The entire tenor of the Providence College basketball program changed for the better when Kris Dunn turned down a spot in the first round of the NBA Draft to return for his junior season.
With Dunn leading the way, the Friars have the returning Big East Co-Player of the Year, a National Player of the Year candidate and the type of leader who can carry a team a long way. Can that Dunn-led path lead all the way to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth? That’s certainly the plan for Dunn and coach Ed Cooley’s young team. The Friars won 11 Big East games and finished 22–12 overall, but as Dunn walked off the floor after a bitter NCAA loss to Dayton, he vowed to get back to the big stage and win.
There is talent, but not much size, in these Friars. Dunn could make players such as Ben Bentil, Jalen Lindsey and Rodney Bullock known commodities around the Big East this season as Providence fights to find a way to remain in the mix near the top of the conference.
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
The unexpected transfer in mid-May of 7'2" center Paschal Chukwu cemented the fact that no Big East team lost more up front than the Friars. LaDontae Henton’s 2,000 points/1,000 rebounds were already gone, as were the 7-foot defense of Carson Desrosiers and scoring skills of Tyler Harris, who bolted for a one-year transfer to Auburn.
That leaves precious little size up front, but Cooley says he likes his options. The leader will certainly be Bentil, a powerfully built 6'9" bruiser who came on like gangbusters late in his freshman season. He banged his way to five double-doubles in the season’s final dozen games, including 26 points and 23 rebounds in two Big East Tournament games. The problem is that Bentil may just be the team’s center, which will only be a problem on defense. The June addition of wide-body freshman Quadree Smith will turn out to be huge if he can eat up some minutes in the lane.
Bullock was a prep star in Virginia back in 2013 but was suspended as a freshman and then sustained a season-ending knee injury last October. Cooley says that if healthy, Bullock would have played a key role last season attacking the rim and hitting the backboards.
Lindsey and freshmen Ryan Fazekas and Ricky Council will all fight for time at the small forward spot. Cooley would love to play two of them at the same time frequently, especially if they show they can rebound effectively. Lindsey, a top-100 recruit from Tennessee, averaged a disappointing 3.8 points and 1.5 rebounds as a freshman, though he did score 12 points in a season-high 39 minutes in the NCAA loss to Dayton.
Providence Friars Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-12, 11-7 Big East
Postseason: First round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Big East Projection: 5
Postseason Projection: First round
First with Bryce Cotton and now with Dunn, Cooley has enjoyed pointing the best guard in the Big East in the right direction and watching him make history. Cotton led the Friars to the Big East title in 2014, and Dunn carried the load in ’15 and now may just be the best point guard in the country. Dunn was third in the country in assists (7.5 apg) and fifth in steals (2.73 spg) a year ago while averaging 15.6 points. If can find a way to cut his turnovers — he led the nation with 138 — and make more than 68.6 percent of his free throws, the results this season will be scary.
“Kris is the best player in the country, in my opinion,” says Cooley. “He can carry us, for sure, but our guys need to learn to play off him. We lost an awful lot, especially the leadership of LaDontae. We need a whole lot of guys to step up to replace him.”
Kyron Cartwright started eight games alongside Dunn as a freshman and will find a way to play major minutes again. Junior Lomomba is a tough defender, and Cooley will find out if redshirt Tyree Chambers or freshman Drew Edwards is ready to help.
Key Losses: C Paschal Chukwu, F Carson Desrosiers, F Tyler Harris, F LaDontae Henton
Top Players: G Kris Dunn, G Junior Lomomba, G Jalen Lindsey, F Ben Bentil, F Rodney Bullock
Indiana sharpshooter Ryan Fazekas committed to the Friars before his junior season and was a Mr. Basketball finalist. Baltimore guard Drew Edwards can play both backcourt spots, and Ricky Council can add needed wing shooting. Late pickup Quadree Smith is 285-pounds big and needs to help right away.
Providence fans are about to find out just how far the best point guard in the country can lead a team. Without Dunn, the Friars would hover near the bottom of the Big East. With their star dominating the ball, and a few young players ready to blossom, the Friars should find a way to stay in the upper half of the conference.