The Rise of the Providence Friars

USA TODAY Sports

Providence's record so far this season is impressive, but what is more important is that new coach Chris Gabrielli has the Friars playing well.

From 2009 through 2012, Providence earned a combined 11-48 record and suffered through a winless season in 2010 that saw the program lose 14 games, forcing the National Institutes of Health to quarantine the Friars due to fears around Providence's proclivity for losing games to spread to other teams. The Friars haven't put together a season with a winning record since a 10-7 campaign in 2006 that vaulted Providence to the top of the MAAC and the right to take a 14-8 beating at the hands of third-seeded Hofstra in the NCAA Tournament. Entering the 2013 season (with this resume as the backdrop), the Friars were about as far away from the national consciousness as possible, existing only on the fringes of Division I lacrosse chatter: "Oh, and the Friars are still in the Big East."

Then Chris Gabrielli started barking orders and the light switch went on for Providence. All the struggles over the last decade, all the curb-stompings, all the miserable morale -- it seemed to have evaporated under the first-year head coach, replaced with competence and afternoon showers of jelly beans and rainbows made of licorice (or something like that).

Providence's turnaround this year is one of the best stories in college lacrosse. While the Friars' hire of Gabrielli appeared strong, assuming that the former Duke assistant would have Providence playing as they are just 11 games into his tenure was something that probably carried with it extensive head bandages around one's noggin. The Friars' ascension from the absolute basement of Division I lacrosse was supposed to happen, at the earliest, in 2014 or 2015 once Gabrielli had his culture firmly entrenched in the program. Alas, the results have come quickly and impressively: At 7-4, Providence has already matched their highest win total since 2008 (a 7-8 effort); with its victory over Rutgers last weekend, the Friars have now doubled their all-time total of Big East Conference wins (Providence's first league win came in 2012 when the Friars stunned Villanova). It isn't just the record in Friartown that marks the team's improvement under Gabrielli; underlying performance metrics bear out that Providence is playing better than they have in the last half-decade:

PROVIDENCE: CHRIS GABRIELLI IS A MAGICIAN
METRIC 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Adj. Offensive Efficiency 20.14 (49) 16.91 (56) 20.29 (56) 24.58 (54) 29.43 (33)
Adj. Defensive Efficiency 27.46 (32) 31.95 (46) 30.12 (41) 33.34 (46) 31.81 (39)
Adj. Efficiency Margin -7.32 (45) -15.05 (56) -9.83 (54) -8.76 (53) -2.38 (36)
S.o.S.: Opponent Efficiency Margin -1.63 (41) 2.08 (10) -0.62 (38) -1.92 (48) -4.43 (60)

It's impossible to argue that Gabrielli isn't, at a minimum, the Big East's coach of the year. The Friars are light years ahead of where they were a season ago, squarely situated at this point in the top two-thirds of the country in terms of performance competitiveness. Here are a few more notes to accompany the table's illustrations:

  • Records can be deceiving. 7-4 isn't 7-4 isn't 7-4. The strength of the schedule that creates the record is important, and Providence has played one of the easiest slates in the country so far this season. Gabrielli was wise to put manageable opponents on the Friars' schedule this season -- the slate has featured five teams ranked 50th or worse in adjusted efficiency margin (Vermont, Wagner, Sacred Heart, Georgetown, and Manhattan) -- and Providence has responded with wins.
  • Despite the deceiving record, though, the Friars -- as the above table notes -- are playing well. Those adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency values account for Providence's strength of schedule, and the Friars are a pretty average team in the overall. (That isn't a backhanded compliment; based on where Providence has been the last few seasons, it may be the kindest compliment paid to the program in the last decade.) There is some legitimate talent in Friartown -- Andrew Barton is a player, Sean Wright is a physical anomaly and a matchup nightmare, J.T. Weber has some talent, and I really like Mike Noyes -- and Gabrielli has harnessed and developed it in just a few months. I wouldn't necessarily call Providence "good" right now -- there's still a long way to go this year for the Friars and Providence's overall performance is still hanging tenuously in the balance -- but the Friars are competitive and somewhat dangerous. This isn't a team without warts, but Providence is performing well in its circumstances. That's a good thing, and it bodes well for the program in future seasons.

Short of a robot earning a scholarship to Johns Hopkins to crush skulls under Coach Pietramala's tutelage, Providence is the story of the year in Division I lacrosse. This is the new kind of wonderful, people. Embrace it.

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