What Florida Can Expect From The Providence Friars

Heading to Brooklyn on Tuesday the Gators have a chance to start turning around a tough start to the season with a neutral site game against the Providence Friars.

Entering the season as one of the favorites to contend for a Big East title the team hasn’t played up to expectations and what was looking like a challenging game on the Gators’ schedule before the season that gave an opportunity for a major resume win is now looking like a bad loss they need to avoid. With their most recent game coming on December 7th against Butler the Gators have had plenty of opportunity to prepare for this contest and will be looking to sharpen up their offensive execution and tighten up their defensive communication.

Here is everything you need to know before the Gators take on the Friars.

Season To Date

Sitting at 6-5 on the season the early slate has been a bit of a disaster for Providence. In the Big East preseason poll they were picked to finish 4th, but were also a trendy pick with national media to take the league by storm and come out with the championship.

Right now, they are not looking anywhere near that trajectory.

Providence’s best wins have been …well, Pepperdine, Stony Brook, and Sacred Heart.

Their losses have come to Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State (who the Gators will play later this year), Charleston, and Rhode Island. With the exception of the road loss to Rhode Island, these were all head scratchers for an experienced team and it shows just how much this team is searching for identity and production.

According to KenPom they have had the 267th most challenging non-conference schedule in the country, yet have still managed to go 6-5.

Given the resume Providence has so far this season it’s looking like a bad loss the Gators need to avoid, and if they can get the win hopefully Providence can come together in the conference season and make a win look more impressive.

Team Experience

Providence is one of the older teams in the country rolling out 5 seniors, one of which (Emmitt Holt) is a 6th year senior and one of which (Luwane Pipkins) is a 5th year senior. All that experience on a team that made the NIT last year suggested the team would be solid this year but that certainly hasn’t been the case yet.

In addition to Holt and Pipkins seniors are big man Khalif Young, off guard Maliek White, and their star do-it-all wing Alpha Diallo.

Defense

Providence coach Ed Cooley is known for his team’s toughness and defensive identity. Always physical and gritty protecting their side of the floor they’ve gained a reputation as a team that will win games with their defense but in this early season they have yet to establish their regular level of defensive excellence.

Currently 53rd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive metric their inability to clamp down when playing mid and low majors this year has hurt them. Considering their experience mixed in with the annual reputation of defensive intensity at providence they should be better but right now they aren’t getting enough stops to make up for a below-average offense.

Schematically the Friars are a team that wants to get after their opponent and pressure them on the outside making it uncomfortable for them and difficult to run normal offense. Typically they do this by spreading their defense out and getting into passing lanes, forcing ball handlers to go one-on-one due to their passing lanes being taken away.

This is the exact formula Florida State has used with great effect against the Gators, though the Friars don’t have the same caliber of athletes. While Providence doesn’t have the same caliber of athletes as Florida State they are still quite a long team with pretty much everyone in their perimeter rotation standing in the 6’5”-6’7” range and that allows them to be aggressive.

Another way they have tried to take opponents out of their normal offense is by playing a funky zone defense that’s difficult to prepare for. Really, it’s a regular 2-3 zone but it starts in a 1-3-1 look that keeps the offense on the outside and makes it tough to get the ball into the high post (the vulnerable part of the 2-3) and instead tries to keep the ball going from guard to guard. When the ball gets to the wing they drop back into more of a traditional 2-3 look but they have the length to extend pressure and make it exceedingly challenging for opponents to generate good looks.

The last way the Friars make their opponents uncomfortable is by mixing in a full court press to try to force turnovers. Providence has been cold offensively to start the season and has needed to try to get points off their defense and they’ve done it with an aggressive press that tries to force long passes they can intercept and head the other way. If the offense is able to break the press Providence usually drops into their zone but can also get back into man.

So far they have pressed on 14.8% of their defensive possessions, and it’s gone really well for them allowing only 0.682 points per possession and 36.5% shooting from the field while forcing turnovers a whopping 28% of the time. For that reason I would expect to see them try to press the Gators and they’ll have to be ready with a press break that hasn’t looked particularly crisp when it came out earlier in the season.

Offense

Currently ranked 112th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric it’s obvious that putting the ball in the hoop doesn’t come easily to the Friars. A team that normally thrives on pounding the ball inside and getting points at the rim they are only shooting 47.4% (225th nationally) from 2-point range and haven’t been getting the layups that fueled their offense in past seasons.

Providence likes to play the flex offense, a style of basketball that originated back in the 70’s and remains to this day as a system that can generate easy layups. To put it simply, the flex offense uses back screens on the baseline for players to get free for “flex” cuts, meaning a cut across the key.

The player who sets the back screen for the flex cutter will then receive a down screen where he runs back to the guard spot for a catch and shoot opportunity or the chance to reverse the ball and run the flex action again.

When this offense works it generates easy layups at the rim or post up opportunities in deep. It’s incredibly hard to fight through back screens that close to the hoop and because the action takes place so close to the rim if the defense is even half a second behind that could mean giving up a layup.

The player on Providence that benefits from this offense the most is 6’7” wing Alpha Diallo, the leader of the Friars who will be the player to watch in Tuesday’s matchup. Because of his length he’s a distinct post up threat and the flex offense allows him to catch the ball close to the rim, usually while being guarded by a smaller player, and that means easy points at the rim. The Gators will need to have a game plan in order for how they want to guard those flex cuts and will need to communicate every time on defense when the flex action comes.

Even though the flex offense can be tough to defend the Friars have still had struggle scoring in the half court and because of that they have started to really push the ball in transition and try to score early. This is entirely out of the character of teams coached by Ed Cooley but it’s an adjustment made out of desperation that has allowed them to add a few much-needed easy buckets to their game. Over 18% of Providence’s shots have come in transition, making it one of their primary attacks and the Gators will need to be prepared to get back off their missed shots in a way they didn’t have to when they played a slower, more methodical Butler team recently. Providence is also one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers and that gives them plenty of opportunities to run as well.

Providence is scoring 0.965 points per possession in transition and only 0.838 in the half court so if the Gators can slow them down and make them take shots against a set defense they’ll be in much better shape.

Matchup Outlook

There probably aren’t any games in December that are “must win” but oh boy, this is a loss the Gators need to avoid. Providence is likely a much better team than what they have shown so far this season but considering the way their season is gone the Gators would be in a tough spot if they dropped a game to a team that lost to Long Beach State and Charleston. So far the Gators’ losses have stung but they’ve been at least somewhat understandable. A really good Florida State team early in the season, a UConn loss on the road in a tough atmosphere, and a defeat at the hands of what looks like an excellent Butler team with one of the best home court advantages in the country. If the Gators lost to Providence that would be their first loss that really would be tough to defend.

It’s a neutral site game in Brooklyn, obviously far closer to Providence, Rhode Island than Gainesville so the Friars will probably have a few more fans there but the Gators can’t allow that to be a factor.

One of the keys to the game for Florida will be to take care of the ball against the Friar pressure. Any turnover the Gators commit will give a valuable transition opportunity to Providence and Florida can’t allow them to get out into the open floor where they thrive. If this is a half court game the Gators defense will be in much better shape so they have to take care of the ball.

It seems like you could say this before any game but the Gators also need to start making shots. Their offense has honestly looked better as of late and they’ve gotten more open looks but right now Florida’s shooters aren’t converting at a percentage conducive to winning. The Gators likely aren’t going to get as many open shots against Providence as they’ve had against some of their other recent opponents so when the opportunities come they need to cash in.

If Florida can keep Providence out of transition and continue to improve offensively they should be able to nab a neutral site win.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.