FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2006
Depth. In most instances, it's a highly desirable quality for any team. It provides some protection against injuries or more short-term issues such as foul trouble, an ejection, or simply poor individual play. Depth becomes especially important late in the season when many regulars begin to wear down. It is almost essential when facing the every day grind of a conference tournament. Most of the upper-echelon Big East teams are deep. Connecticut could possess the best one through ten talent in the country. Pittsburgh regularly goes ten deep. Georgetown, Marquette, and Seton Hall all have solid benches. The exceptions to the rule are Villanova and West Virginia. Both teams usually rely on their starting five for the majority of their minutes and production. The lack of depth has severely hindered teams such as Cincinnati, Syracuse, and South Florida. Cincinnati's starting five can match up with almost every other Big East squad. However, injuries and defections have reduced their bench to mostly freshmen walk-ons. The Orange expected a lot more from their bench than they've received. The Bulls have played the entire season with only 6 or 7 scholarship athletes.
There can be a downside to having exceptional depth. Unless everyone on the team knows and accepts their role, players can easily become unhappy with their lack of playing time. These situations often disrupt a team's chemistry. A much more subtle issue can occur during post-season tournaments, especially the NCAAs. When you're in a "one and done" situation, a coach often needs to modify his normal regular season rotation to ensure that his best players are on the court enough. This can be difficult, especially for relatively inexperienced coaches. That's something to keep in mind when "March Madness" begins.
Here's a look at each of the Big East schools, starting with our Pittsburgh Panthers:
The Panthers 85-77 win at Providence on Wednesday all but assured them of an NCAA invitation. The Panthers trailed 37-33 at the half, as leading scorers Carl Krauser and Aaron Gray were held to 2 and 4 points respectively. The Panthers finally took the lead at 45-44 on a 3 point shot by senior SF John DeGroat. Pitt then went on a 7-0 run and never relinquished the lead. Gray finished with 22 points on 9-9 shooting. He also added 9 rebounds. Sophomore swingman Keith Benjamin provided a big spark off the bench for the 2nd consecutive game, as he tallied 15 points. Krauser finished with 12 points and 7 assists. The Panthers success in the 2nd half was due to their ability to penetrate the Friars' zone, which frustrated them in the opening 20 minutes.
Looking ahead – For most of the season, the Panthers' only consistent scorers have been Krauser and Gray. Krauser suffered through a recent mini-slump, and still is not shooting as well as he had been earlier. However, sophomore PG Ronald Ramon has really stepped up his offense of late. Ramon has been shooting more, and contributing a number of big baskets. Pittsburgh's other two starters, junior PF Levon Kendall and senior SF John DeGroat, rarely hit double figures. The Panthers have played 10 men all season, and usually have gotten excellent bench production. You just never know which player(s) will produce. Freshman SF Sam Young has had some outstanding offensive efforts, but his defense is a "work in progress." Freshman PG Levance Fields' game has tailed off a bit in recent weeks. The 3rd freshman, PF Tyrell Biggs, usually gets few minutes. Junior SG Antonio Graves has been a disappointment, averaging just 4 points per game and struggling with his ball handling. His one shining moment was a 19 point performance in a key win over Marquette. Sophomore swingman Keith Benjamin could hold the key to the Panthers' post-season success. While Benjamin is only averaging 5.8 points per game, he's been outstanding in Pitt's last two contests. He tallied 16 against Cincinnati and followed that up with a 15 point effort against Providence. Benjamin is also a quick and active defender. If Ramon, Krauser, and Benjamin can complement Gray's offense on a consistent basis, the Panthers will be a very tough opponent for anyone.
Pittsbutgh's remaining schedule includes a visit to Marquette on Saturday. They're then off for a week until they face a rematch with Providence at home. They travel to West Virginia in a huge game on February 27th and conclude their regular season with a home contest against Seton Hall on March 3rd. Three wins should get the Panthers a coveted 1st round bye, especially if one is over WVU. Anything less and Pittsburgh will need some considerable help.
Cincinnati (17-9, 6-6) recorded a big 82-65 road win over Syracuse on Wednesday. The Bearcats trailed 41-40 at the half, but totally dominated the final twenty minutes. Junior forward Cedric McGowan tallied a career-high 19 points and added 9 rebounds. Senior SG Jihad Muhammad also scored 19, his 5th consecutive game in double figures. Cincinnati dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Orange by a 42-24 margin.
