NCAA Basketball

No. 17 Providence seeks sharper performance vs. No. 21 Xavier

No. 17 Providence came out of a COVID pause last week with one of the best possible scheduling situations -- consecutive home dates against two teams at or near the bottom of the Big East Conference.

The Friars (16-2, 6-1) won both games, but weren't overly impressive in either one, and now will hit the road for the first time since Jan. 4 when they visit No. 21 Xavier (14-4, 4-3) on Wednesday.

Providence first played Georgetown on Thursday. In their first game after an 11-day layoff, the Friars led by 16 points in the second half but settled for an 83-75 victory against the last-place Hoyas. Against struggling Butler on Sunday, the Friars allowed the Bulldogs to score the first eight points of the second half to take the lead and couldn't put away the league's ninth-place squad until the final two minutes.

"The other team has scholarship players trying to win, and they scout just as hard as we do," said Providence coach Ed Cooley, who wasn't apologizing for the lack of style points.

He also made it clear opponents know the Friars' offensive strategy.

"Everybody knows we're throwing him the ball," Cooley said, gesturing to 6-foot-10 center Nate Watson, sitting next to him in the interview room.

Watson, who averages 14.1 points and 6.2 rebounds, scored 18 against the Bulldogs, including a key three-point play that iced the victory.

"He did what he's supposed to do," Cooley said of Watson. "Nate's supposed to lead us to wins. That's his job. He's been here for a while. He's the leader."

"We feel like we were definitely back in rhythm," said Watson, who admitted that the after-effects of COVID had affected his stamina prior to that game.

The Musketeers have plenty of big men, such as 7-foot Jack Nunge and 6-foot-9 Zach Freemantle, to defend Watson.

The Musketeers lost 75-64 on Sunday at Marquette, which routed the Friars 88-56 on Jan. 4 in Providence's most recent road game. Xavier led Marquette 53-48 with 14 minutes left but was outscored 27-11 the rest of the way.

Xavier coach Travis Steele said the problem was that too many players were going one-on-one instead of playing within the offense, calling it "hero ball."

"It wasn't just one guy," Steele said. "Guys have good intentions. They're not doing it from a selfish standpoint.

"They're just trying to make something happen to help us win, but you can't do that."

He said it had a negative effect on the Musketeers' defense.

"Great teams don't allow their defense to be affected by their offense," Steele said, "and I thought we did during that (extended 27-11) run. We've got to be unflappable. ... We've got to execute our way out of trouble."

Xavier is 10-1 at home this season, with the only loss coming against second-place Villanova, which has swept the Musketeers.

Nunge (12.3 points, 7.1 rebounds) leads four scorers in double-figures for the balanced Musketeers, who rely on Nate Johnson (41.7 percent) and Adam Kunkel (38.6 percent) for 3-point shooting.

--Field Level Media

Updated January 24, 2022

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