Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Jim Crowley adapting to life in Big East during his first year at Providence

Having nearly doubled Providence's win total from last season, Jim Crowley is still learning on the fly as former St. Bonaventure coach tackles his new challenge at helm of Friars. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The scene is too familiar.

Pacing the sideline with the play under close scrutiny. Taking a moment for a teaching moment with a player. Grimacing for a second as a well-designed and executed play terminates with a ball being thrown out of bounds. Jim Crowley has changed jobs, but not demeanor.

The latest scenario has happened a little more in than in recent years. Crowley, in his first year at Providence, has found that life in the Big East can be unforgiving and demanding, not to mention an exciting challenge.
During his 16 years as head coach at St. Bonaventure, Crowley turned the program into one of the strongest in the Atlantic 10. In recent years postseason trips, particularly two NCAA Tournaments and four WNIT appearances, were the norm. The pinnacle was in 2012.

The Bonnies were undefeated in A-10 play that season before advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. A one-sided loss in the regional semifinal to Notre Dame could not diminish the magnitude of the Bonnie season. By all accounts, Crowley; an ESPN National Coach of the Year in 2012 and three-time Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year (2009, 12,14) would be a lifer in Olean.
“I never really thought about leaving,” he said following Providence’s 55-43 loss at Seton Hall last Friday. “I wanted to keep options open and felt only two or three jobs out there would entice me to leave Bonaventure. I was very happy there.”

Enter Providence. The Big East school may not have been on Crowley’s extremely short list, yet a visit to the campus and talks with personnel changed his mind. “It’s a great place,” Crowley said of Providence. “They are committed to winning, the resources are there. I felt the Big East would be another challenge from a coaching perspective. It was a great opportunity.”
Crowley’s tenure at Bonaventure was not without struggles. Early on as a head coach, the loss column of the ledger outnumbered the wins. Many felt his job was in jeopardy. Crowley then came upon Michael Lewis’ best selling book, “Moneyball.” It changed his whole philosophy. Rather than press and go up and down the floor on offense, Crowley’s teams locked into a tough half court defense. On the opposite end, they burned clock and ran an offense similar to that of Princeton, well versed in motion concepts.

An almost overlooked part of his altered approach involved recruiting. While many coaches and talent evaluators look at a prospect and list what he or she can’t do, Crowley used the Moneyball mindset. He took a long look at what they could do. Case in point is Providence assistant coach Jessica Jenkins, who starred for the Bonnies, a key member of that 2012 squad. When Jenkins was on the AAU circuit, too many wrote her off as a point guard who could not create her own shot. Crowley saw a two guard natural with a quick release and outstanding range. Jenkins went on to become the A-10’s leading three-point shooter. At Providence, Crowley is confident recruiting should be an easier task. His biggest selling point beyond the school and Big East is the culture.

“We are trying to sell a culture of competing, not just to our recruits, but our current players,” he said. “That is what we want to do. Compete.”

Pass to the wing, a weak side screen releases a cutter to the inside. The pass from the wing sails over her head. Turnover. Coach Crowley buries his head in hands just for a second. It is on to the next possession. The learning curve effect.

“A lot of what we do is different from what they were used to,” Crowley said. “They have been receptive to the change, but it will take time. In this offense, you need to learn the reads, be aware of the spacing on each set. It took time at Bonaventure. The kids are grasping it, but it will take time here.”

Easing that learning curve are former Bonnie players. Priscilla Edwards assisted Crowley before heading to St. John’s in a similar capacity. The Providence associate head coach took time off from coaching before rejoining her former mentor. Jenkins, following a few years playing overseas, joined Crowley’s staff last year at Bonaventure before coming to Providence. Tiara Johnson, another assistant, played and coached under Crowley at Bonaventure. Three coaches with playing and coaching experience under Crowley eases the transition and rebuilding at Providence.

Last season, the Friars finished 5-24 with only one Big East win. To date, they have nearly doubled the win total. Providence is 9-11. The Big East record (they lost two days later at St. John’s following Seton Hall) is 1-8. Six of those losses were by 10 or less points. Moral victories do not count, yet there is evident and noticeable progress by maintaining better competitiveness.

Providence starts two sophomores, a junior and two seniors. Sophomore guard Jovana Yoyo Nogic paces the Friars with an average of 13.3 points per game. A 43 percent three-point shooter, Nogic is an integral part of the offense. Senior guard Sarah Beal is the other double-figure scorer, at 12.5 points per game. Junior wing Allegra Botteghi is right behind, averaging 9.1 points per game. Shooting 30 percent from deep as a team, one-third of the Friar point production is dialed long distance, partially due to the system and partially out of necessity.

“We need someone inside like we had at Bonaventure,” Crowley said. “We need that inside presence. When the shot clock is winding down and you are having trouble getting a good look, you can dump it inside and she will finish for you. We are lacking that right now.”

What Crowley does not lack, though, is the admiration and respect of his peers in the coaching profession.
“I have the utmost respect for Jim Crowley as a coach and person,” Seton Hall’s Tony Bozzella said after his Pirates downed Providence. “He brought St. Bonaventure to two NCAAs and a Sweet 16 and has a great staff. His teams, if you are not ready defensively, will embarrass you.”

A day later, a well-wisher spoke to Fairleigh Dickinson coach Pete Cinella before his game against LIU Brooklyn. “Coach Crowley sends his regards and said hello,” was the message. Cinella responded calling Crowley “one of my best friends in the business.”

“Coach Crowley is an excellent coach,” Cinella continued. “What he did at St. Bonaventure, not the easiest place to recruit, was remarkable.”

Crowley had praise of his own for former assistant Jesse Fleming, who took over the Bonaventure program. “He has the kids playing hard and is really committed to the job,” said Crowley of Fleming’s efforts in his first season at the helm in Olean. He also termed DePaul coach Doug Bruno “one of the icons of the women’s game,” which brings us back to the Big East.

Crowley naturally was immersed in the Atlantic 10 during his former job. He followed other leagues, but until being in one, you do not know how tough it is. In his first go-round on the bench, what is his assessment of the Big East, you might ask?

With a smile and a few words, he said, “it has been educational.”

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