16. South Florida
14. St. John's
11. Seton Hall
10. Notre Dame
9. West Virginia
(Ed. Note: At something north of 2,000 words, this post is much too long. But, as many of you know, I have a hard time restraining my passion for Providence College basketball, and I looked up at my computer screen after 45 minutes of writing and I was already at 1600 words and not nearly done. I do think that the piece is quite fair and reasoned. I've bolded first references of schools and names to help your navigation of this piece. Hope you enjoy!)
7. Providence.This is the most important winter of Tim Welsh's professional life. The third-most tenured coach in the Big East behind Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun Welsh has just two NCAA Tournament appearances, no NCAA Tournament wins and just one Big East Tournament win (particularly distasteful to Friars fans) to show for his nine years. The Friars have gone three seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance the standard measure for success on Smith Hill and if they go a fourth, you can expect Welsh to find a change of address.
It's not that Welsh doesn't have redeeming qualities as a coach he has several. Welsh has had more success in Big East Conference play than any other Friars coach since the league formed. In his nine seasons, Welsh has coached five teams to at least .500 in conference games, whereas PC experienced just six such seasons in the first 19 years of the league. He also has carried Providence to high national rankings in two of his seasons, but late-February and March swoons in both of those years undid his good work and left fans with a bitter taste. Welsh is a strong leader of the high school players he brings to Providence, and those who stay for four years are usually devoted to Welsh and the program. But many players have bristled at his stern nature, causing a series of defections over the years. The rate of Friars who have transferred away is unacceptably high, but Welsh has been able to avoid coming under too much public heat because of his deft touch with the media and the promise that success is just around the corner. Meanwhile, the die-hard fan base, which treats the team like a professional club, is steamed at his teams' performances and will be quick to turn on him this winter.
Fortunately for Welsh and his career, the coach could hardly ask for a better collection of talent to take into a make-or-break season. He did lose Herbert Hill, a fifth-year senior who became more and more indispensable as the season went on. Hill was the best scorer in the conference last year, seeming to never miss a shot with his variety of moves from within 12 feet. He scored in double figures in all but one game and capped his Big East career with 29 points and 15 rebounds against Syracuse, 28 and 16 against South Florida, 27 and 6 against St. John's and 20 and 10 against West Virginia. The Friars, though, lost three of those four games, as the supporting cast broke down around the steady Hill.
The two most important members of that supporting cast are Sharaud Curry and Geoff McDermott, part of a group of six juniors that will determine the Friars' and their coach's fate this winter. Curry had an eventful sophomore year to put it mildly. By Christmas he was among the Big East leaders in scoring and assists, but an academic violation left him sitting out four games, including an embarrassing loss to Florida State and the first two conference games (both wins). When he returned, the Friars, then 2-0 in conference, played poorly in a pair of losses at Louisville and Seton Hall, and their season never quite got turned around. Curry then injured his finger in the final regular-season game against St. John's and was ineffective in the subsequent loss to West Virginia in the Big East Tournament. Still, Curry has all-league talent, especially offensively. He is a terrific shooter (37.4 percent from deep) and a good distributor. At 5-10, though, Curry is a defensive liability against bigger guards.
McDermott has tantalized Providence fans for two years, and if he spends a third as an enigma, the Friars won't go far. Knee injuries have derailed his last two seasons, but when healthy, McDermott is the best passing forward in the conference and a superb rebounder, a candidate for a triple-double on any night (he had 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against Harvard, and 11 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists against Marquette before the knee problems). McDermott is the best Friar at getting to the foul line, but he shot just 53.7 percent last season, a figure that must improve. He also has a high basketball IQ but struggles to contain his desire to make the risky, spectacular pass. McDermott and Curry's penchant for giving the ball away prevented Providence from becoming the elite offensive team it should have been last year. McDermott had at least five turnovers in losses to Louisville, Seton Hall, Villanova and Syracuse. If McDermott is healthy and he and Curry can limit their turnovers, Providence's offense will be near the top of the Big East.
Two other juniors came to Providence two years ago, and each will play pivotal roles this winter. Weyinmi Efejuku like many of the Friars has enough talent to allow fans to dream of his high-flying act taking over the conference but not enough consistency to duplicate his performances. He'll have 18 points and 10 rebounds and then 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists in consecutive Big East wins to start the season but then muster just seven points and six rebounds combined in the subsequent two losses. He is the Friar most adept at getting to the basket, often punctuating those drives with impossible dunks or balletic lay-ups, and Friars fans can only hope that his 28-point performance at Bradley in a March NIT loss will be more norm than exception in 2007-08.
Jonathan Kale seemed like a nice enough player coming out of nearby St. Andrew's (R.I.). He played the M.L. Carr role to perfection waving the towel on the sideline and providing energy off the bench, but Kale was clearly the fourth of the four players in his recruiting class, a nice complementary piece in a class with three potential stars. But don't be surprised if it's Kale who leads the team in scoring this year. He and Curry should be the team's top two scorers with the little man providing the outside shots and running teardrops while Kale cleans up all the easy baskets and shows off his mid-range jumper. Kale was perhaps the Friars' best player in a recent trip through Italy. The generously listed, 6-foot-8 forward is a willing defender but lacking in the quickness and height to defend opposing bigs, and with Welsh's promise to play more man-to-man this season, he may find himself in that position often. Kale is like most Friars: gifted offensively but limited defensively.
