Big East Report

<b>BOSTON COLLEGE</b><br><br> Troy Bell graduated. Ryan Sidney left. Boston College was left out of the NCAA Tournament last year with both those guys on the roster, so it's perhaps excusable that not many outside of Beantown began the season very optimistic about their team's possibilities.

However, the Virgin Islands were indeed Paradise, and the home court heavenly. And as Boston College looks to return to the NCAA Tournament after watching its bubble burst last season, the Eagles have soared to a 5-0 start in this fledgling campaign.

The season began with victories over Appalachian State, Monmouth and Wichita State in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. Next came home victories over Boston University and Holy Cross, and all of the sudden the focus is back on the players wearing the BC jerseys rather than the ones who left after last season.

Sophomore Craig Smith has led the way thus far, serving as the team's go-to guy while earning tournament MVP honors in the Virgin Islands. Perhaps more encouragingly, Uka Agbai, whose season ended prematurely last year with a broken neck, joined Smith on the all-tournament team.

Agbai's performance may be key for the Eagles this season. He is the team's lone senior, and provides experience and stability to a team that counts two freshmen and a sophomore among its starting five.

Youth movement
Freshman forward Jared Dudley made a strong early impression on the league, winning Rookie of the Week honors for his efforts against Wichita State and Boston University. He's averaging over 10 points a game in his brief college career. That reliance on freshmen is likely to be a trend for Boston College this season. All four of the team's newcomers (Dudley, Steve Hailey, Devon Evertsen and Sean Marshall) have contributed, and all except Evertsen have cracked the starting lineup.

Eagles Notes

  • Al Skinner earned his 100th victory at Boston College in the team's victory over Monmouth.
  • The Eagles face upcoming tests against UMass and St. Joseph's that will give another early indication of how good this team really is.
  • The Eagles beat crosstown rival Boston University for the third year in a row.
  • Probable lineup: Guard Louis Hinnant, guard Jermaine Watson, forward Jared Dudley, forward Craig Smith, forward Uka Agabai.
  • Uka Agbai's early stats would seem to indicate that he is suffering no aftereffects from the broken neck that sidelined him for all but three games last season.

CONNECTICUT

Superteam may have stumbled a bit in the Preseason NIT, but don't feel too sorry for the Huskies.

Utah sure doesn't.

Rick Majerus has been coaching since James Naismith first nailed up a pair of peach baskets (well, maybe not, but sometimes it seems that way), and he has never lost by more than the 76-44 pasting that Jim Calhoun's Huskies gave him in the NIT consolation game. The Huskies then pounded Lehigh by 20, proving that just because Superman has a bad day every now and then, he doesn't turn into a permanent Clark Kent. The rest of the Big East should be so lucky.

In other words, one loss doesn't make the Huskies any less dangerous.

A much bigger worry than the loss to Georgia Tech in the Preseason NIT semis is the health of Emeka Okafor. One of the Huskies two national player of the year candidates, Okafor suffered back spasms in the loss that limited him on the offensive end. Of course, he did pull down 13 rebounds and block six shots before turning around and scoring 21 against Utah.

However, even Jim Calhoun said that Okafor didn't seem like himself in the win over Lehigh, so the back spasms bear watching. Also bearing watching for Calhoun: his team's intensity. Calhoun was displeased with his team's consistency.

"We have to improve every day," Calhoun said after the Lehigh win. "I'm not so sure that we took a step backwards -- as a matter of fact, I know we didn't -- but I don't think we took any giant step forward, either."

Up next ... well, some opportunities for minor steps anyway. The Huskies have home dates with Army, Quinnipiac and Iona. In fact, the Huskies next major test likely won't come until Jan. 11, when they take on Oklahoma.

Driving force
There's probably no other team where Ben Gordon would not be The Man on campus. But while Gordon may struggle for the individual spotlight with Emeka Okafor, his early season performances on the offensive end leave him second to none as the force that makes the Huskies go.

Not only is he averaging 20.2 points per game, he's shooting a phenomenal 57.1 percent from beyond the arc. Included in that is a series of eight in a row over the Nevada and Sacred Heart games.

And Gordon isn't the only offensive star. In addition to Okafor, Denham Brown has emerged to give the Huskies three genuine threats on the offensive end. Villanueva may make it four once he finally suits up. And Rashad Anderson has been a key spark off the bench.

