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Providence 2019-2020 preview: Is Ed Cooley a good coach?

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I asked sincerely like three and a half years ago and Providence fans have been yelling at me about it ever since.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Villanova vs Providence
"Even I don't know at this point!"
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“Is Ed Cooley a good coach?”

I tweeted that out in innocence and purity of heart sometime late the night of March 17, 2016. Providence had just slid by USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament thanks to the Trojans choosing not to guard the basket on a baseline out of bounds play. That stroke of fortune gave Cooley his first - and to date only - NCAA tournament win in 13 years as a D1 head coach.

Cooley doesn’t bring a lot of flash to his teams. On offense, he runs a methodical series of flex-based sets, trusting the motion of the offense and the talent of his players to make up for the fact that he’s running a base everyone learned in fourth grade. His defenses have been consistently solid. After his first year at Providence, he hasn’t landed a team outside the top 100, and each of his last five seasons have ended comfortably inside the top 50. Like his offense, it’s all steak, no sizzle. There aren’t presses or funky zones, just forcing tough shots and making teams work to get them.

In 8 years at Providence, his average finish in the KenPom is 3 spots lower than his average start. In other words, his teams generally land about where they were projected to be when the season jumped off. That’s not (necessarily) an indictment, just an observation.

This year, Providence is preseason #31 in the KenPom. If he employs the Ed Cooley Stasis Ray again, look for the Friars to be just on the safe side of the bubble come March.

Friars fans can be forgiven for wanting more out of this year than another 7-10 seed and first round exit. The losses from last year amount to Makai Ashton-Langford, a former top-50 recruit who never found a fit as Cooley’s PG, and Isaiah Jackson, a reliable and efficient wing who churned out three solid seasons after transferring in from George Mason.

Coming back us everyone else. Alpha Diallo is a do-everything four who gets the hype Naji Marshall deserves, probably because he averaged 16/8/3 last year. Nate Watson is a burly 6’10” post who averaged 12 and 5, protected the rim, never turned the ball over, and sucked down offensive rebounds like someone was offering him the rights to his own name and image to do it.

AJ Reeves and David Duke are a pair of top-50 big guards hitting their sophomore years, and half of them don’t even share a name with a noted member of the KKK! Reeves lost the middle of the season to injury but demonstrated his bona fides as a pure three-level scorer when healthy. Duke has some serious turnover problems that are mitigated by the fact that he spent some time out of position as a PG, but he was still a freshman starting every game in the Big East and averaging 7/3/2.

Maliek White is a 6’1” senior PG who will be a useful veteran bench piece; he’s also a career 34% shooter from deep. Kalif Young is a senior center who plays at 6’9”, 250. He crushes the boards and protects the bucket on the defensive end. His most valuable offensive skill is recovering his teammates’ misses.

I almost forgot 6’7” forward Emmitt Holt, who is a bit of a wild card. He averaged 13 and 5 in 2016-17 but lost most of the last two years to injury. Granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA, he could be a force if he’s healthy.

Adding to all that is grad transfer Luwane Pipkins, a 5’11” PG who spent three years at UMass averaging 16/4/4 and hitting 35% of his threes. He struggled a bit as an extremely high-usage guy for the Minutemen, but he adds a dimension at the point that Providence’s PG-reliant offense lacked last year. Greg Gantt is a 6’7” freshman forward that Providence beat Florida, Louisville, and a host of other majors to. He’s a four-star guy with potential through the roof.

Nearly 2,000 points returning. A senior leader who is a legitimate candidate for BE POY. A pair of former top-50 recruits returning and ready to make a jump as sophomores. An upperclassman anchor in the post with big bodies in reserve. Depth at every position and a quicksilver grad transfer PG ready to slide in and handle the reins. There is an embarrassment of talent on this roster.

And yet I’ve seen Providence picked anywhere from winning the Big East to finishing 7th. I guess your outlook on this team’s potential comes back to your answer to onequestion, and it’s the one we started with: is Ed Cooley a good coach?

Why Providence can beat Xavier

Defense. The Friars don't force a ton of turnovers, but they're happy to take advantage of the ones you give them. They'll also clog the lane and let you shoot long jumpers, which is a recipe for giving Xavier trouble. I'm not a huge Alpha Diallo guy, but I'll give him his due for consistency. He scored in double figures 32 times in 34 games last year and 60 times in his 65 starts since the beginning of his sophomore year. When you can pencil him in for his and shorten the game with a methodical offense, you really take away the opponent's margin for error.

Why Xavier can beat Providence

Tyrique Jones. Ty had Nate Watson et al for lunch last year, going for 31 and 19 in two games. For all the Friars have done over the offseason both in retaining and acquiring talent, they did more or less nothing to change their reliance on Watson inside. If Tyrique is eating, he can put the Friars into a scramble that opens things up for the rest of the Muskies.