Looking ahead – Cincinnati's streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is still very much in jeopardy. Three of their final four games are at home. They host Providence tonight, then have Villanova on February 23rd and end the season with West Virginia on March 4th. Their lone remaining road contest is on February 28th with Seton Hall. Realistically, the Bearcats will need to win at least two of those contests to keep their NCAA dreams alive. The fate of interim coach Andy Kennedy is still very much in doubt. New Athletic Director Mike Thomas was recently quoted that Kennedy was a "legitimate candidate." He added that the search for a permanent replacement for Bob Huggins will be conducted with extreme diligence and confidentiality. The consensus opinion is that despite the excellent job he's done this season, Kennedy's close ties with Huggins will mean someone else will be at the helm next season.
Connecticut figures to lose their #1 ranking after dropping a 69-64 decision to Villanova on Monday. The Huskies (22-2, 9-2) also fell one game below the Wildcats in the Big East race. UConn overcame a halftime deficit with a 13-0 run, but Villanova answered with an impressive 22-4 run of their own which put them ahead to stay. The Huskies were plagued with 17 turnovers, 6 by junior PG Marcus Williams. They also missed four free throws in the final five minutes, including the front ends of two one-and-ones. Sophomore SF Rudy Gay had 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Looking ahead – The long-running feud between coach Jim Calhoun and several local media members is heating up again. According to an article by Jere Longman in the 2/11 N.Y. Times, Calhoun's ire has largely been directed at Jeff Jacobs, Sports Editor of the Hartford Courant. Jacobs has been highly critical of the decision to suspend star junior PG Marcus Williams for only the first half of this season after his involvement in the on-campus theft of four laptop computers. Jacobs also blasted Calhoun for convincing guard Doug Wiggins to renege on his verbal to fellow conference member St. John's and sign with the Huskies. In his 11/29/05 column, Jacobs took Calhoun to task for an incident that allegedly happened in 1997. According to a book written by former Fresno St. coach Jerry Tarkanian, Calhoun told recruit Souleymane Wane that Tarkanian was dying of cancer. Wane ended up at UConn.
Freshman PF Jeff Adrien has seen his playing time increase, mostly at the expense of senior Ed Nelson. Adrien gives the Huskies another potent weapon off the bench. Of UConn's five remaining games, only two look difficult. They travel to Morgantown on Saturday. The Mountaineers will need to regain their shooting touch to have a chance. The Huskies then have a rematch with Villanova at home on February 26th. That game could well decide the Big East regular season title.
DePaul is suffering through a difficult 1st Big East season. The Blue Demons (9-13, 2-9) haven't played since their 61-51 loss at home to Villanova last Saturday. First year coach Jerry Wainwright needs some time to bring in players to fit his system. The team has also been hampered by the lack of leadership. No seniors play significant minutes.
Looking ahead – Three of DePaul's final five games are on the road, including St. John's tomorrow. Even a 3-2 finish would likely have the Blue Demons staying home for the Big East Tournament.
#17 Georgetown (17-6, 8-4) lost their 2nd game in a row. The Hoyas followed their home loss to West Virginia on Sunday by dropping a 57-51 decision at Marquette on Thursday. The loss to WVU snapped a seven game winning streak. After taking a 37-29 lead at intermission, Georgetown was outscored 40–19 in the 2nd half. Sophomore PF Jeff Green was the lone bright spot for the Hoyas with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Last night, Green had his problems against the Golden Eagles. He scored a season-low 2 points on 1-6 shooting and turned the ball over eight times. Sophomore center Roy Hibbert was the only Georgetown player in double figures with 17 points.
Looking ahead – Last night's loss drops Georgetown one game behind Pittsburgh in the battle for 4th place and the all-important first round bye in the upcoming Big East Tournament. Should the two teams end up in a tie, Georgetown would get the edge over the Panthers since they defeated them on February 5th. The Hoyas face a tough trip to Villanova on Sunday. Their final three games look a lot more promising. They play Rutgers and Syracuse at home and finish the season with a visit to conference doormat South Florida.
Louisville has been idle since scraping past South Florida 57-54 last Saturday. In that game, senior PG Taquan Dean saved the day for the Cardinals (16-8, 4-7) by pouring in 21 points. Louisville lost sophomore center David Padgett to a concussion with 16:47 remaining in the game. The win was the 1,500th in school history, making the Cardinals the 18th school to reach that level.
Looking ahead – The Cardinals face a difficult final five games in their attempt to qualify for the Big East Tournament. They travel to Syracuse for a game tomorrow night. David Padgett is expected to play against the Orange. Louisville then gets DePaul at home on February 22nd, visits WVU on February 25th, hosts Marquette on March 1st and finishes at UConn on March 4th. Coach Rick Pitino has already expressed reservations about accepting an NIT bid if the Cardinals fail to qualify for the NCAAs. Their home court, Freedom Hall, is booked for the duration of the NIT so all games would be on the road. Pitino also cited the fact that several players will need post-season surgery.