That allows point guard Taliek Brown to do what he does best ... distribute the basketball and run the offense. With 118 assists in six games, the Huskies have been the unselfish team they need to be to maximize their prodigious offensive talent.

Huskies Notes

  • Charles Villanueva, the high-profile recruit who chose the Huskies over the NBA only to be forced to sit while the NCAA investigates, still hasn't suited up. The 6-10 forward will make an instant impact once he's cleared to play.
  • Josh Boone started from Day One at UConn, but that's not as rare at UConn as it is elsewhere. Boone is the 12th freshman under Jim Calhoun's tenure to do so, and it's the fourth year in a row a freshman has gotten the nod.
  • With all the attention falling on Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, Denham Brown has started the season on fire. He's averaging 17 points and six boards per game.
  • And the rich just keep getting richer. Calhoun will add to his talent base next season, as the Huskies signed prized recruit Rudy Gay to a letter of intent.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Taliek Brown, shooting guard Ben Gordon, center Emeka Okafor, small forward Denham Brown, power forward Josh Boone.
  • Emeka Okafor suffered back spasms in the early season. Apart from that, the team is healthy.

GEORGETOWN

Once again, while many league rivals spent the holiday season filling up with the traditional turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Georgetown settled for its usual diet of cupcakes.

Grambling State, Penn State, Coastal Carolina, Delaware State and Norfolk State ... none of the teams the Hoyas beat en route to its 5-0 record are threats to make the Final Four this season. And while the Hoyas record is impressive, their victories haven't been.

It took a 21-9 game-ending run to give Georgetown its 13-point victory over Coastal, and a pair of Ashanti Cook free throws with 1.1 seconds left to sneak past Penn State.

Still, it is easier to understand the Hoyas' reluctance to take on too challenging a slate in the early going, at least this season. With an inexperienced backcourt and unsettled offseason, coach Craig Esherick could be excused for not wanting his seat to get too hot -- at least not before the holidays.

The result, however, is that it's difficult to tell how good the Hoyas are. The 5-0 record tells one story, but Georgetown has looked less than impressive throughout. Georgetown is shooting 33.8 percent from beyond the arc -- good, but not great. The offense has struggled, and the question of who is going to score points remains unsettled.

What has been solid, however, is the Hoya defense. Georgetown has held opponents to less than 40 percent from the floor, and has 70 steals through five games. If the traditionally strong effort on the defensive end can kick it up another notch for conference play, the Hoyas could be dangerous. This team won't see any higher-percentage shots than layups in transition.

But we won't know where the Hoyas stand for a long time. Davidson, Elon, Howard, and the Citadel complete the pre-conference schedule.

Glad you decided to stay for a while
Georgetown blends youth and experience, with an inexperienced backcourt teaming with senior captain Gerald Riley, center Courtland Freeman and forward Brandon Bowman. Bowman in particular is making sure the team scores enough points that it's always-impressive defense pays dividends in the win column. Through five games, he's averaging 17.6 points and six rebounds -- this after averaging just 7.6 points per game last season. He's certainly not playing like a guy who considered transferring, and had one foot out the door before making the decision to return to Georgetown.

Hoyas Notes

  • Welcome back, Gerald Riley! After going 7-for-9 in the first half of the Hoyas' season-opening win against Grambling, he spent the next three-and-a-half games mired in a 13-for-42 shooting slump. But Norfolk State cured all ills. Riley scored 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting against the Spartans.
  • The Hoyas haven't exactly been a quick-starting team; Georgetown trailed both Penn State and Delaware State after 20 minutes, and the biggest lead the team has had at the break is three points, vs. Coastal Carolina.
  • Freshman Matt Causey, expected to anchor the Hoya backcourt, is averaging just under 10 minutes per game. Expect this number to rise as he gets more accustomed to the speed of the college game.
  • Darrell Owens has looked strong early, especially against Norfolk State, when he contributed 14 points and five steals.
  • Not being a football school, Georgetown was understandably excited at the revamped Big East. Coach Craig Esherick called the league "the best basketball conference in the country."
  • Probable lineup: Guard Brandon Bowman, guard Ashanti Cook, center Courtland Freeman, forward Darrell Owens, forward Gerald Riley.
  • There are no major injuries reported.

