NEW YORK — At this point of the season, Kadeem Batts and the rest of his teammates are dealing with information overload when the discussion turns to the Friars and their NCAA Tournament prospects.
Like every other Providence College basketball follower, Batts is keeping abreast of the latest developments via watching games on TV, checking out bracket-bubble updates online and hearing all sorts of prognostications on where the Friars stand in their quest for the program’s first NCAA berth since 2004.
Depending on how long PC lasts at the Big East Tournament, it would behoove the players to stick cotton – no pun intended – in their ears and ignore what the non-selection committee plebeians are spouting.
“There’s been bubble talk for a while now, but we’re not focused on that,” said Batts earlier this week in preparation for Thursday’s quarterfinal-round contest at Madison Square Garden against a dangerous St. John’s squad who like PC also needs to make headway this week in order to feel comfortable come Selection Sunday.
“We talk about it all the time, but we don’t specifically talk about Joe Lunardi’s first four (teams) in and last four out,” added Batts, referencing the noted ESPN bracket guru and his frequent updates regarding the Field of 68. “We talk about our chances of winning, and that starts with one game at a time.”
It’s a tired cliché, but taking care of business against the Red Storm is a priority of the highest regard. Both PC and St. John’s have matching overall records (20-11) and Big East marks (10-8) along with RPIs in the 50s (Latest figures on ESPN.com has the Friars at No. 55 with the Johnnies four spots behind).
“We’re looking at St. John’s right in the eyes and they’re looking at us in the eyes,” said coach Ed Cooley.
Added Bryce Cotton, “We look at it as if it’s going to be us or them just like some of the other pressure games have been, but this one is the biggest one of them all.”
This game was pegged as a “bubble watch game” as soon as the conference tourney pairings were determined, and with good reason. For a change of pace, let’s break away from all the hand-wringing in reference to what the fallout from Thursday’s outcome will mean to both sides.
Instead, let’s hone in on several key storylines that figure to take center stage under the big top, a ka “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
If Providence is going to become a featured attraction at the Garden, Cotton has to follow in the footsteps of the Big East Tournament heroes of yesteryear. The senior who Cooley never seems to pass up an opportunity to dub “Superman” must strap on a cape and go on an individual spellbinding run along the lines of Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara in 2006 and UConn’s Kemba Walker three years ago.
As McNamara and Walker will attest, it takes a special sort to put a team on your back and rinse and repeat over the course of several consecutive days. In each aforementioned year, they took their respective teams on a voyage that began amidst clouds of improbability and culminated with a net-cutting ceremony under MSG’s bright lights. Each player delivered big shot after big shot with a few buzzer beaters tossed in for good measure.
As the Big East’s second leading scorer and top assist man, Cotton is a prime candidate to follow in McNamara and Walker’s shoes. The only thing that could potentially hold him back won’t be St. John’s or any other Big East foe the Friars could face this week. It would be himself.
An unselfish sort who hesitates to force shots at the expense of creating opportunities for others, Cotton needs to keep his foot on the pedal right from the opening tap. A repeat performance from last Saturday’s blowout at Creighton – Cotton ended the first half scoreless on three shots before exploding for 23 points in the second half – simply cannot happen.
“As much as I want to give (Creighton) credit, I think Bryce was Bryce’s problem. He wasn’t urgent enough early and then when he did get urgent, he was unstoppable,” said Cooley. “He tries to let it come to him, but we need him to be Superman in this tournament in order for us to advance.
“We would like to see Bryce become Kemba, but this kid has had a magical season and I think a storybook ending would feature him playing well at Madison Square Garden and advancing the Friars,” the PC mentor added.
This may fall under the category of “much ado about nothing,” but here’s a few interesting stats regarding Batts, the fifth-year senior. In PC’s 10 Big East wins, he averaged 13.6 points. In the eight league losses, it dropped to 11.5 ppg.
Following PC’s win at home against Georgetown in January, Cooley was asked if Batts fits the description of someone whose individual output can be directly correlated to a team’s win-loss record. The coach tried his best to downplay the suggestion, but the numbers don’t lie: Getting production from Batts represents a strong indicator of Friar success.
Batts averaged 16 points and 9.5 rebounds in two meetings against the Red Storm.
“The last time out against them, we established Kadeem early. He’s an outside threat who’s got to play for us,” said Cooley. “Talking to Cotton and Kadeem who are our two lead seniors, there’s really no tomorrow. It’s do or die.”
“If my shots aren’t falling, that just means I’m going to have to be creative and use a variety of ways to score rather than going just straight up,” Batts stated.
Like Providence, St. John’s has endured a rollercoaster of a season. Dealing with players working their way back into flow from offseason surgery and suspensions while trying to integrate new pieces such as freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan, it’s little wonder why St. John’s dropped five straight to begin Big East play.
The next 13 conference games were a vastly different story as St. John’s “stormed” its way to a 10-3 finish. PC split its two regular season meetings with the Red Storm, though it’s the second meeting that Cooley figures to drive home with his players. On Feb. 4 in Providence, St. John’s built a 19-point lead midway through the first half before holding on for an 86-76 win.
“They’ve formed a cohesive unit. Jordan is playing at a high level and (D’Angelo) Harrison is arguably one of the best scorers in the Big East,” Cooley pointed out. “They’re no longer a work in progress.”
“You can tell that their mojo is clicking and their chemistry is a lot better,” said Cotton.
In essence, the Friars won’t have the luxury of playing their first Big East Tournament on a neutral floor. Madison Square Garden serves as St. John’s primary base of operation.
“You’re playing them in a building where they’re comfortable,” said Cooley. “We’re looking at this as more of a road game than the Big East Tournament.”
Echoed Cotton, “It is a home-court advantage, but we can’t get too caught up in that.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03