Marquette (17-8, 7-5) followed up a disappointing 91-84 road loss to Rutgers on Sunday with a huge 57-51 win over #17 Georgetown on Thursday night. Senior forward Steve Novak led the way for the Golden Eagles with 19 points, including 5 three pointers. That gave Novak 91 for the season, breaking the school record. Novak also made two free throws with 20 seconds left to ice the win.
Looking ahead – Marquette is at home to #9 Pitsburgh on Saturday. They then hit the road with games against Notre Dame on February 25th and Louisville on March 1st. The Golden Eagles finish up at home against Providence on March 4th. Their NCAA prospects look good following the Georgetown win. Junior center Mike Kinsella is expected to miss two more weeks following an emergency appendectomy on February 6th.
Notre Dame (12-10, 3-8) won their 2nd consecutive game on Wednesday, a 62-55 decision over South Florida. The Irish recovered from a horrible start, missing their first 11 shots. A late 19-2 run gave them a 31-19 lead at intermission. Sophomore forward Rob Kurz provided a spark off the bench with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Junior SF Reggie Carter continued his fine recent play with 13 points.
Looking ahead – Notre Dame still has a decent chance of qualifying for the Big East Tournament. The Irish visit Seton Hall on Saturday, where they've had great success. After a trip to face UConn on Tuesday, Notre Dame finishes with home games against Marquette on February 25th and DePaul on March 4th sandwiched around a road contest with Providence on March 1st. They'll need to go 3-2 to have a realistic shot at a trip to New York.
Providence (11-11, 4-7) lost 85-77 at home to #9 Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. The Friars held a 37-33 lead at the half, but the deeper Panthers wore them down in the final 20 minutes. Senior SG Donnie McGrath tied his career-high with 28 points including 6-10 from long range. The only other Friar in double figures was freshman SG Weyinmi Efejuku with 12.
Looking ahead – Providence is still in the running for the Big East Tournament, but their remaining schedule is no picnic. The Friars visit Cincinnati tonight. They get their lone break with a home game vs. South Florida next Tuesday. Their final three games are at Pittsburgh on February 25th, home against Notre Dame on March 1st, and at Marquette on March 4th. They'll need to win at least two of their remaining games. Sophomore center Randall Hanke has seen his playing time reduced of late. The Friars are going with a smaller lineup, which has increased the minutes for Efejuku.
Rutgers (14-11, 4-8) followed up an impressive win over Marquette on Sunday with a lackluster 54-51 home loss to St. John's on Wednesday. Assistant head coach Fred Hill Jr. ran the team against Marquette, as coach Gary Waters was stuck in Cleveland after a major snowstorm blanketed the Northeast. Waters was inducted into the Kent St. Hall of Fame on Saturday night. The storm limited the crowd to just 2,012 hearty souls. Junior SG Quincy Douby tallied 32 points to help the Scarlet Knights snap a 3 game losing streak. In the loss to the Red Storm, the Scarlet Knights shot just 34% (18-53) and were out-rebounded by a 42-25 margin. Douby once again was Rutgers' leading scorer with 23 points.
Looking ahead – Is Waters' job in jeopardy? Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy was reportedly unhappy about Waters' decision to attend the ceremony at Kent State despite severe weather warnings. Fred Hill Jr,. whose father is the long-time baseball coach at Rutgers, was brought in from Villanova to boost Rutgers' local recruiting. He could well be in Mulcahy's sights as Waters' successor. The loss to St. John's really hurt Rutgers' chances to qualify for the Big East Tournament. The Scarlet Knights visit South Florida on Saturday and Georgetown on February 22nd. The Bulls visit Piscataway on February 26th and Rutgers finishes with a short trip to face St. John's again on March 5th. If they can manage two wins over hapless USF, Rutgers should be "in." Their frontcourt needs help, as both talented freshman PF J.R. Inman and top defender senior Adrian Hill are likely out for the season with injuries.
Seton Hall (16-7, 7-4) rebounded from a 99-57 pounding by UConn last Saturday to upend #11 West Virginia 71-64. Senior center Kelly Whitney led the way for the Pirates with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Sophomore swingman Brian Laing chipped in with a career-high 19 points. Seton Hall won despite shooting just 2-15 from 3 point range. The Pirates defense was dominant, holding the Mountaineers to just 37.7% shooting.
Looking ahead – Seton Hall is home to Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish have given them fits in the past. A two game road trip follows; St. John's on February 21st and DePaul on February 25th. The Pirates conclude with a home game against Cincinnati on February 28th and a visit to Pittsburgh on March 3rd. Two more wins should ensure an NCAA bid. That would force new Athletic Director Joe Quinlan to make a decision on the fate of coach Louis Orr. It was widely believed Orr was history after the season, but getting the team into the NCAAs may change the plans. Quinlan has been very quiet lately. Seton Hall was bolstered by the return of junior forward Stan Gaines against WVU. He had missed the previous seven games due to facial fractures.