MIAMI

Perry Clark's club was hoping to leave the heartbreak of last season's losing record behind it. Instead, Miami's early season has already seen more gut-wrenching defeats than some teams see in a year.

The Hurricanes won three of their first five games, but the two losses were both the type that keep even casual fans up at night. Miami's trip to Nevada for the Las Vegas Invitational rolled enough snake eyes to bankrupt Donald Trump.

The trip began with a loss to Rhode Island where Darius Rice's last-second shot came just after time expired. It finished with Bradley hitting two free throws with 14 seconds left, and Robert Hite's 10-footer rimming out as time expired.

Not a great way to begin the team's final season in the Big East.

Fortunately, the Hurricanes get a break before the conference schedule heats up again. Florida International and UMBC will provide tune-ups for a Dec. 14 matchup against resurgent Florida State.

Another good sign for the latter half of the season: The three Big East teams the Hurricanes play twice in the new, non-divisional format? Rutgers, Georgetown and Villanova. None of those teams made the NCAA Tournament last season.

Veteran leader
If you don't know about Darius Rice by now, you haven't been paying attention to Big East basketball over the past three years. The Wooden and Naismith Award candidate is now eighth on the Hurricanes' scoring list, and while he has a long way to go to catch Rick Barry at No. 1, he'll finish his college career at the end of the season as one of the great Hurricanes in history.

It is difficult to overestimate how important Rice is to the Hurricanes. He fills it up from beyond the arc, and clinches games with solid performances at the free throw line. He averages more than six boards per game. About the only thing he doesn't do is pass the rock (with just 0.6 assists per game).

But beyond Rice, these Hurricanes are an awfully young team. Four freshmen and five sophomores are on the roster, and three sophomores start. This is almost a transition year for Miami -- the last year before the team changes conferences, and the last year for one of the program's all-time greats. One of Rice's tasks will be to prepare his younger teammates for what lies ahead in their college careers.

Hurricanes Notes

  • Miami has twice held opponents scoreless from the field for more than five minutes, blanking both Bradley and Rhode Island. The Hurricanes wound up losing both of those games.
  • Three Hurricanes average double figures in points, with Robert Hite and Guillermo Diaz joining perennial stalwart Darius Rice.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Armondo Surratt, shooting guard Robert Hite, guard Eric Wilkins, center William Frisby, small forward Darius Rice.
  • The Hurricanes have not reported any major injuries.

NOTRE DAME

Chris Thomas spent part of the offseason testing the NBA draft waters before returning to school. But he's not the only member of the Fighting Irish with professional ambitions and NBA talent.

Torin Francis, the sophomore big man who made an instant impact as a freshman last season, has picked up where he left off. Francis was the first Big East Player of the Week this year (sharing the award with Pittsburgh's Carl Krauser) for his efforts during his team's victories over Northern Illinois and Mount St. Mary's. While the Irish later stumbled against Marquette, Notre Dame has impressed in the early going.

Coach Mike Brey already knew that Thomas and Francis were good enough to be relied on. What he didn't know is who was going to replace the production of Matt Carroll and Dan Miller, stalwarts of last year's Sweet 16 squad who ended their college careers last season.

Chris Quinn has given Brey reason for optimism. The starting shooting guard is averaging 12.3 points per game. Torrian Jones is averaging 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game to add to the load. Jordan Cornette has been less effective on offense, with only 4.3 points per contest.

Shouldering the load will be a key factor for the Irish in the early season. Look for Mike Brey to search diligently for someone to take a little pressure off the Irish's two superstars.

Disappointing start
There is a lot of pressure on Chris Thomas to produce this season, both for his team's sake and for his NBA dreams. His first effort against a top team did not go as well as he would have liked. Thomas struggled against Marquette, scoring 11 points on 4-21 shooting. He finished with six assists, but turned it over five times.

"I think maybe Chris tried to force some things to get us going," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after the game. "A lot of the shots he took tonight, he made last year. He could never get into a rhythm."

