The Season in Review: A Providence Team With Question Marks Opens the Season 2-0
Providence opened the 2021-22 season at the Dunkin Donuts Center — an arena where they hadn’t played a game in 611 days until Fairfield arrived on Nov. 9.
The Friars’ two opening week opponents — Fairfield and Sacred Heart — returned veteran cores and were expected to compete near the top of their respective conferences.
Fairfield made a run to their conference tournament title game a year prior, and returned virtually everyone in 2021-22. Sacred Heart also returned the majority of its core.
Neither ended up doing much last season. Sacred Heart was a middle of the road team in the NEC (10-20 overall, 6-12 in conference), while Fairfield tied for 8th in the MAAC (15-18, 8-12).
The Friars were an unknown in many respects. They were picked to finish seventh in the Big East, but knocked off a Final Four contender in Purdue in a scrimmage in October. Some may have brushed aside the result of a scrimmage, but in post-season interviews, several PC players pointed to how hard-fought that game was, and how it provided a confidence boost for them.
The Stags gave Providence a bit of a scare in the opener, a game played in front of 9,990 at the Dunk. PC jumped out to a 42-35 halftime lead, while the two played to a 38-38 tie in the second half.
The Friars led by as many as 12 early in the second half, but a 10-0 Fairfield run made this one slightly uncomfortable.
Providence upped the defensive intensity when it had to (holding the Stags to 36% second half shooting after seeing them shoot nearly 52% in the first), and ultimately Fairfield had no one who could match up with the power of Nate Watson (22 points, 4 blocks, 10-14 from the field), or the athleticism of Al Durham (18 points, 9-12 at the free throw line).
At this point, Providence was bringing Justin Minaya off the bench (26 minutes), but the rotation was similar to what it would be for much of the season. Minaya, Durham, Watson, AJ Reeves, Jared Bynum, and Noah Horchler all played 25+ minutes, Alyn Breed saw 10, Ed Croswell nine (Croswell’s breakout game was still a few weeks away).
After shooting 62% in the first half, the Friars shot 37% in the second of their 80-73 victory.
The biggest takeaways from this one were that Watson seemed ready to dominate (he was outstanding in November), Durham brought an attacking dimension, and the crowd was lively — a precursor of what was to come.
The Friars shot 22-33 from inside the arc (66.7%), but just 4-18 from deep. They took a whopping 36 free throws.
The Friars rolled past Sacred Heart, 92-64, in front of 9,700 fans on Nov. 11, but not before Cooley called on Andrew Fonts to provide a lift when PC came out flat in the first half. Fonts responded with a corner three (his only shot of the game) with Providence trailing 25-23 midway through the first half. Brycen Goodine hit a three late in the first half to push PC ahead by seven.
The second half was a no-contest, however. After allowing Sacred Heart to make 8-18 from 3-point range, the Friars limited them to 4-15 in the second.
Four Friars scored in double figures, led by Breed’s 15 points on 5-6 shooting from the field, and 3-4 from deep. Many were vocal about Breed needing to get more minutes going forward. Watson had a 14 point, 10 rebound double double.
Once again, PC lived at the free throw line. They took 24 free throws, while shooting over 60% from inside the arc for the second straight game (21-31, 67.7%). Their 3-point efficiency jumped to 42.3% (11-26).
There was still so much we didn’t know about how this team would develop. Who would have guessed at this time that Minaya would turn into one of the best defenders in the country, Croswell would be a game-changer, or Bynum an all-league point guard?
The following week, Providence had a chance to make a statement on the road at Wisconsin…