South Florida's nightmare continues. The Bulls (6-18, 0-11) dropped a 62-55 decision at Notre Dame on Wednesday. Despite having no more than 7 scholarship players available, seven of USF's eleven Big East losses have been by 6 or fewer points. Against the Irish, senior center Solomon Jones recorded his 11th double-double of the season with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Looking ahead – The Bulls have a shot at winning their first Big East game. Their next three games include a home contest with Rutgers on Saturday followed by visits to Providence on February 21st and a return engagement at Rutgers on February 26th. Their final two games are at home, but the Bulls must face UConn and Georgetown.
St.John's (11-12, 4-8) snapped a 6 game losing streak with a huge 54-51 win at Rutgers on Wednesday. Junior PF Aaron Spears jump shot with 37.8 seconds remaining put the Red Storm ahead to stay 52-51. Junior center Lamont Hamilton iced the win with two free throws with 4.4 seconds left. Hamilton had a big game, with 19 points and 14 rebounds. St. John's won despite turning the ball over 16 times.
Three of St. John's final four games are at home. They meet DePaul on Saturday, Seton Hall on February 21st, and Rutgers on March 5th. Their lone road contest is Villanova on March 1st. The Red Storm will qualify for the Big East Tournament if they can take care of business on their home court. Junior PG Daryll Hill is lost for the season with a knee injury. That has led to increased playing time for young guards Cedric Jackson and Ricky Torres.
The enigmatic season continues for Syracuse (17-8, 5-6). The Orange followed up a big 75-60 road win over St. John's on Sunday with a desultory 82-65 loss to Cincinnati at the Carrier Dome on Wednesday. In the win over the Red Storm, senior SG Gerry McNamara tossed in 23 points and added 8 assists. It was McNamara's 124th consecutive start, the longest active streak in the country. Freshman PG Eric Devendorf added 18 points and junior center Darryl Watkins finally came alive with 11 points and 14 rebounds. In the loss to Cincinnati, the Orange were held to 24 second half points by the undermanned Bearcats. McNamara tallied 14 points and junior SF Demetris Nichols added 12.
Looking ahead – Syracuse faces an uphill battle to reach .500 in the conference. They face Louisville at home on Saturday and West Virginia on Monday. They then travel to Georgetown on February 25th and DePaul on March 2nd. Their final game is a home contest on March 5th against Villanova. Junior SG Louie McCroskey returned to the team after missing one game and five practices. He was reportedly unhappy over his shrinking playing time.
#4 Villanova (20-2, 10-1) extended their winning streak to nine games by defeating UConn 69-64 on Monday. The win also gave the Wildcats sole possession of first place. Villanova used the 3 point shot very effectively, especially in the 2nd half where they connected on 7 of 9. Senior SG Allan Ray led the way with 25 points, 19 after intermission. Sophomore guard Kyle Lowry added 18 points, and junior forward Will Sheridan tied his career high with 13 points along with 10 rebounds. Villanova only got 3 points from their bench, all by junior guard Mike Nardi who was returning from a two game absence due to illness.
Looking ahead – Villanova rewarded coach Jay Wright with a 7 year contract extension on Tuesday. Wright has compiled a 95-56 record in his four seasons at the helm of the Wildcats. Villanova will have to battle to hold on to first place. They have a home game with Georgetown on Sunday. The Wildcats then visit Cincinnati on February 23rd and travel to Connecticut for a rematch on February 26th. They conclude the regular season with a home game against St. John's on March 1st and a trip to Syracuse on March 5th.
West Virginia (18-6, 9-2) followed their big road win over Georgetown on Sunday with a 71-64 loss at Seton Hall on Tuesday. Against the Hoyas, the Mountaineers abandoned their traditional 1-3-1 zone defense in the 2nd half. The switch to man-to-man obviously worked, since Georgetown managed to score only 19 points in the final twenty minutes. Senior center Kevin Pittsnogle rebounded from a scoreless performance against Pitt to lead the way with 25 points on 10-15 shooting. Fellow seniors Mike Gansey and Joe Herber each added 13 points. Coach John Beilein tried every defense known to man against Seton Hall, but nothing could prevent the Pirates from getting the ball inside where they scored 44 f their 71 points. Pittsnogle again led the way for WVU with 24 points and 6 rebounds.
Looking ahead – The Mountaineers are competing with Pittsburgh and Georgetown for the two remaining first round byes. They host UConn on Saturday followed by a trip to Syracuse on Monday. WVU then has home games with Louisville on February 25th and Pittsburgh on February 27th. They end the season with a visit to Cincinnati on March 4th. The game against the Panthers is especially huge, since a Pitt win would give them the tiebreaker.