Fighting Irish Notes

  • Freshmen Colin Falls and Russell Carter have had only a limited impact early. Combined, they average just over three points per game. Carter averages less than two minutes per game.
  • Notre Dame was 5-29 from three-point range in its 71-58 loss to Marquette on Dec. 1. In last season's victory, the Irish knocked down 12 from beyond the arc.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Chris Thomas, shooting guard Chris Quinn, guard Torrian Jones, power forward Torin Francis, small forward Jordan Cornette.
  • Omari Israel, a 6-8, 220-pound freshman, had his senior season in high school cut short by a torn ACL and he is still recovering from the injury. He might redshirt this season.

PROVIDENCE

The Friars seemed to have an ideal resume for a return to the NCAA Tournament this season. All five starters return from a team that, after struggling mightily in the early going, surged down the stretch to earn a spot in the NIT. Moreover, Abdul Mills, the team's top scorer in 2002 who was sidelined by injuries last season, returned.

Still, when the college hoop pundits go on television to talk about conference contenders, this team doesn't get much airtime. Despite the fact that it was picked to finish fifth in the conference -- a performance that would likely result in an NCAA berth -- the Friars seem to be an afterthought.

That may have to change.

The Friars are quietly putting together an excellent first month of the season, by defending their home court with a vengeance.

Providence opened the year with three home victories, over Hofstra, Alabama and South Florida. The schedule doesn't get any easier -- a neutral-site game with Illinois, a home date with Texas and trips to Richmond and Charlottesville, Va., still loom -- but it appears as though the Friars are ready to serve notice that they are a team to be reckoned with.

Keep an eye on Mills
Watch the progress of Abdul Mills carefully. His status may tell how far the Friars can progress this season. Mills missed all of last season with a hip injury. He's played limited minutes thus far this season (13 against Hofstra, 0 against Alabama, and 4 against South Florida), but he averaged 14.4 points per game as a junior in 2001-2002. With a healthy Mills, there wouldn't be many conference teams that can match the Providence bench.

Friars Notes

  • Maybe revenge is the key to Providence's success. Two early-season victims, Alabama and South Florida, beat the Friars last year.
  • All five starters finished in double figures against South Florida, and the team piled up 21 assists.
  • Providence is shooting 40 percent from three-point range this season. Sheiku Kabba has been an offensive force, leading the team in scoring with 17 points per game.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Donnie McGrath, shooting guard Sheiku Kabba, center Marcus Douthit, power forward Ryan Gomes, small forward Rob Sanders.
  • Mills is still coming back from the hip injury that sidelined him last season. That's the only major injury reported.

RUTGERS

Rutgers is one of those teams that can mess up your Big East pool either way.

Last year's team was a colossal disappointment, finishing under .500 and missing even the conference tournament. But you won't find many basketball fans who don't think Gary Waters is a coach who can get this team back on track in a hurry.

Wednesday night may have been a sign that the team is on its way.

Rutgers improved to 3-1 with a 10-point victory over Temple. Granted, Temple hasn't been the fastest-starting team, traditionally. In fact, the Owls are still looking for their first win of the year.

Temple is always well-coached and ready to play, and beating a John Chaney squad is no small feat. But the Scarlet Knights beat the Owls last year as well, and went on to lose most of the games that mattered the rest of the way.

Why should this year be different?

Maybe because the Rutgers freshmen showed that perhaps they will be ready to make the kind of impact they'll have to have if the Scarlet Knights plan on a trip to a postseason tournament.

Quincy Douby poured in 21 points in 22 minutes. Marquis Webb, the key in-state recruit who Waters managed to keep close to home, added nine of his own along with eight assists.

Forward Herve Lamizana has been strong early, as expected. He leads the team in scoring with a 14.5 average, and also paces the Scarlet Knights in rebounds and blocked shots. But what's characterized Rutgers early is its balance. Eight players are on the court for more than 16 minutes per game. Three players (Quincy Douby, Herve Lamizana and Ricky Shields) have led the team in scoring. Three more have finished as rebounding leaders. This type of teamwork will be necessary if Rutgers is to go anywhere this season, It's not a team with remarkable offensive talent, and will need to continue to dominate the boards in order to win. Through the season's first four games, Rutgers averages 4.6 more rebounds per game than its opponents.

The team's only loss is a road defeat to Wisconsin, and there's no shame in that. The rest of the nonconference slate is winnable, and Rutgers stands a real chance of entering Big East play with an impressive record and a lot of momentum.

