PROVIDENCE FRIARS (13-11, 4-8)
Time: 2 p.m.
Location: Dunkin' Donuts Center: Providence, R.I.
Favorite: Louisville by 6
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 6-4
Last Meeting: Louisville won 78-63 on 1/13/07
Probable Starting Lineup
G Dwain Williams....11.4 ppg
G Jeff Xavier......12.5 ppg
G Brian McKenzie....10.9 ppg
C Randall Hanke....8.5 ppg
F Geoff McDermott...10.3 ppg
There are no two teams in the Big East headed in more opposite directions right now than Louisville and Providence. The Cards have won four straight and are beginning to live up to lofty preseason expectations, while the Friars have dropped six of seven and talk of the players quitting on embattled head coach Tim Welsh has dominated the local news.
Despite their disappointing record, one thing PC has done well all year is shoot the ball from the outside. The Friars rank second in the Big East (behind Notre Dame) in three-point percentage, while guards Dwain Williams and Jeff Xavier each rank in the league's top ten in three-pointers made and three-point percentage. While Louisville ranks second in the conference in both points allowed (59.7) and field-goal percentage defense (38 percent), the Cards surrendered 13 treys and 92 points in a loss at Seton Hall on Jan. 19, so defending the perimeter remains a point of emphasis for Rick Pitino.
The pace of the game figures to closely resemble what Louisville saw against Depaul on Tuesday night, with the main exception being that Providence plays zone and not the man-to-man the Blue Demons threw at the Cards. The Friars generally overextend in their zone and force teams to beat them on the inside, but whether or not they'll do that against a streaky-shooting U of L team that has dominated opponents in the post recently is yet to be seen.
One of the main reasons PC wants to force the action around the bucket is junior forward Geoff McDermott, a player who was right in the middle of the Big East Player of the Year race last year before injuries limited him in the last month of the season. His numbers (10.3 ppg/8.1 rpg/4.8 apg) are still solid, but he hasn't made quite the leap in his junior season that some were predicting. He has recently been battling a sore knee, and was dominated in the paint in Tuesday's loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which he only scored seven points and - more surprisingly - grabbed just three rebounds. Still, McDermott's talent is undeniable (he was offered a scholarship by Duke) and he's not going to be afraid to challenge a Louisville frontline that others have shied away from.
Xavier, a transfer from Manhattan, was expected to serve mainly as a backup for starting point guard Sharaud Curry, but Curry is out for the season with a stress-fracture in his foot, and Xavier has responded by leading the team in scoring at 12.5 ppg. He's capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor, a skill that was on display when he netted 31 points against Maryland as a sophomore in 2006. He's also a fearsome defender, who's registered a team-best 50 steals. McDermott is a talent, Williams has a pure stroke, but this is the guy Louisville has to worry about more than any other.
A player that opponents haven't had to worry about much recently is junior guard Weyinmi Efejuku. A preseason All-Big East selection, Efejuku played single digit minutes against both Depaul and St. John's, and didn't play a single second in PC's loss to Pitt on Tuesday. The insanely athletic/disgruntled player reportedly met with Welsh this week, who said he "had lost confidence" in the junior guard, but is willing to give him another chance to make an impact this season. Lord knows where that leaves Efejuku's head, but if it's where it needs to be this afternoon then he's certainly capable of being a game-changer.
Despite his team's struggles, center Randall Hanke has really started to come around recently, and currently leads the Big East in field goal percentage. He doesn't block shots or rebound as well as someone his size (6-11, 240 lbs) should, but he's scored in double digits in four straight games, including a 21-point performance in the win over Depaul. Tim Welsh needs Hanke to play inspired basketball today in order to free up both the outside shot, and space for McDermott to work.
Sophomore Brian McKenzie is another guy not afraid to let it fly from deep, but he's cooled off in recent weeks, connecting on just six of his last 30 attempts from beyond the arc. Williams, on the other hand, is shooting 50% from three over his team's last four games, and leads the team in three-point percentage at 40.9%. Both players must be marked at all times.
This is the proverbial fight or flight moment for Providence. The Friars are either going to come out ready and willing to battle for 40 minutes, or their going to to get hit in the mouth early and never be in the game after the second TV timeout.
These last three days have to have been the most difficult Tim Welsh has faced over his nine years at Providence. There have been multiple calls for his head from the local media, reports that his players have quit on him, and a statement from PC athletic director Bob Driscoll calling the Friars' season "disappointing."
It doesn't help Welsh's cause that Rick Pitino - still one of the most beloved figures on the Providence campus - is now rolling into town with one of the hottest teams in the country. If Louisville jumps out to an early lead, then things are likely to get just as ugly off the court as on it.
If PC tries to force U of L to win the game in the paint, then they will, it's that simple. The Providence guards love to extend and leave the middle open, but you simply can't beat the Cardinals that way. If the Friars fall back and try to make Louisville do what Connecticut made the Cards do, then - depending on how well the plan is executed - pulling off the upset is a possibility.
Of course any talk of an upset is contingent on Providence getting hot from the outside, something that's certainly difficult to do against a Cardinal squad much more conscious of defending the perimeter than they were three weeks ago. Williams, Xavier and McKenzie are all capable of hitting some outrageous shots, and that's exactly what a victory will require.
The Friars must also avoid giving up the cheap buckets that U of L got against like-minded Depaul. PC hasn't been highly susceptible to turning the ball over for most of the season, a trend that must continue.
CC Prediction: Louisville 84, Providence 69
Anything's possible against a team that shoots the ball this well, but I just can't see a Seton hall-type situation unfolding this late in the season.