PROVIDENCE – Ed Cooley had something he wished to get off his chest.
Call his remarks a summary of the first-semester portion of Providence’s 2013-14 hoops odyssey. “I would love to coach the team that we’ve recruited, I really would,” said the head coach, his exasperated face painting a picture of how strenuous the past six weeks have been. “For seven weeks, we prepared to play a particular style. In one day, that style had to change.”
With 10 games now in the books, there are still more questions than answers about the Friars. An 8-2 record was achieved with essentially a seven-player rotation and only two true guards at Cooley’s disposal. With those limitations, it looked like getting to the 12-day exam break would resemble a death march more than a sprint.
Efforts like Thursday’s 50-49 nail biter at URI spark a wide range of thoughts regarding the Friars and where they go from here. PC spent much of the second half holding on for dear life. The depth that Cooley and his assistant coaches thought they had collected through their recruiting efforts was back on campus in Providence, meaning it was up to Bryce Cotton & Co. to once again grind their way through.
Yes, it counts as a win, which undoubtedly made for a more pleasant bus ride from South County back to Smith Hill. But you aren’t likely to win many Big East games when you put up the kind of grisly second-half stats the Friars did – an eyebrow-raising eight field goals on 29.6-percent shooting.
“I think we’re very fortunate to win,” Cooley said.
Some long, lonely nights along the dusty conference trail could be in store if the team’s two top players – Cotton and fellow senior Kadeem Batts – perform like they did at the Ryan Center. Cotton scored 15 points on 15 shots while Batts was handcuffed by foul difficulty that led to 28 mostly quiet minutes (seven points, seven rebounds).
Of course, all was forgiven when Batts snatched an offensive rebound after Cotton had missed a layup and swished home a free throw with 22 seconds remaining and the two teams each with 49 points.
“He had a tough night, but he made the free throw to win the game. That’s all I worry about,” said Cooley. “I don’t look at what he did for 39 minutes. I love what he did for one second. He made a free throw and that was it.”
In the NFL, when teams enter a bye week, the coaching staff does a self-scouting exercise with a design toward improving the team’s play for the rest of the season. When Cooley sits down to digest what has been a whirlwind start to the season, he should first and foremost take comfort that some potentially painful win-loss consequences were avoided, thanks to players who would not let the absence of Kris Dunn, Rodney Bullock and Brandon Austin serve as a crutch.
“It’s tough with the rotation we have, but coach has emphasized playing hard and gritty,” said PC junior LaDontae Henton.
PC could have topped Maryland down in the Virgin Islands, but you also have to remember that the Friars were fortunate to survive overtime against Boston College in the season opener. The same could also be said for Brown, Vanderbilt, La Salle and URI.
The Friars succeeded in grinding out wins with limited personnel. Fans should remember that as the players hunker down for exams and the coaching staff pounds the recruiting pavement.
“This break comes at the right time,” Cooley said.
Looking ahead, the question of adding reinforcements – ones that, mind you, are already in the fold – figures to be answered by the time the Friars resume play on Dec. 17 against Yale.
No one is yet saying at this time that Dunn’s season is over. But going by the travails the sophomore has endured since collapsing in a heap in front of PC’s bench in the Nov. 2 exhibition game against Rhode Island College, the growing sentiment appears that this could end up proving a lost year for the lone true ballhander on the roster.
Asked about taking comfort in PC’s strong start amidst the tumult of player movement, Cooley immediately launched into an ode to a PC player whose absence has clearly been felt.
“I miss coaching Kris and his smile. I miss his energy, his fun nature and playmaking ability,” Cooley said. “Not having him in the lineup, we need to play a different way.”
Despite various rumors, the reason for the season-long suspensions that were dealt out to Bullock and Austin remains an exercise in speculation. Mum continues to be the word from the college and that will likely hold true until exams are over.
It goes without saying that having so many absentees places more of a burden on everyone else. Just ask Cotton, who’s being asked to shoulder the point-guard duties in addition to scoring at a high level.
“I expect to see (teams throw waves of defenders at Cotton) as long as we’re with the rotation we’re at,” Cooley said. “Cotton may lead the world in minutes played. The world, not the league.”
Even though Dan Hurley’s Rams didn’t face PC’s complete squad, the Rhody coach feels that there are enough pieces in place for the Friars to be conference-title contenders – at least if they were in the Atlantic 10.
“I think they would represent what would probably be the top of our conference,” Hurley stated.
The problem for the Friars is that Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova and Creighton are on deck after the first of the year. That stretch will determine when and if the tide turns for Cooley’s crew.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03