Then, we'll see how much of a step this team is ready to take.

Scarlet Knights Notes

  • So far, so good from beyond the arc for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are at 40 percent on the season, knocking down 24 of 60. Quincy Douby has knocked down seven of his 15 attempts.
  • Herve Lamizana is struggling mightily at the free throw line. He's made just 9 of 21 shots foul shots.
  • The 12 three-pointers Rutgers made against Temple is the most since a Feb. 2002 victory over Miami.
  • Probable lineup: Guard Marquis Webb, guard Ricky Shields, center Adrian Hill, forward Sean Axani, forward Herve Lamizana.
  • Sophomore guard Calvin Wooten suffered a torn ACL over the summer and won't be available until at least January.

ST. JOHN'S

The mantra of all struggling teams at this stage of the season is "It's still early." But good luck selling that in New York.

St. John's has not begun the season in a way that would encourage coach Mike Jarvis to look for a long-term lease on a city apartment.

Freshman Lamont Hamilton has been as effective as anyone else manning the middle. Last year, St. John's averaged 38.8 rebounds a game, including 17.1 on the offensive end. This year, the Red Storm have managed only 34.5 boards per game, and are being out-rebounded by 2.7 per contest. It is difficult to say much that the Red Storm is doing well right now. The team is shooting 60 percent from the free throw line and 29.3 percent from beyond the arc. It has over two more turnovers than assists per game. The defense hasn't been bad, but the offense will need a major surge in order to get this team on the winning track.

Starting the season with three losses in four games is hardly the way to enhance anyone's job security, especially with defeats against Fairfield and Hofstra. The lone win was an 11-point effort against Stony Brook.

Last season, a reeling Red Storm team stunned Duke in the team's biggest win of the season and went on to salvage its season by winning the NIT. The rematch is in Cameron this weekend, and Jarvis hopes his squad plays well against the Blue Devils, as it generally does.

Marcus Hatten and Bootsy Thornton are among the Johnnies who used the national spotlight to shred the Duke defense. Duke fans are wondering who the next Red Storm 40-point scorer against them will be. Jarvis doesn't care what the answer is, as long as it's anyone on this team's roster.

Red Storm Notes

  • Kyle Cuffe is struggling with his shot. He's just 3-of-15 from three-point range, and is shooting just 36 percent from the floor overall.
  • Elijah Ingram is also having a tough time on offense, at 10-of-27 from beyond the arc and 17-of-50 overall.
  • Probable lineup: Guard Elijah Ingram, guard Darryll Hill, center Lamont Hamilton, forward Grady Reynolds, forward Kyle Cuffe.
  • Mohammed Diakite missed all of last season with a back injury, and is playing limited minutes.

SETON HALL

The Pirates held serve in Alaska, sandwiching victories over Alaska-Anchorage and Liberty in between a 12-point loss to Purdue. Of course, the Boilermakers went on to knock off Duke and win the tournament title, so that neutral-site loss isn't one that that will ruin the Seton Hall holidays.

Which is a good thing, since early-season struggles were what kept the Pirates out of the NCAAs last season. Winning nine straight conference games is almost always enough to ensure a ticket to the Big Dance, but Seton Hall had dug itself such a hole in the early going that even that surge wasn't enough to earn a bid.

This year, the Pirates are hoping for a different story.

Three starters return (with a fourth, Kelly Whitney, sitting out the first semester due to academic problems), and with one of the deeper teams in the league, a squad filled with veteran leadership and a coach ready to shine in his third year at the school, Seton Hall hopes to leave itself secure from another March disappointment.

Leading the way, once again, is the little man.

Andre Barrett might be small enough to get picked last in pickup games, but everyone familiar with college basketball should know how good he is once he takes the court. Barrett leads the Pirates in points and assists this season, which isn't too surprising. What's a bit of a shock is his position on the rebounding charts: second on the team to Andre Sweet. While he'll take any board work those guys can give him, coach Louis Orr has to be hoping that his big men take on a little more of the load.

Tough tests remain before the Big East schedule starts. The team travels to Louisville Dec. 10, and also faces Ohio State and the always-dangerous DePaul.

