Ed Cooley and his PC Friars face a St. John's squad that like them is seeking to improve their NCAA Tournament chances.
NEW YORK â€” At this point of the season, Kadeem Batts and the rest of his teammates are dealing with information overload when the discussion turns to the Friars and their NCAA Tournament prospects.
Like every other Providence College basketball follower, Batts is keeping abreast of the latest developments via watching games on TV, checking out bracket-bubble updates online and hearing all sorts of prognostications on where the Friars stand in their quest for the programâ€™s first NCAA berth since 2004.
Depending on how long PC lasts at the Big East Tournament, it would behoove the players to stick cotton â€“ no pun intended â€“ in their ears and ignore what the non-selection committee plebeians are spouting.
â€śThereâ€™s been bubble talk for a while now, but weâ€™re not focused on that,â€ť said Batts earlier this week in preparation for Thursdayâ€™s quarterfinal-round contest at Madison Square Garden against a dangerous St. Johnâ€™s squad who like PC also needs to make headway this week in order to feel comfortable come Selection Sunday.
â€śWe talk about it all the time, but we donâ€™t specifically talk about Joe Lunardiâ€™s first four (teams) in and last four out,â€ť added Batts, referencing the noted ESPN bracket guru and his frequent updates regarding the Field of 68. â€śWe talk about our chances of winning, and that starts with one game at a time.â€ť
Itâ€™s a tired clichĂ©, but taking care of business against the Red Storm is a priority of the highest regard. Both PC and St. Johnâ€™s have matching overall records (20-11) and Big East marks (10-8) along with RPIs in the 50s (Latest figures on ESPN.com has the Friars at No. 55 with the Johnnies four spots behind).
â€śWeâ€™re looking at St. Johnâ€™s right in the eyes and theyâ€™re looking at us in the eyes,â€ť said coach Ed Cooley.
Added Bryce Cotton, â€śWe look at it as if itâ€™s going to be us or them just like some of the other pressure games have been, but this one is the biggest one of them all.â€ť
This game was pegged as a â€śbubble watch gameâ€ť as soon as the conference tourney pairings were determined, and with good reason. For a change of pace, letâ€™s break away from all the hand-wringing in reference to what the fallout from Thursdayâ€™s outcome will mean to both sides.
Instead, letâ€™s hone in on several key storylines that figure to take center stage under the big top, a ka â€śThe Worldâ€™s Most Famous Arena.â€ť
If Providence is going to become a featured attraction at the Garden, Cotton has to follow in the footsteps of the Big East Tournament heroes of yesteryear. The senior who Cooley never seems to pass up an opportunity to dub â€śSupermanâ€ť must strap on a cape and go on an individual spellbinding run along the lines of Syracuseâ€™s Gerry McNamara in 2006 and UConnâ€™s Kemba Walker three years ago.
As McNamara and Walker will attest, it takes a special sort to put a team on your back and rinse and repeat over the course of several consecutive days. In each aforementioned year, they took their respective teams on a voyage that began amidst clouds of improbability and culminated with a net-cutting ceremony under MSGâ€™s bright lights. Each player delivered big shot after big shot with a few buzzer beaters tossed in for good measure.
As the Big Eastâ€™s second leading scorer and top assist man, Cotton is a prime candidate to follow in McNamara and Walkerâ€™s shoes. The only thing that could potentially hold him back wonâ€™t be St. Johnâ€™s or any other Big East foe the Friars could face this week. It would be himself.
An unselfish sort who hesitates to force shots at the expense of creating opportunities for others, Cotton needs to keep his foot on the pedal right from the opening tap. A repeat performance from last Saturdayâ€™s blowout at Creighton â€“ Cotton ended the first half scoreless on three shots before exploding for 23 points in the second half â€“ simply cannot happen.
â€śAs much as I want to give (Creighton) credit, I think Bryce was Bryceâ€™s problem. He wasnâ€™t urgent enough early and then when he did get urgent, he was unstoppable,â€ť said Cooley. â€śHe tries to let it come to him, but we need him to be Superman in this tournament in order for us to advance.
â€śWe would like to see Bryce become Kemba, but this kid has had a magical season and I think a storybook ending would feature him playing well at Madison Square Garden and advancing the Friars,â€ť the PC mentor added.
This may fall under the category of â€śmuch ado about nothing,â€ť but hereâ€™s a few interesting stats regarding Batts, the fifth-year senior. In PCâ€™s 10 Big East wins, he averaged 13.6 points. In the eight league losses, it dropped to 11.5 ppg.
Following PCâ€™s win at home against Georgetown in January, Cooley was asked if Batts fits the description of someone whose individual output can be directly correlated to a teamâ€™s win-loss record. The coach tried his best to downplay the suggestion, but the numbers donâ€™t lie: Getting production from Batts represents a strong indicator of Friar success.
Batts averaged 16 points and 9.5 rebounds in two meetings against the Red Storm.
â€śThe last time out against them, we established Kadeem early. Heâ€™s an outside threat whoâ€™s got to play for us,â€ť said Cooley. â€śTalking to Cotton and Kadeem who are our two lead seniors, thereâ€™s really no tomorrow. Itâ€™s do or die.â€ť
â€śIf my shots arenâ€™t falling, that just means Iâ€™m going to have to be creative and use a variety of ways to score rather than going just straight up,â€ť Batts stated.
Like Providence, St. Johnâ€™s has endured a rollercoaster of a season. Dealing with players working their way back into flow from offseason surgery and suspensions while trying to integrate new pieces such as freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan, itâ€™s little wonder why St. Johnâ€™s dropped five straight to begin Big East play.
The next 13 conference games were a vastly different story as St. Johnâ€™s â€śstormedâ€ť its way to a 10-3 finish. PC split its two regular season meetings with the Red Storm, though itâ€™s the second meeting that Cooley figures to drive home with his players. On Feb. 4 in Providence, St. Johnâ€™s built a 19-point lead midway through the first half before holding on for an 86-76 win.
â€śTheyâ€™ve formed a cohesive unit. Jordan is playing at a high level and (Dâ€™Angelo) Harrison is arguably one of the best scorers in the Big East,â€ť Cooley pointed out. â€śTheyâ€™re no longer a work in progress.â€ť
â€śYou can tell that their mojo is clicking and their chemistry is a lot better,â€ť said Cotton.
In essence, the Friars wonâ€™t have the luxury of playing their first Big East Tournament on a neutral floor. Madison Square Garden serves as St. Johnâ€™s primary base of operation.
â€śYouâ€™re playing them in a building where theyâ€™re comfortable,â€ť said Cooley. â€śWeâ€™re looking at this as more of a road game than the Big East Tournament.â€ť
Echoed Cotton, â€śIt is a home-court advantage, but we canâ€™t get too caught up in that.â€ť
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03
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