NEW YORK — If Providence is going to play at or near the level it did on Thursday for the rest of March, it will be one of the most dangerous teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The Friars (23-9) didn’t mess around, beating Butler 74-60 behind a career-high 38 points and seven boards from super sophomore Ben Bentil. Kris Dunn is Providence’s star, but Bentil has turned into, by far, the most improved player in the country. The two of them provide, arguably, the best 1-2 punch in the sport.
Dunn put up 15 points and seven assists in the win. Bentil’s 38 was four points shy of the Big East tournament record, which was set on March 11, 1994, by Connecticut’s Donyell Marshall.
“I told them in the locker room, I was a fan today,” PC coach Ed Cooley said. “Normally I’m not a fan, but today literally I was a fan to see the ball going in the net like that, and he scored it every imaginable way — drives, shots, step-backs. I’m like, man, I got to get him the ball any way I can.”
I spoke with Cooley one-on-one afterward, and he said that while Dunn is the best player in the league, Bentil is the most valuable. He also said Dunn came up to him after it was announced that he won the league’s Player of the Year award and asked why Bentil didn’t get it.
How about that move from Dunn, who will be a top-five draft pick?
It’s tough to argue with the idea of Bentil being MVP-esque. He’s now averaging 21 points and eight rebounds. He’s turned himself into a first-round draft pick. Before the season, nobody had him pegged as one of the 10 best players in the conference.
“We’re hungry,” Cooley said. “We’re trying to get better. We went through a spell where we weren’t healthy. There was a lot of question marks around our team. Our guys have some grit and fight. When people doubt you, you can’t doubt people who are hungry.”
Nearly every player of impact dealt with a virus of some sort over the past six weeks.
“We had a triage center for about four weeks,” Cooley said.
Now the team is mostly healthy (Bentil’s been dealing with a foot issue, even), and so look out. Cooley also told me Bentil doesn’t even realize how good he can be. It’s coming naturally to him — and that’s scary.
Butler was led by 17 points from Kellen Dunham. Providence swept Butler this season, winning all three games by an average of 8.3 points.
Butler’s record falls to 0-3 in the Big East tournament. The Bulldogs are now 21-10, but their at-large standing should be fine. BU has victories over fellow bubble teams Temple and Cincinnati, plus victories against Purdue and a sweep of Seton Hall, which is safely in the field as well.
Providence will play top-seeded Villanova on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in the Big East semis. The teams split the season series. Nova has a 7-1 record in Big East tourney history against the Friars, whose only win came in 1994 — when PC won the tournament.