Barrett and Sweet step up
In addition to the satisfaction of being the third-best team at the Great Alaska Shootout, Andre Barrett and Andre Sweet earned some personal recognition. Both were named to the all-tournament team for their performance over the three-day tournament. More importantly, both showed they can be the senior leaders the Pirates need to take them to the next level.

Since the hype of the short-lived Tommy Amaker era resulted in more disappointment than wins, Seton Hall has been looking for a team that can take the next step -- that can overcome adversity, and not melt down at the first sign of trouble. It looked like Seton Hall was becoming that kind of team down the stretch last season, but the early struggles were too much for the team to earn an NCAA bid. This year, Barrett and Sweet are showing signs that they can be the group that leads the Pirates back to March glory.

Pirates Notes

  • Grant Billmeier, as expected, has been the starting center from Day One. So far, he's averaging 2.3 points and 3 rebounds in about 16 minutes per game.
  • Duke transfer Andre Sweet has been outstanding in his first chance to take the court as a starter. The senior leads the team in rebounding and is third in points.
  • One category Andre Barrett wishes he didn't lead the team in: Turnovers. The point guard has 17 in four games, an inglorious 4.25 per contest.
  • J.R. Morris has been big off the bench, averaging 8.3 points in 19.3 minutes.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Andre Barrett, shooting guard John Allen, center Grant Billmeier, power forward Marcus Toney-El, small forward Andre Sweet.
  • Center Kelly Whitney is academically ineligible for the first semester.

SYRACUSE

While the Orange are a definite threat to defend their crown, it didn't take long for the team and its fans to realize that the only thing last season's championship has earned this year's team is a big target on its back.

In fact, it took just 40 minutes.

Syracuse dropped its season opener, at home, to Charlotte. The Orangemen actually trailed by 21 at the break, 50-29, before making the final a respectable 96-92. Things haven't gotten much better since, with unexpectedly close victories over Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure giving the team a 2-1 start to the season.

Ironically, however, the season-opening loss also showed why Jim Boeheim's squad is still one to watch when the March Madness brackets are announced. Gerry McNamara hit big shot after big shot in the second half, Hakim Warrick and Josh Pace looked strong, and Billy Edelin ran the show with 13 points and 10 assists.

If the guards can knock down the outside shot -- a big question mark for this team in the early going -- Syracuse's big men should feast inside. In addition to the always-dangerous McNamara, freshman Demetris Nichols may be a key here. He's the only Orangeman besides McNamara to connect from three-point range this season. In fact, if McNamara's stats are taken out of the equation, the team is just 1-7 from long range.

The three-pointer hasn't been there for the Orangemen this season, but what must worry coach Jim Boeheim just as much is his team's struggles from the charity stripe.

Syracuse shot 100 free throws after three games, showing a strong ability to get to the line. Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick combined for 53 of those, making 40. The rest of the team? Just 22 for 37.

Especially worrisome is Billy Edelin's 47.4 percent performance in the early season. As the team's primary ballhandler, he can expect to be at the line for numerous key one-and-ones in Big East play. He's too good to be off the court in the clutch, but too bad at the line to have control of the ball in that situation.

The bottom line is while this is a very deep and talented team, right now an awful lot of responsibility sets on the shoulders of Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick. Boeheim hopes others emerge before the rigors of conference play begin.

Orangemen Notes

  • Freshman Terrence Roberts has made an immediate impact, and not just on the stat sheet (where he has just four points in three games). "Even though he's a freshman, he's a leader," Hakim Warrick said after the victory over Rhode Island. "He's always talking, trying to get everyone going."
  • Jeremy McNeil has not missed from the floor this season. Of course, he's taken just four shots in his 41 minutes.
  • One big bright spot in the St. Bonaventure win? It was the first time all season the Orange shot better that 50 percent from the floor.
  • Probable lineup: Guard Gerry McNamara, guard Billy Edelin, center Craig Forth, forward Hakim Warrick, forward Josh Pace.
  • No major injuries reported.

VILLANOVA

Hawaii was less than a tropical paradise for the Wildcats, who lost two of their three games at the Maui Invitational. Included in the total: an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Chaminade, more than two decades after Ralph Sampson's Cavaliers put the tiny tournament hosts on the map.

