Providence falls to Xavier; the Friars’ fatal flaw could be the long ball

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — One of the most anticipated home games in the history of Providence basketball wound up being yet another homecourt letdown this season for the 10th-ranked Friars.

No. 7 Xavier came into town on Tuesday night and decidely defeated PC, winning 75-68 and improving to 18-2 in the process. This was the first time Providence ever hosted a game wherein both teams were ranked in the top 10. The Dunkin Donuts Center was absolutely blasting in pregame and even a few minutes into the much-anticipated matchup. It was a great vibe and setup for the Big East.

But Xavier controlled things most of the night, thanks in good part to its irksome 1-3-1 zone. Chris Mack’s team is now 6-2 in the conference and remains one game behind No. 6 Villanova — a team Providence defeated two days prior, in Philadelphia no less — in the Big East standings.

“We might have caught Providence at a tough time,” Mack admitted afterward, referencing the quick turnaroud Providence had from Sunday’s game at Nova.

At this point, it seems clear that Villanova and Xavier are the two best teams in the league, with Providence just a notch below, then Georgetown and Butler bringing up the bottom half of the top five in the league. (All five teams have a good chance to represent the league in the NCAA tournament; this is turning into another solid year for the conference.)

Xavier got its typical balanced effort — is any top-20 team in the country as diversified with its options on offense as X? — and was led by Jalen Reynolds and Trevon Bluiett, each of whom scored 15 points, in addition to Myles Davis’ 13. X had five players score in double figures. The Musketeers are in a good spot, and with DePaul, St. John’s and Marquette upcoming on the schedule, there’s a good chance this group will be 21-2 come Feb. 7.

The Friars are building a curious case though, huh? PC got another big scoring output from big man Ben Bentil (25 points), while Kris Dunn added 16 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and seven steals. But the team was out of sorts, and Dunn was skittish with turnovers (he had four). This was an opportunity lost — a big one. With a win here, Providence probably could have moved onto the 2 line in the latest Bracketology projections. Instead, they’ve lost three of their last four at home, two of those coming to NIT chasers Seton Hall and Marquette. (Oddly enough, Providence is yet to lose on the road this season, and if that can continue, it will really suit PC well come Selection Sunday.)

Let’s look larger at Ed Cooley’s team, though. It has a glaring weakness, something I’m not sure it can mend over the next two months: 3-point shooting. The Friars started 1 for 17 from 3-point range on Tuesday, then hit a few to make it interesting late and cut the lead, but ultimately more bricked long balls buried the Friars in the closing minute.

The defining sequence came late, when PC cut the lead to 68-65 off a layup by Dunn with 1:19 remaining. Next trip down the floor, J.P. Macura coolly sank a 3-pointer to give X a cushion again. The ensuing possession saw three ugly 3-point misses, first from Dunn then from Kyron Cartwright then from Jalen Lindsey.

In the end, PC finished 7 for 34 from beyond the arc. Just awful stuff.

Mack admitted he thought his defense “confused them a little bit,” and he didn’t feel any urge to go to man-to-man because the 1-3-1 was throwing Providence off its center. Plus, you play man against Dunn, you do so at your own peril.

So 3-point shooting could be the downfall of this team. The Friars are now ranked 320th in the country in shooting from long range, making 30.2 percent of their 3s. It is the worst percentage for any projected NCAA Tournament team right now.

The Friars have the type of superstar in Dunn to lift them to a Final Four. Believe that. Especally in a season like this, wherein we’ve had so much mystery and tumult in the rankings since November. And Bentil is the most improved player in the country. He’s gone from a role player on a double-digit 2015 NCAA Tournament seed to a First Team Big East player.

But Providence is going to keep getting clipped against the best teams if it doesn’t turn its 3-point shooting around. It’s going to be hard to do that. Dunn settles for a few too many shots from deep, and his 39-percent shooting from 3 isn’t going to tick up for sure.

It’s not likely to shoot its way out of this, either. Thirty-five percent of PC’s shots come from beyond the arc. Taking more won’t mean making more. Providence is really solid, but Xavier could have provided a really nice script for how to cut off PC’s water. Zone the hell out of them, force this team into too many deep shots, and if you can contain Dunn by keeping him out of the lane, you have your answer.

Not every team will do this, and Providence is going to have a few more really nice wins over the next couple of months. But in order for this surprise story to continue, the Friars are going to have to become something a lot more consistent and under control on offense.

Xavier held off Providence's rally attempt on Tuesday. (USATSI)
Xavier held off Providence’s rally attempt on Tuesday. (USATSI)


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