We're not done discussing those juniors. Randall Hanke returns in black and white after a year's sabbatical to deal with personal issues and a hand injury. Hanke led the nation in field-goal percentage two years ago, and it was his departure that allowed Hill to emerge into an All-Big East player the two split time in 2005-06. Hanke is very similar to Hill, but I think even Welsh is curious about what he'll be able to get out of Hanke this year, mentioning that he hopes to have the lanky Manhattanite back up to speed by Christmas. Hanke is quite similar to Hill, both able to get the ball in the hoop around the rim and neither an exceptional rebounder. Hanke may actually be the better defender, using his long arms to block and alter shots. If Hanke shows he's ready, Welsh can go big with a frontcourt of McDermott, Kale and Hanke, but expect Randall to start the season coming off the bench.
There's one more junior, Jeff Xavier, a transfer from Manhattan. Xavier has added plenty of muscle to his 6-1 frame, but injuries have held him back as the Rhode Islander readies for his debut with his hometown team. Despite not being very big, Welsh is hopeful Xavier's defensive tenacity is contagious with his teammates. He also averaged 16 points, six rebounds and two steals for Bobby Gonzalez in his last year of MAAC play, so he can help in a variety of ways. Xavier gives Welsh another option when Efejuku pulls his space cadet act this season.
This breakdown may seem to inflate the reputation of players on a team that finished 10th in the Big East last season, and perhaps my emotional proximity to the Friars program has something to do with that, but I sincerely would not trade the Friars roster this year for any in the Big East, excepting Louisville and Georgetown. Welsh has a wealth of options at his disposal, and, if he's able to coax the most out of them, masking their defensive weaknesses, this club has a very high ceiling.
There are a few other players that you should be aware of, as they may also be key contributors this season. Dwain Williams is a Sharaud Curry clone in terms of body type, and his game isn't dissimilar either. He's already beaten the odds that said the California native would never make it to his sophomore season at Providence. Williams is electric offensively with exceptional quickness and a scoring punch that could explode for 20 points on any night (he had 21 in the Big East Tournament loss to West Virginia). He was third on the team in 3-pointers last season and led in percentage (44.0). He doesn't offer the distribution that Curry does and, like almost every Friar, he struggles with turnovers and defense. Without many other options last season, Welsh often paired Williams with Curry, but this season look for Welsh to play the hot hand, as these two players duplicate each other too much, and it's hard to provide any pressure at the top of the 2-3 zone with players 6-0 and 5-10 (both heights extremely generous, I should note). Williams could take a lot of Curry's run if he shows the ability to keep his teammates involved.
Another sophomore, Brian McKenzie showed the knack for the big shot last season but was streaky, as freshmen often are. He ended the season at just 30.8 percent from deep but is a much better shooter than that. Unless he shows a better defensive disposition, Xavier's arrival could squeeze McKenzie's minutes.
6-11, 275-pound Ray Hall is the third sophomore who should see minutes for Welsh. He has reportedly dropped 30 pounds, which should help his quickness. For comparison, Hall wishes he had Aaron Gray's movement. In limited action, Hall showed himself to be a good rebounder and not someone easily exploited on defense. He's surely a project who will likely see an increase in minutes stymied by Hanke's return.
The lone senior in this group is Charles Burch, who has fought back problems to stay on the floor over the last two seasons. In fact, after starting the first handful of games, he missed the final 14 games with the bad back. Burch appears to be healthy now, and, as the closest thing the Friars have to a defensive stopper, he should see the floor on those nights when Providence wants to contain an opponent's explosive wing.
Welsh brought in three freshmen, two of whom guard Marshon Brooks and forward Alex Kellogg, son of Clark will have trouble getting off the bench this season and may be candidates for a red shirt, though there are no indications of such. The one freshman that has folks talking is Jamine "Greedy" Peterson, a 6-5 slasher from Brooklyn, who is an athlete along the lines of Efejuku but with more length. He can get his offense from the wing or down low, but he'll get his way into Welsh's rotation by playing the defense this squad dearly needs.
With all the options for Welsh this year, perhaps it would be easier to look at the roster graphically. Here's what I think the depth chart looks like now less than two months before the season opens:
That's 11 players, all with something to offer a tricky balance of depth and opportunity for Welsh. At least a couple of those 11 players won't be able to get enough time to stay content.
There are few teams among the Big East's 16 conference members that are easier to evaluate but harder to predict than these Friars. We know they'll be terrific offensively with multiple answers at every position. They could even be among the nation's best offensive teams if they limit their turnovers to league average (Providence was 15th in the Big East last season). On defense, we know they won't be great, but the Friars will need to be better than last season when they couldn't turn their opponents over and were curiously poor on the defensive glass despite being the fifth best offensive-rebounding team in the country.
With his best players now juniors, Welsh has to hope his team has the experience to win close games and to win on the road (only two road conference wins in each of the last three seasons). His team has top-20 potential but could easily finish out of the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season if the parts don't gel. The season will come down to a turnover here and there, a key possession in the last two minutes, a good shot that falls or clangs. Tim Welsh would rather have something more solid to hinge his chances to, but after nine years, he's probably fortunate to have any chance at all.