To be at the Dunkin' Donuts Center for Notre Dame's 103-84 dismantling of Providence on Saturday afternoon was -- at least for me -- to turn the page on this group of Friars seniors. Providence, the only college basketball team with five 1,000-point scorers, had a team long on experience and short on notable performances, and it seemed they had run out of time to achieve something -- like an NCAA Tournament appearance -- out of their basketball-playing time on Smith Hill.
The defense was never there. The smart decision-making was never there. The clutch play down the stretch was never there. And so the big wins were never there either. But then Tuesday night arrived, and everything came together at once.
For five scholarship seniors -- and a fourth-year junior -- that had been around for so long and put up so many individual numbers, they left it late -- to use a soccer pundit term -- to get their first signature moment as a team. Led by a ball-hawking defense and a precise interior offense, the Friars never trailed in an 81-73 win over No. 1 Pittsburgh on Senior Night.
The biggest surprise of the night was the Providence defense's ability to contain Pitt's offense. With the possible exception of regional neighbor Boston College, there isn't another "good" team in college basketball with a worse defense than Providence's. Here is a breakdown of the Friars' opponents and their points per possession in conference play:
|at Seton Hall
|at West Virginia
|at South Florida
So, in the eight previous games against the conference's other top-10 offenses, PC had allowed at least 1.10 points per possession in every single one. The only times Providence had held any Big East team to less than even 1.05 PPP was in home wins against St. John's, DePaul, Rutgers and Cincinnati and a victory at USF. Of those five teams, four are fodder for the rest of the league, with the Bearcats standing alone as a solid team.
But on Tuesday night, against what is statistically the most efficient offense in the country, Providence allowed just 1.04 points per possession. That's not stifling defense, but it's quite good in the light of the opposition and PC's defensive track record. The biggest issue was Pitt's turnovers -- 18 of them actually, 26 percent of its total possessions. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, two players who take care of the ball as well as any forward combo in the country, combined for nine turnovers.
A lot of those turnovers led to easy Providence baskets, but -- more importantly, since the Friars don't have many ways to stop teams on defense, their ability to force turnovers helped to mask their many defensive deficiencies. Providence generally gives up a lot of open 3's, a lot of easy bunnies and a lot offensive rebounds, so PC needed as many defensive possessions as possible to end without a shot attempt.
Even apart from turnovers, PC certainly did a better job guarding than it had recently, but the Panthers still got very close to its season average in eFG and offensive rebounding. Of course, with the Friars' defensive problems, one might have expected Pitt to far surpass its season averages, so kudos to the Friars for keeping Pitt in check in those other areas, but their ability to force turnovers was really the difference between winning and losing on Tuesday.
What Providence's offense on Tuesday exposed a Pittsburgh team that has been getting by on a defensive reputation for a couple of years while the actual defensive performance has lagged far behind the rep. It's not that the Panthers are not good on defense, but they're much better on offense, where the bruising reputation is still legitimate thanks to Blair's ability to dominate offensively in the paint and on the glass. On defense, Pitt is good at rebounding and keeping its opponents off the foul line, but the Panthers don't turn over their opponents nor do they play phenomenal field-goal defense.
What was surprising on Tuesday, though, was not so much that the Friars scored some points, as they are a good offensive team, (Their 1.16 per possession is remarkably high, though.) What was surprising is that the Friars attacked inside. Providence is a team that likes to take a ton of 3's and was facing a team that tends to keep its opponents out on the perimeter. The Friars, though, refused to settle for the 3-point shot, attempting just three in the entire second half -- they made them all. PC was 5-for-12 on the game. If they had kept to their season pace in attempting 3's, the Friars would have shot seven or eight more 3-pointers, perhaps at the expense of their interior scoring.
The Friars' best offensive trait is, in fact, their interior shooting, but they are often too willing to eschew the inside game in favor of bombs away, especially once they fall behind. But PC never fell behind on Tuesday, and that allowed Geoff McDermott (six assists), an exceptional interior passer, and Jonathan Kale (two assists), who was not too shabby himself on Tuesday, to create for each other and teammates en route to 43 points in the paint and 29 free-throw attempts (a few of the latter, of course, game in late-game fouling situations). The Friars had 18 assists on 27 made baskets. Pitt's defense usually stifles interior play, but it had no answer for seniors McDermott (11 point on 4-of-5 shooting), Kale (13 points) or Randall Hanke (10 points).
With the No. 1 ranking soon to be gone again, Pittsburgh now has to go home and work on its defense. Providence's ability to move the ball on the interior for layups despite having frontcourt players who are either short or thin -- it's not like the Friars are trotting out Samardo Samuels and Earl Clark -- has to be foreboding for Panthers fans. Pitt's defensive rotations were a step slow, especially when being broken down off the dribble. McDermott was able to create for himself and his teammates, and good-passing forwards like McDermott and Terrence Williams have given the Panthers problems. Williams had 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists the first time Pitt was knocked off its No. 1 national ranking.
As far as long-term outlook, this win may eventually be the determining factor in moving the Panthers down to a No. 2 seed, but I think they remain a No. 1 for now. As far as the NCAA Tournament, this win does put a hole in any (unlikely) aura of invincibility that Pitt may have had, but Jamie Dixon's squad will continue to be suspect come tourney time, as it has never gotten past the Sweet 16. Of course, entering last March, pundits wondered whether Bill Self had what it took to get past the Elite Eight, and no one is wondering about that anymore. It just takes one or two big performances to rewrite history -- just ask the Friars.
For Providence, this win isn't just the signature victory these seniors have sought for four years -- five in Hanke's case -- and the first eye-opener of the Keno Davis Era, but it was also the signature win that their NCAA Tournament résumé desperately needed. I still think the Friars are on the outside looking in with two games to play, but it will be hard to keep Providence out if it wins a couple more games between now and the end of the Big East Tournament. A win over Pitt to go with a 10-8 Big East record and another in the Big East Tournament will be a hard profile to exclude despite an RPI that would likely still be in the 60s.
Whatever happens between now and Selection Sunday, though, these maligned upperclassmen have cemented their Providence College basketball legacy with one night of inspired play.