PROVIDENCE — Ed Cooley came to Providence College armed with the reputation of being a defensive, get-after-it coach. The five years he spent at Fairfield’s helm suggested that after a seemingly endless run of witnessing the Friars languish in the bottom tier in Big East team defense, more than lip service would finally be paid to an area that statistically speaking has been a major deficiency.
In the six PC seasons that preceded Cooley’s arrival, the Friars in the 16-team Big East finished dead last in defense an unsightly three times (2006, 2009, 2010). Taking into account both non-conference and conference games, the highest finish a Friar team managed was 13th in 2008.
Expanding further, not a single one of those six aforementioned Providence squads managed to hold opponents to less than 70 points.
For the curious, the era under the microscope includes the last three years of Tim Welsh’s reign and all three of the seasons that made up Keno Davis’ unforgettable PC stint. For comparison’s sake, here are the defensive points per game Fairfield surrendered during Cooley’s tenure:
2006-07 – 64.7 ppg
2007-08 – 68.9 ppg
2008-09 – 67.2 ppg
2009-10 – 67.3 ppg
2010-11 – 58.3 ppg
Granted, we’re comparing apples and oranges when referencing a Big East institution with one that plays its games in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Still, the emphasis Cooley placed on getting stops suggested that the 42-year-old could take those same principles that allowed him to taste success at Fairfield and apply them at his new address.
As last season got under way, Cooley quickly realized that his Friar personnel did not meet the criteria to play the type of harassing, man-to-man defense that suits him. As much as it probably pained him, the coach had to gear his scheme around zone principles that would place the players in a more comfortable position. The result: Cooley’s first PC squad gave up 69.2 points, which is a victory unto itself considering just about all the players were in place for the 2010-11 season, when the Friars under Davis surrendered 75.3 ppg.
Fast forward to the just-completed preseason camp, where Cooley and his assistants spent much of the time stressing how to construct a zone that protects the limited numbers the Friars will have available when the program’s 86th season tips off Saturday afternoon. All told, Cooley will have seven scholarship players at his disposal against the New Jersey Institute of Technology, meaning playing zone defense is born out of necessity more than anything else.
“We’ll give teams multiple looks, but on our depth alone, we need to be wary of foul trouble and injuries,” Cooley stated. “We need to be a chameleon and be able to adjust to everything.”
(As an aside, the 2010-11 Fairfield team that rewrote the book on stinginess featured nine regulars who averaged more than 10 minutes, meaning Cooley had a few more fouls to play with as opposed to his current arrangement at Providence, where keeping Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton on the floor is vital to any chance the Friars have in making noise this season.)
While Cooley quickly brushed aside the idea that playing zone can protect a team foul-wise, he did note that zone defenses have a way of making opposing teams run through their checklist of potential options before executing. “It definitely slows the pace down and makes people think a little bit more. Plus, they aren’t able to go right at the guys who are in foul trouble.”
In zone, you’re only as effective as the ball pressure applied by the guards, i.e. clogging up the passing and driving lanes. Such a mandate is one Council took a step further, when the senior talked about the other defensive areas where PC’s backcourt is expected to chip in.
“Coach has put a lot on Cotton and myself to stop guards from (penetrating),” Council shared. “It would be better if the two of us can get four rebounds per game so we can push the break. We need to help out the bigs.”
Should the Friars’ first line of defense be subjected to breakdowns, the onus will fall on a backline that will see the spotlight shine on red-shirt sophomore Brice Kofane, a 6-foot-8 forward who possesses the necessary long arms that a shot blocker needs. Kofane registered a team-best 42 blocks a season ago, a sum that figures to only grow now that he along with the rest of the Friars have spent extended time in Cooley’s system.
“He definitely has to play the role (of eradicator) for our team,” noted Council about Kofane. “He has to be our anchor and best communicator.”
Added Cooley, “Brice has to be that interior presence for us, but Kadeem (Batts, a junior) has to be a force. They’re two different athletes, but we need both of them to play at a high level in order for us to compete.”
Cooley understands that a small roster in terms of actual numbers will not always handicap him. The second semester addition of Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson will bolster the frontcourt, and if freshman prospect Kris Dunn is fully recovered from shoulder surgery, PC’s scholarship body count would grow to nine.
Until the cavalry comes, the mission when digging in defensively is simple.
“It all starts with ball pressure with help defense and rebounding also serving as the keys,” summarized Cooley about the high notes his zone-adhering Friars must hit. “If we do all those things, we’ll have success as far as our transition offense.”
Saturday’s PC opener at The Dunk had all the trappings of a hometown boy playing before the hometown crowd. Instead, Ricky Ledo will watch from bench, continuing to carry out a season-long penance that was authorized by the NCAA.
Having been ruled ineligible, the Providence native Ledo has traveled many roads on his way to docking on Providence’s campus. While playing competitive hoops won’t be on the youngster’s itinerary in 2012-13, Cooley was adamant in how Ledo can grow as a person in the months ahead.
“To acclimate him to the college environment and academic rigors along with what it is like to be in a practice that’s really intense, I think it will help Ricky tenfold,” Cooley said. “I look at him as one of our kids who’s from Providence and needs to stay here. He’s somebody who’s going to benefit in the long run.”
Ledo’s support staff extends to the PC players with Council saying, “Every day we’re pushing Ricky in practice like it’s gameday. We’re looking to keep him motivated.”