not nothing, it’s still not a great sample, especially considering the opposition PC has played this season.
Still, it’s enough information to try to make some determinations based on limited information. So, let’s play the famous icebreaker “Two Truths and a Lie.” I’m going to parse the information based on the games I’ve watched and what the stats are showing to determine two things that we’re seeing that are real and one that is not.
Truth No. 1: Bryce Cotton is the man.
It’s hard to convey just how good Bryce Cotton has been this season. This game log gives us some idea, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Get this: Bryce Cotton is sixth in the nation in Offensive Rating (through Tuesday’s games, courtesy Kenpom.com) among all players responsible for at least 28 percent of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor. He’s one spot ahead of preseason All-Big 12 selection Pierre Jackson of Baylor and one spot behind preseason All-Big Ten selection Deshaun Jackson of Ohio State.
Replacing Vincent Council as the team’s primary ballhandler (and thereby becoming the team’s only ballhandler), Cotton has put up assist rates just slightly lower than Council’s last year while taking even better care of the ball than the Friars’ injured senior. (It’s only fair to note that Cotton’s competition has been much worse than what Council faced over the course of last season) He’s put up these performances while missing only two minutes of action in the six games he played, much like Council did last season (indeed Council only sat 10 total minutes in the 18 Big East games he suited up for). It’s probably just a mild exaggeration to write that Cotton has been a better-shooting version of Council.
Despite Cotton taking good care of the ball, the Friars haven’t had the ball security this year that they did with Council last year. PC has turned the ball over more than the national average (21 percent of possessions) in four of the seven games, including a season high 33.5 percent in the loss to Penn State, when Cotton was injured and did not play (by comparison, the Friars didn’t commit turnovers on even a fifth of their possessions in any of the final 14 games Council played last season). Turnovers were also a problem in the NC-Asheville and Fairfield games, despite Cotton only having four combined turnovers.
The big difference is that, though Council could single-handedly bring the ball up the court, even against a press, Cotton cannot. He needs help, and that help — particularly Josh Fortune — has not protected the ball. It’s the turnovers, along with poor 3-point shooting, that’s kept Providence’s offense from being good (I have them as 12th-best in the 15-team Big East so far). But, without Cotton stepping his game up to levels no one could fairly dream of in a post-Council world, the Friars would look something like Saturday’s opponent, Mississippi State, perhaps the worst major-conference team in America and one of its worst offenses.
Allow me to be one of the first to offer a mea culpa on Cotton. I thought he was a limited, undersized 2-guard, very useful in a role as a deadly spot-up shooter but unlikely to ever be much more than he was last season. He had not shown much of an ability to create his own shot or to create for teammates, but now it looks like that was due in part to Vincent Council’s rightful ball domination not giving him an opportunity to do so. Cotton’s become a complete guard when Providence needed him most, and he may be the Big East’s MVP to date. It should be fun to see how he plays as part of a true three-guard rotation once Council and Kris Dunn are healthy.
Truth No. 2: This is the perfect schedule for this team at this time.
It was clear entering the season that the Friars’ non-conference schedule was soft. As the season has gone on, the schedule is only looking weaker. The Friars are likely to play only one top-100 team (according to Kenpom.com) before Big East play and perhaps just four other top-200 teams. Only one of those four — Boston College — is still ahead.
It’s not that hard to argue that Providence, by the end of December, will have played the worst team in three other major conferences: Penn State from the Big Ten, Mississippi State from the SEC and Boston College from the ACC. Add in Rhode Island, which figures to be near the bottom of the Atlantic 10, and even the “name” opponents on the schedule aren’t imposing.
With a team so short-handed — particularly after Council’s injury — the timing of this cupcake slate couldn’t have been better. Providence hasn’t faced a team that could truly out-man it, and it has played particularly well since having some practice (and rest) time in the days following the trip to Puerto Rico. Looking ahead, there are two types teams that figure to give PC some problems until they get Council back — teams that force a lot of turnovers and teams dominate the offensive glass. Of the remaining non-conference opponents, only Mississippi State is good at either, and the Bulldogs are actually good at both.