Losses like that one offer only small consolation to coach Jay Wright, but at least he can take comfort in the fact that the Silverswords -- not to mention the rest of the teams on the Wildcats' early-season slate -- haven't exactly seen the best his team has to offer. They haven't even seen the entire team dressed and ready for action.

The NCAA's holiday gift that keeps on giving -- suspensions for misuse of a university telephone access code -- has left Wright unable to see his entire team in a game situation all year.

Five players were sentenced to sit between three and eight games. Expected starter and team leader Derrick Snowden began the season with a three-game suspension -- not that he's healthy enough to play anyway, after offseason knee surgery. He may be sidelined for the season). Forward Curtis Sumpter also began with a three-game suspension.

Of the five starters in the season's early going, two have been freshmen, and two sophomores.

Yet the season began on a productive note, as the Wildcats thumped Philly rival Temple 73-48. Four of the seven players who dressed for the game finished in double figures. That game began at midnight (it's a long story), but the clock didn't strike 12 for Villanova until afterward, when the team took that fateful flight to the islands.

Still, things could be worse. The young players are stepping up to become leaders, and while the bench is less crowded right now than a Britney Spears concert in Seattle, when the suspensions lift (and if Derrick Snowden and Jason Fraser can get truly healthy), this will be a deep team.

The Wildcats are one of those teams that always seems to fall a win or two short of having a real chance at seeing their school name on the big board on Selection Sunday. The remainder of the December games are tough enough that this team could dig itself another early-season hole, but not so tough that the team can't take a sizable winning streak into January tilts with Kansas and Memphis.

Taking advantage of opportunity
Two players who emerged unscathed from the calling code debacle are the two sophomores, Allan Ray and Randy Foye. One guess as two which two players are the team's scoring leaders. Ray and Foye have started all five games this season, and are averaging 21.4 and 18.4 points per game, respectively. Foye is also pulling down 7 rebounds and dishing out more than five assists. Ray has only been out of double figures once this season, in the team's 53-51 overtime victory over Santa Clara. Not to make excuses for him, but he did suffer a contusion above his left eye during the contest that required five stitches.

Wildcats Notes

  • At least one Wildcat managed to impress in Maui. According to the Villanova website, Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien came up to sophomore Allan Ray and said "You have a great future."
  • While Villanova is officially 3-2 to start the season, it has only played three Division I teams. In fact, the Wildcats have a better winning percentage against D-I schools, after beating Redlands and losing to Chaminade.
  • While all the suspended Wildcats were happy to get back on the court, it's doubtful that any were more thrilled than Chris Charles. He missed all of last season as a redshirt before sitting out this season's first four games.
  • Probable lineup: Guard Randy Foye, guard Mike Nardi, guard Allan Ray, center Jason Fraser, forward Will Sheridan, forward Curtis Sumpter.
  • As if the suspensions weren't enough to overcome, two key returnees have injuries to overcome. Derrick Snowden is still sidelined after summer knee surgery; the timetable for his return is unclear and he may be out for the season. Center Jason Fraser is coming back from a stress fracture on his left heel.

VIRGINIA TECH

Early returns on the Seth Greenberg era are in, and the results so far have been about as good as Hokie fans can expect.

While Virginia Tech couldn't repeat last season's victory over in-state (and future conference) rival Virginia, at least the Hokies beat a few teams they should beat: New Hampshire, Western Carolina and Morgan State.

If those expectations seem minimal, keep in mind that Greenberg coaches a team that is in danger of leaving the league at the end of the season having never made the Big East Tournament since the league made it a 12-team affair and banned the bottom two teams from Madison Square Garden in March.

Also keep in mind that any team trailing Morgan State at the half at home can't have many serious thoughts about the real March Madness.

But the Hokies went on a 20-5 run to start the second half and never looked back. Not bad for a team that seems to have as many players wearing street clothes as warm-ups.

Obviously there are no Morgan States in the Big East. Saturday's game with Ohio State will be another test of how good this team can be, but at least for Hokie fans the early season has provided fewer examples of how bad a team can play.

