Nate Watson

Nate Watson returns to Providence for a fifth season with the Friars. The 6-10 center led PC in scoring (16.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg) last season. | Sun file photo

PROVIDENCE — Does older translate to better? If you’re Ed Cooley and the Providence College men's basketball team, you’d better dust off that prayer book and hope that’s the case.

Time will tell if a group of players who collectively ooze experience will help PC return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018, when current Friar Nate Watson was a freshman. What is clear is that for every graduate student and traditional fourth-year senior on the roster, the Friars begin the season locked in when it comes to a rotation that Cooley figures to lean upon heavily.

You have Watson along with A.J. Reeves, Noah Horchler, Jared Bynum, Ed Croswell, Alyn Breed and Brycen Goodine. All were in the fold last season when PC limped to a 13-13 finish that culminated with a first-round ouster from the Big East Tournament against seemingly always rebuilding DePaul.

The transfer carousel spun around a few times before yielding two players — Al Durham and Justin Minaya — who know what it’s like to play in big-time environments and should help the cause albeit through very different means.

Traditionally, the best Friars teams under Cooley’s watch are the ones where he’s had to rely on a finite group. We’ve already referenced nine players — perhaps one off the ideal number for rotational purposes. The larger point is that for the first time since the iron Friars teams that were piloted by Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton, Providence heads into Tuesday’s 7 p.m. home opener against Fairfield with a firm handle on whom they figure to be able to count on.

“I’ve got a good feel for who we are, but you don’t know until the ball goes up for real,” Cooley said. “Having a senior-laden team and kids who have been in high-level games … I’m excited to see the growth of A.J. and Jared. I’m excited for the additions of Minaya and Durham. Can Nate become a first-team All-American? Can A.J. lead the team with his enthusiasm and energy? Can we get production from guys coming off the bench?”

Clearly the coach has his share of questions. In the eyes of this scribe concerning the 2021-22 Friars, the sun will rise and set when considering the following two questions.

1. Are the Friars going to be able to make outside shots?

In this area, there’s nowhere to go but up. Per KenPom, last year’s 32% efficiency ranked 250th out of the 347 Division I teams that didn’t opt out of the season. Save for Reeves, Horchler and the departed David Duke, no one cracked double figures in made 3-pointers.

The Friars of a year ago had a hard time keeping teams honest because of their struggles from the outside. In turn, it proved to be all the more inviting to run multiple defenders at Watson, the scoring big who averaged a shade under 17 points but never seemed to score with much ease.

If Watson is going to take that All-American leap that his coach believes is his destiny, he needs teammates such as Reeves and Horchler to be regular threats with the 3-ball. The Friars also need Breed and Goodine to supply some form of an outside touch when their number is called. Bynum doesn’t have to be lights out, yet he can’t be connecting at last year’s paltry 12% clip from beyond the arc.

To replace Duke, the Friars went out and landed a player who may prove to be a better offensive fit. Durham was a regular member of Indiana’s starting group during his final three years in Hoosier-ville. He never failed to hit fewer than 35% of his attempts from 3-point land.

If the Indiana version of Durham comes through crystal clear in a Friars uniform, and Reeves and Horchler are able to provide some cover, the Friars could be a load to handle with a certain big man waiting to pounce upon catching the ball close to the rim. Otherwise, Watson’s quest to produce may rival the level of difficulty that he ran into at times last season.

2. Are the Friars going to be better defensively?

With KenPom once again serving as our trusty guide, Providence’s defense took a substantial turn for the worse last season compared to the 2019-20 campaign. At 96.6, PC ranked 74th in adjusted defensive tempo, major slippage compared to the previous year’s group that finished 27th in the same category (92.8). They finished a half-point away from surrendering 70 points per Big East contest and were outrebounded by conference opponents by an average of 0.6 per game.

If there was a bright spot, it’s that PC limited opposing Big East teams to 28.7% efficiency from three.

Numbers aside, the Friars of a year ago never seemed to display the grit and determination that have been defining characteristics under Cooley’s watch. They were noticeably missing a defensive catalyst who helped set the tone for everyone else on the floor.

As important as the pickup of Durham was from an offensive point of view, bringing aboard Minaya figures to help PC get back to Cooley’s defensive-minded culture. At 6-foot-7, he could be the Swiss Army knife of the defense as it relates to guarding tall players and shorter ones — sometimes within the same possession.

“I love coaching players who can play multiple positions on offense, but more importantly, those who can guard multiple positions defensively,” Cooley said. “I think Minaya along with a couple of other guys will be able to switch certain ways. We’ll be able to change our defenses. I think we’ll be able to pressure the ball a little bit when we need to, but he gives us some versatility as well as some size and strength.”

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