Though the Friars are clearly the better team and are playing at home, the matchups might make Saturday’s noon tip tighter than it looks at first glance. MSU’s Roquez Johnson and Gavin Ware are terrific on the offensive glass, and Johnson, Craig Sword and Trivante Bloodman are great at drawing fouls and getting to the line. Of those three, only Bloodman is shooting better than 60 percent from the stripe, and Mississippi State has ruined its offense with constant turnovers and wretched shooting. Still, the Friars will need to avoid foul trouble and hold their own on the glass. Defensively, Johnson, Fred Thomas and particularly Sword are ballhawks worth being aware of. I’m sure Ed Cooley is preparing his team for a trickier than expected opponent.
With a lineup this thin, there’s always the possibility that an upset is looming, but there’s a real chance that PC could win out until conference play (a 38-percent chance based on Kenpom.com’s projections), and 9-3 should really be the minimum expectation. Providence is well positioned to, for the seventh straight season, win at least two-thirds of its non-conference games.
Lie: The Friars’ defense is really good.
Providence has held six of its first seven opponents to less than a point per possession and has been particularly stingy in the two games since returning from Puerto Rico, holding consecutive opponents to fewer than 50 points for the first time since (as far as I can tell) Dec. 3 and 5, 1992, vs. Robert Morris and New Hampshire. PC’s defense rates out as fifth best in the Big East so far when you compare their defensive play to what an average defense would be expected to do against the same competition. That’s a remarkable turnaround from last season, one that’s made a 5-2 start possible, but there’s a “but.”
On the other hand, we’ve seen something like this before. In the last six games of non-conference play last season, Providence’s defense was stifling. Against competition just a bit worse than what PC has faced so far this season, the Friars held six consecutive opponents below a point per possession. Here’s how those six games (from South Carolina through URI) last year stack up against the first seven this year.
Comparing defense-dominant stretches, last two seasons
|Stretch of Games||DefEff||eFG||TO%||DefReb||FTR|
|To Date 2012-13||86.4||41.3||22.7||34.1||23.9|
A few things to note:
1) The set of opponents Providence did this to last year was actually worse offensively than PC’s opponents this season. This year’s opponents are, on average, as good offensively as the 200th best team in the county; last year’s group ended the season equivalent to about the 275th best offense in the nation.
2) The Friars have been highly successful defending the 3-pointer this season, holding opponents to just a 23.9 percent 3-point shooting percentage, good for 16th in the country, this despite playing a majority of zone. The problem with 3-point defense this good is that it tends to regress — heavily. Ken Pomeroy has shown that defenses have plenty of control over how many 3-pointers their opponents take but relatively little control over how many they make.
3) PC has, surprisingly, been able to turn over its opponents more often during this year’s run while sending those same opponents to the line less often, and, besides the 3-point defense, much of PC’s stinginess is attributable to forcing turnovers. Unfortunately, steals are highly correlated to turnovers forced (a correlation of .82 last season for the math nerds) and the Friars are not getting many steals (PC is 114th in turnovers forced vs. 230th in steals), so, all else being equal, the Friars will likely need to start getting more steals or they’ll probably start forcing fewer turnovers.
4) The main reason I wanted to compare last year’s unlikely run to this year’s was because of what immediately followed it. Providence held its subsequent opponents (all conference foes) below a point per possession just five times in 19 games. The Friars’ defensive efficiency ranked dead last in the Big East in conference play and undermined what was a pretty solid offense.
This doesn’t mean that the Friars’ defense so far this year hasn’t been quite good – it has. It also doesn’t mean that what happened in league play last year will happen again this season. There are good reasons why it might not.
First, this is a slightly larger sample against slightly better opposition. Second, just because it went sour last year doesn’t mean it will again this year. Most importantly, this year’s team has reinforcements coming. Council, Dunn and Sidiki Johnson will likely be on the floor by the start of Big East play. Dunn figures to be a plus defender and Johnson should be a boon to the team’s still-weak defensive rebounding. It’s unclear whether Council’s addition will help much defensively, particularly if it makes PC smaller by moving Cotton to the 2, Fortune to the 3 and Henton to the 4, although it will provide more depth.
Moreover, this is not to undermine the incredible job Ed Cooley has done to get this team to play effective defense with just six scholarship players. The team’s defensive play, along with the preparation that has led to it, has been remarkable and it may indeed be sustainable. And every subsequent game of good defense makes it more likely that PC has indeed transformed. But, all in all, despite starting my research for this article hoping that this defensive improvement would give strong evidence of sustainability, I’m left needing to see more to believe it.