How should we size up the Providence College men's basketball team that enters the home stretch of the regular season with a .500 overall record (11-11) and a 7-9 mark in Big East play?
Who better to pose said question to than Joe Hassett, the former Friars long-distance shooter extraordinaire who always demonstrates the importance of analytical syntax whenever he’s broadcasting a PC hoop game on the radio.
Granted, Hassett hasn’t been able to lay eyes upon the Friars too often courtesy of COVID-19. Wednesday night's contest against Xavier was the fourth straight home game that he and longtime radio partner John Rooke were on the call from a vantage point inside Alumni Hall. For road games, Rooke and Hassett paint the picture while stationed in a room located in the Ruane Friar Development Center.
Before digging into the Friars, Hassett took a timeout during which he offered some big-picture thoughts about an unorthodox college basketball season that continues to compete amid the backdrop of a global pandemic.
“Look at all the programs around the country. It’s been a tough year for everyone to find some semblance out of the season,” Hassett said when reached Tuesday. “I wouldn’t want to be these guys. It has to be so hard. You practice and go back to your room. It has to be a thrill to go on the road just to get out of your room, but then you’re playing in an arena when there’s no one there. From a motivational standpoint, it has to be very difficult. I feel for the players, I really do.”
Pivoting to David Duke, Nate Watson and their PC running mates, Hassett said, “They had some weaknesses [heading into the season]. They didn’t have a lot of experience. You can’t afford to have an off game from Duke or Watson with the rest of the guys they have.”
In Hassett’s estimation, the most startling development stems from the struggles on the defensive end. If the season were over right now, Ed Cooley would be lamenting a defense that, per KenPom.com, would finish outside the top 45 in adjusted defensive efficiency for the first time since 2014.
Thanks to winning the Big East Tournament, the 2014 Friars had nothing to worry about when Selection Sunday rolled around. The current edition doesn’t exactly resemble NCAA Tournament timber, hence there’s a boom-or-bust aura that entails winning the entire prize that’s still scheduled to be offered inside Madison Square Garden from March 10-13.
Back to the state of Providence’s defensive doldrums, Hassett said, “Normally, Ed’s teams are pretty good. This year, they’ve been sporadic. They haven’t been able to stop people when they’ve needed to get stops. The games they’ve won, they’ve played pretty decent defense … mixing things up with a three-quarter-court press and falling back into zone before switching to man.”
Hassett counts two good on-ball defenders on the roster: Duke and freshman guard Alyn Breed.
“They can play their man, but Ed has always had three or four guys like that who he could throw out there and make the guy work hard,” Hassett said. “When the offense isn’t working well and the defense isn’t stopping people, that’s why you’re .500.”
Hassett was asked if he felt Jared Bynum’s 10-game absence due to a groin injury represented one of the culprits in a season that fell off the rails. Without Bynum in the lineup, Providence went 3-7 with two defeats especially hard to swallow — one-point setbacks against Xavier (Jan. 10) and Georgetown (Jan. 30). Win those games along with the Jan. 2 game against Creighton and the NCAA prospects would be rosy as opposed to thorny with time winding down in the regular season.
“They’ve been there all year. That’s been the frustrating thing,” Hassett said.
Bynum's subtraction for a lengthy period opened the door for a youngster who has Hassett excited about what lies beyond this season.
“Bynum would have helped, no question about it. He’s a solid point guard,” Hassett said. "But without him, you saw the emergence of Breed. I think Breed is a terrific player. He’s going to be a good player at Providence. He understands the game. He takes the situation and doesn’t overanalyze. He has a nice jump shot and handles the ball well. He’s a good defender. He knows how to play. I can’t emphasize that enough. He doesn’t get rattled.”
Sizing up Duke, who’s mixed in good games with bad ones, Hassett said, “in his defense, he plays a lot of minutes. He has to take on the burden of the offense going through him. Defensively, he plays the best player on the other team. Whether it’s the point guard, the shooting guard or the three-man, he plays them. When you have to work that hard on the defensive end, your offense is going to suffer. When he comes down on offense, he thinks he has to do everything himself. When he involves his teammates, he plays better. He wants to win so bad that he takes it upon himself to do it.”
The trust factor was apparent when Duke found Breed and the latter buried a key shot in the Jan. 27 overtime home win against Marquette. Hassett would like to see that same trust extend to A.J. Reeves.
“He’s got to get more shots,” Hassett said of Reeves. “If Reeves can get it going, that would take pressure off David and Watson.”
Save for some early-season, deer-in-the-headlights moments, Noah Horchler has come around, particularly in the rebounding department. He’s on a seven-game streak where he’s pulled no fewer than five rebounds.
“Coming from North Florida, he wasn’t used to playing inside against the physicality of the Big East,” Hassett said. “I think he’s the best rebounder on the team. He’s playing more and gotten more confident.”
Wins and losses aside, Hassett believes the Friars deserve their due for avoiding — knock on wood — a COVID timeout of their own doing.
“If you think about it, that’s very impressive,” Hassett said.