Freshmen in the mix early
As he did last season, Bryant Matthews makes this team go. He averaged 27.4 points over the Hokies' first five games, made the preseason all-conference team and has a legitimate chance at earning all-conference honors. But the freshmen backcourt may be the key to how far this team can go. Zabian Dowdell, the first player Seth Greenberg recruited to Blacksburg, has gone straight from freshman orientation to the starting lineup, as has fellow freshman Jamon Gordon. Gordon has paid immediate dividends on the defensive end, falling just short of a school record with seven steals against Morgan State. He was the first Big East Rookie of the Week award winner this season -- incredibly, only the second Hokie ever to win any Big East men's basketball award.

Hokies Notes

  • Virginia Tech out-rebounded its first five opponents this season, and had a 48-33 edge over Old Dominion on Dec. 4 ... but still lost 94-92 in overtime.
  • Bryant Matthews grabbed his 500th career rebound in the victory over Western Carolina.
  • Four Hokies are averaging over 30 minutes a game, led by Matthews' 37.8 per game. Markus Sailes has seen his minutes per game rise from 7.7 to 35.8.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Zabian Dowdell, guard Jamon Gordon, guard Markus Sailes, forward Phillip McCandies, forward Bryant Matthews.
  • It's tough to think of a team more ravaged by early-season injuries than Virginia Tech. Senior Carlos Dixon will redshirt this season after undergoing surgery on his left foot in August. He originally broke the foot in February, and reinjured it over the summer. Also suffering from a broken foot is freshman forward Coleman Collins, who will miss the next 3-8 weeks. Fabian Davis is coming back from his own foot injury, Shawn Harris is out 6-8 weeks with problems with his right foot, and Davis Stubbs is still sidelined as he recovers from knee surgery.

WEST VIRGINIA

One more step.

That's what Mountaineers coach John Beilein is hoping his team can take this season. After leading a team that collapsed down the stretch in 2001-02 to a 14-15 record in his first season, Beilein welcomed back all five starters and some talented newcomers for another crack at postseason play.

Fans will get an early sense of how far this team is along that road in the BB&T Classic this weekend.

Early returns on this team have been mixed. A home loss to Northeastern was disappointing, a victory over St. Louis encouraging. But this weekend brings a dangerous George Washington squad on Saturday, and either Maryland or Gonzaga on Sunday.

Are the Mountaineers ready? They're certainly dangerous. Even last year's team scored a huge win out of conference, stunning the Florida Gators.

It might come down to whether they bring their Windex.

In the victory over the Billikens, WVU was only out-rebounded by two, 32-30. "If we can lose the rebounding wars by one or two then we can win a lot of games," Beilein told MSNsportsNet.com. "It's when we lose like we did the other night by 10 or 12 when it really hurts."

That "other night" saw them get dominated by Northeastern, losing the battle of the boards 49-35 and giving up 23 rebounds on the offensive glass.

Still a big Fisch
D'or Fischer starred at Northwestern State, but he wanted a bigger stage and some tougher competition after averaging 4.4 blocks per game as a sophomore. So he transferred to West Virginia. But judging from the stats, he hasn't found things a whole lot more difficult in Morgantown. While Fischer doesn't start, he averages 25.3 minutes per game. And he does not miss -- at least not often. The 6-11 transfer is 16-of-19 from the field thus far, for an 84.2 percent performance. It seems like a safer bet just to foul him; he's 2-4 at the line. And as for what Fischer was known for at Northwestern State? He's even doing better at that. With 14 blocks through three games, Fischer is averaging 4.7 swats per contest.

Mountaineers Notes

  • Drew Schifino has carried the scoring load for the 'Neers this season, averaging 21.7 points per contest. Two other Mountaineers average double figures - D'or Fischer and Tyrone Salley.
  • One early concern for WVU? Free throw shooting. West Virginia is hitting just 64.6 percent from the stripe. The two Mountaineers who have spent the most time at the line, Schifino and Salley, actually bring that percentage down -- Schifino has gone 12-19, for 63.2 percent, and Salley has struggled to a 10-18 (58.8 percent) performance.
  • Point guard Jarmon Durisseau-Collins has been solid early. While he's averaging just 4 points per game, he has 17 assists to go with just three turnovers.
  • Probable lineup: Point guard Jarmon Durisseau-Collins, shooting guard Joe Herber, center Kevin Pittsnogle, power forward Tyrone Sally, small forward Drew Schifino.
  • No significant injuries reported.
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