Providence coach Ed Cooley likes to build season-long themes for his teams. Last season Bryce Cotton was the indefatigable point guard, but he has since left the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and Cooley now stresses LaDontae Henton, a forward he calls “Superman,” might just be the most under appreciated player in Division I.
Against Miami Monday night at the Barclays Center, Henton didn’t attempt his first field goal until seven minutes remained in the first half, but Providence’s star finished the game with 25 points, using an array of cuts to the basket, fast-break dunks, and a few mid-range jumpers. Henton’s offensive barrage helped overwhelm the ACC opponent, and PC, which scored 1.34 points per possession in the second half, defeated Miami 76-62.
The Hurricanes’ gameplan was evident from the outset. Jim Larranaga’s squad wanted to establish a presence on the offensive boards, but since the team only has two bigs over 6’8”, the team had only one ‘Cane (Tonye Jekiri) pummel the glass (Ivan Cruz Uceda, a 6’10” junior college big, is several weeks away from his DI debut). During the first half, this strategy worked well — Miami had an offensive rebounding percentage of 50%, and Jekiri’s contested every Miami carom, which effectively slowed the Friars’ transition, an instrumental aspect of the squad’s offense (nearly 22% of PC’s field goal attempts come in transition, a significant uptick from the previous season).
In the second half, though, psychologically charged by the exhortations of the largely Friars-friendly crowd at Barclays, PC scored eight consecutive points in the first minute and a half, fueling an offensive barrage that included 48 points in the paint. “At half, I was very calm,” said Cooley. “I think you have to pick your points and time when you challenge your team, and our leadership did a really good job of setting the tone with that run.
Despite losing 50% of the team’s returning minutes, and nearly 60% of their total points, from the 2014 season, PC’s offense remains just as efficient. Larranaga, whose age belies the fact that he is a tempo-free stats junkie, said after the game, “In the first half, we gave up a few fast break points, but we were able to rebound and get some stops, but in the second half, they were so efficient offensively.” Cooley stressed his team’s identity in this post-Cotton world is predicated upon “rebounding and running,” but another key is that interior scoring.
The Friars’ effective height, or the average of minutes used by bigs (as defined by Ken Pomeroy), ranks fifth nationally, but the team doesn’t often create offense from the block — roughly 8% of their points are the result of post touches. What PC does extremely well, though, is run their flex offense, an amalgamation of screens, cuts, and curls that result in high percentage attempts (43% of the team’s shots are at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, third in the Big East).
Providence doesn’t have many shooters, which is why the team’s three-point field goal attempts percentage is one of the lowest in DI, but they do have players that can make 10 to 12’ jumpers consistently. Miami tried to stymie PC’s interior movements, but the Friars were effective flashing to the high post and then curling with a single dribble, or a spin move, to finish the play (Tyler Harris’ 13 points were all scored in this manner). Henton’s offense is buoyed by cuts to the basket much more this season, and he used his heft and slight height advantage versus Miami to offset Sheldon McClellan’s overplaying defense.
Henton is indeed in the midst of a spectacularly efficient senior season — the forward, who is attempting about a third of PC’s shots when he is on the court, has made 55% of his twos and has upped both his true shooting and effective field goal percentages to career-highs — but based on Kris Dunn’s play against Miami, Cooley may think over the holiday break about changing the theme he has constructed for his team.
Even though Dunn has been at Providence for several years, we still haven’t seen the full show. Injuries have consistently hampered Dunn’s playing time, and while there were bursts during his freshman season in 2013, PC wasn’t his team to lead. Vincent Council was a senior, and that team was paced by Council and Cotton. But Dunn is now running the Friars’ offense, and there was nothing the Hurricanes could do to check the 6’3” sophomore, who scored 15 points and handed out a whopping 13 assists.
It never appears that Dunn is going 100 percent; he has that rare ability to make something, like running a DI offense, look so easy that a regular human will openly wonder why is he so special. He has the height to see over the top of his defenders, which Miami’s Angel Rodriguez attempted to negate by aggressively bodying the soph, but Rodriguez, who is only 5’11”, could do little to disrupt and slow Dunn. “I thought Kris, when he wasn’t exhausted, played really well,” said Cooley, in what may be the understatement of PC’s season so far. “I think he was setting the table.”
It’s not Dunn’s legerdemain that helps him find his fellow Friars. He isn’t overly flashy, nor does he have the foot speed that catches defenders off-balance. What makes Dunn so unique is his vision and timing. Dunn anticipates every play at least three to four beats before it happens.
This is most evident when Providence is in transition, and it helps, to truly understand Dunn’s brilliance, to be seated a few rows above the action and have some leverage to watch as the play unfolds. PC scored 20 fast-break points versus Miami — the majority of those points coming off a Dunn pass — and Dunn has a vision that sees through defenders and focuses on open spaces. He knows where his teammate, if he runs the play or fills the lane properly, will be on the court, and his long arms enable him to wait a second longer than normal before rifling a pass to a Friar. During one fast break in the first half, Dunn saw through eight players on the court and found Kyron Cartwright on the left side for a dunk. What was remarkable about the play was Cartwright wasn’t ahead of Dunn when he started the break.
Through the past two games, both PC wins, Dunn has handed out 24 assists (and just eight turnovers), and he is creating an assist on almost 50% of the Friars’ buckets. The sophomore doesn’t have a reliable jumper yet, so Dunn is most effective when he is getting to the rim, but as evidenced by this Vine from last night’s game, the guard uses a long first step and unconventional angles created by those long arms to make seemingly impossible field goals.
While the majority of college basketball thought Providence would have to rebuild this season, I thought the Friars had the right mix of experience and talented freshmen to contend in the Big East. Cooley’s squad isn’t better than Villanova right now, but since there are lingering question marks about teams two through ten, PC could be peaking at the right time for a potential NCAA tournament bid.
Matt Giles writes about the Big East, and other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter at @HudsonGiles.
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