By hook or by crook, through injuries and other external matters, Ed Cooley’s coaching tenure at Providence College has often borne witness to a rotation that’s been solved for him.
The distribution of minutes is child’s play when you look down the bench and see few answers staring back. You ride with the options at your disposal because frankly, what other choice do you have? For Providence, that’s exactly what happened five years ago when the march to the Big East Tournament title featured five players who averaged 30-plus minutes.
That brings us to this year’s Friar squad, one that at three Big East wins against seven defeats is flying past the danger zone of extending the program’s NCAA Tournament streak to a would-be sixth straight year. With the midway point of conference play officially in the rearview mirror, the talk of each game representing 94 feet of opportunity takes on even greater significance. Opportunities are dwindling down to a precious few. Hence if you’re a team in PC’s position, you can’t afford to take on more water.
Other than putting the ball in the hoop, a glaring problem for Providence throughout Big East play, what else can Cooley do in order to reverse the trend of taking up the residence within the crawl space of the conference’s standings? The coach can’t put on a uniform and join Alpha Diallo on the court, though Cooley can dictate who steps out there with Diallo and for how long.
In other words, it’s time for Cooley to settle on a finite number of Friars. The rotation needs to be pared down to a manageable amount. Decide on a starting five and three subs and hope that through continuity, better results will come.
Playing everyone is all well and good when it’s the non-conference and the primary mission is finding out what works and what doesn’t. Here it is, the second weekend in February, and Cooley still finds himself juggling his starting lineup and rotations. The troubles of continuing the season-long trend of using everyone were on full display during Wednesday’s 76-67 loss against Georgetown. Eleven scholarship players saw action. Nine of them logged 13 or more minutes. The seventh different starting five of the season was used. Nothing seemed to work, stick, or jell as the Hoyas saddled the Friars their third straight defeat.
Heading into Saturday’s noontime tip against St. John’s that will take place under Madison Square Garden’s bright lights, PC has 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per outing with Drew Edwards narrowly missing the cut at 9.8 minutes. For someone who’s rarely enjoyed the coaching luxury of having depth at his disposal, Cooley is finding out that everyone’s favorite buzzword in basketball isn’t necessarily the ultimate problem solver.
“I’ve never played 11 guys before. That’s a sign that we’re still searching,” Cooley said after the Georgetown game.
It’s also a sign that no set group of players has performed well enough to play together for prolonged stretches. If one or two players find themselves in a rut, a missed defensive assignment or poor shot selection, Cooley more often than not has made the motion for a substitution, the belief that it’s always the next Friar up.
In Cooley’s defense, the process of integrating promising freshman A.J. Reeves back into the lineup remains ongoing. The Friars desperately need his shooting touch but don’t want to extend Reeves too much too soon after missing nine games with a foot injury, hence the possible desire to whittle the rotation remains on the backburner.
On the flip side, Saturday against the Red Storm will mark the fifth game for Reeves since rejoining the fold. On the surface, that would appear to be enough of a sample size for Cooley to fish and cut bait, i.e. draw a line in the sand and roll the dice with a specific number.
Any coach will tell you that it’s never easy to pull playing time away from rotation mainstays, particularly when there’s less than a quarter’s worth of games remaining in the regular season. Sometimes, however, a coach needs to put away the rose-colored glasses and have those hard conversations. After all, the name of the game is winning.
That brings us to the big crescendo. Who should Cooley peg as his eight-player group? There are some easy choices: Diallo, Reeves, Nate Watson, David Duke, and Makai Ashton-Langford. You need a backup big man, hence let’s include Kalif Young.
That leaves Edwards, Jimmy Nichols, Isaiah Jackson, Maliek White, and Kris Monroe in the mix for the two remaining spots. White (36 percent from the field) and Jackson (37 percent from the field, 29 percent from three) have been in deep shooting slumps while Nichols appears to have taken a step back since contributing seven points and six rebounds against Marquette on Jan. 20. From this pack of candidates, Edwards is the leader in the clubhouse. He rarely seems to be out of place when it’s his turn.
Monroe’s numbers suggest that the freshman should be on the outside looking in – he’s 7-of-32 from the field and 4-of-25 from three – yet he has yet to play more than eight minutes in a single game. If you’re Cooley, now seems as good a time as any to give Monroe some extended run.
That’s not to say that that guys who are outside of the aforementioned Friar group of eight can’t come back into the picture. The coach always reserves the right to change his mind. First things first as Cooley would have to make the call on calling on fewer Friars. In a season where the lineup combinations have been endless, perhaps it’s time to see if less is truly more.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03