***Game of the Weekend: Providence (14-6, 4-3) at No. 15 Marquette (19-4, 6-2) at 2 PM on ESPNU. The Golden Eagles are as hot as anyone in the country. Marquette has won six straight contests after starting out Big East play 0-2. The streak has landed them at 6-2 in the league, a game back of Pittsburgh (7-1). They had a scare last weekend when South Florida was up a basket with less than 20 seconds remaining. But the Golden Eagles' dynamic backcourt duo saved the day. Dominic James tied the game up 68 with a driving bucket and then Jerel McNeal won it when he intercepted a pass and made a lay-up at the buzzer. James averages 16 PPG while McNeal chips in 14 points a contest. Watch out for Marquette on defense. They are second in the conference in steals per game, nabbing ten a contest.
For Providence, a win here would be a major feather in the cap for their NCAA Tournament hopes. They're led by Herbert Hill's 17 PPG and eight rebounds a contest. The Friars can definitely score the basketball. They are second in the Big East in scoring offense but second to last in scoring defense. 6-7 sophomore forward Gregg McDermott is third in the conference in rebounds (10/game) and second in assists (5.4/contest). The problem with Providence is their road record. They were 0-4 away from home before last week's 12-point victory at Connecticut. But everyone seems to be beating the Huskies these days. Which will it be: Marquette staying in the race for the Big East regular-season championship or the Friars making a huge statement for the NCAA Tournament? Tune in Saturday afternoon to find out.
***Player to Watch: Curtis Sumpter of Villanova. The Wildcats were looking good last weekend as they traveled to Notre Dame. The team was 3-3 in the Big East and 14-5 overall and riding a three-game win streak. But after blowing a late lead to the Irish and going down to defeat at home this past Monday to Pittsburgh, they're in desperate straights. Villanova is 3-5 in the league and now host red-hot Louisville on Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is scheduled for noon and ESPN2 will have the television coverage.
In an almost-win game, a team's best player has to step up and lead the way. That would be Curtis Sumpter. He leads the Wildcats in scoring at 18.1 PPG. Sumpter has been battling a bone bruise in his leg and it's limited him as of late. But at home, against a Cardinal team that's won five of six conference games, the senior must show the way. If not, Villanova is staring at 3-6 in the Big East and 14-8 overall. Last season, they went to the Elite Eight. This year, a loss would mean a huge uphill climb just to reach the Big Dance. A healthy Sumpter and his big-play ability could do wonders for this team down the stretch.
***A storyline to follow: Are Syracuse and Connecticut in danger of not making the tournament? As a matter of fact, they are. The Orange got blasted at home by No. 19 Notre Dame 103-91 and fell to 4-4 in the conference and 15-7 overall. Connecticut? They're having troubles just trying to win. The Huskies lost again on Wednesday, falling to DePaul on the road 66-58. UCONN is now 2-6 in the Big East, which is tied for third to last in the league. They've lost five in a row and seven of eight. Head coach Jim Calhoun's team is extremely young and talented but apparently they have yet to come together as a team.
These two have been powerhouses in the Big East for years. Connecticut has won two national titles under Calhoun and went to the Elite Eight last season. UCONN woe's might be traced to them being ranked second to last in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Orange head coach Jim Boeheim also has a national championship on his resume. But his team cannot guard anyone in 2006-07. Syracuse is third to last in scoring defense in the conference and the first half against Notre Dame, where the Irish scored 61 points, was one of the worst defensive performances this year in college basketball.
Connecticut has a winnable road game at Rutgers on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are 9-13 overall and 2-7 in the Big East. The Huskies have won only one road game this season. Syracuse plays at home and will host DePaul on Saturday afternoon at 4 PM. These two struggling teams will do battle on the court on Monday. The Orange will travel to take on UCONN as part of ESPN's Big Monday. The Huskies need a huge late run to make the Big Dance. Syracuse is in better shape but more performances like the one at home against Notre Dame might make both these teams NIT-bound come March.