But if early indications are correct, the best is yet to come for the Big East with No. 5 Syracuse, No. 6 West Virginia, No. 8 Villanova, No. 11 Connecticut and No. 14 Georgetown all rated among the top 15 teams.
Pittsburgh (10-2) and DePaul (7-5) meet tonight at 7 in the Big East opener for both teams. All the other Big East teams are in action this week. West Virginia beat Seton Hall, 90-84, in overtime Saturday.
Here is a Conference preview from the Sports Xchange:
The Panthers are working reinforcements into the mix, and that could make a team that didn't do much to impress in nonconference play more of a factor in the Big East race.
A team that lost four starters from a team that just missed the Final Four a year ago was even more shorthanded in the first month of the season, with Jermaine Dixon sidelined by a foot injury and Gilbert Brown suspended for the first semester. Dixon is working his way back into the rotation, and Brown finally returned to the court in the final pre-conference tune-up against Ohio.
Dixon was the lone returning starter from 2008-09, but Brown might make the biggest impact -- assuming he can work his way back into the lineup quickly.
He wasn't even allowed to practice with the team for the first semester, but made an instant impact against Ohio, scoring 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting in 18 minutes. While having to work out on his own, he apparently spent a lot of time working on his shot, and it showed.
The senior is playing a new position, taking the court at power forward after playing his previous 72 games as a wing forward. That gives the team a smaller lineup -- Brown is only 6-6 -- but it fills a weakness and gives Brown an advantageous matchup offensively.
It's a measure of the confidence the coaching staff has in Brown that it moved Brown into a new position in December with just three practices to learn it before his first game. If Brown can keep delivering like he did in his 2009-10 debut, Jamie Dixon and his crew will look awfully smart.
--Pitt held 10 of its first 12 opponents this season to 60 points or less. On the flip side, the two opponents who scored more than that -- Texas (78) and Indiana (74) -- are the two teams to beat the Panthers in nonconference play.
--G Ashton Gibbs enters the week on a streak of 27 made free throws. He's seven away from tying the team record, held by Jason Matthews, Sean Miller and Don Hennon.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: It's a challenging opening stretch of Big East play for Pitt. After beginning at home against DePaul on Dec. 28, the Panthers get three straight on the road -- Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut. The next few games aren't much better -- home tilts against Louisville and Georgetown, and a trip to play a frisky Seton Hall squad.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Gil (Brown) is a great player. I think he gave us a lot of energy. We're expecting big things from him, and I think there is more to come." -- Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: In nonconference play, the Panthers essentially held serve, with the only unexpected outcome perhaps a disappointing loss to Indiana on a neutral court. That may not sound like much of a beginning for a team that made the Elite Eight last year, but after beginning the season having to replace four starters -- and with his two most experienced players on the sidelines in Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown -- Jamie Dixon will take it.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Nasir Robinson, C Gary McGhee, G Bradley Wanamaker, G Ashton Gibbs, G Jermaine Dixon. Key Subs -- G Travon Woodall, G Chase Adams, F Gilbert Brown, F Dante Taylor.
Pittsburgh 71, Kent 59
Pittsburgh 66, Mount St. Mary's 48
Pittsburgh 74, Ohio 49
vs. DePaul, Monday, Dec. 28
at Syracuse, Saturday, Jan. 2
at Cincinnati, Monday, Jan. 4
at Connecticut, Wednesday, Jan. 13
vs. Louisville, Saturday, Jan. 16
IN FOCUS: All eyes are going to be on the Pitt-Syracuse game Jan. 2. The Orange will enter with an impressive ranking and the status as a favorite in the Big East, but these teams have played numerous memorable matchups in recent years and this game has the potential to be another one that goes down to the wire.
--F Gilbert Brown returned to the lineup against Ohio after serving a suspension that sidelined him for the first semester. He wasn't allowed to practice with the team while he concentrated on academics, but the rust didn't show in his debut. Brown went 4 of 4 from the field and finished with 11 points.
--G Jermaine Dixon didn't leave campus during the holiday break, though most of his teammates did. He elected to stay closer to the gym to continue his rehabilitation as he works his way back to full strength from a foot injury.
--G-F Lamar Patterson didn't play in the final two nonconference games, as he lost playing time because of the return of Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon. The freshman was in the rotation through the first 10 games.
Georgetown was far from being the deepest team in the Big East during the first semester. That situation didn't get any better in December.
Nikita Mescheriakov, who started at the end of the 2008-09 season but had seen his playing time cut this year, decided to transfer. That marks nine players in the past five seasons to leave the program early, seven as transfers.
That leaves the Hoyas with an 11-man roster. Two of those players are walk-ons -- Ryan Dougherty and Stephen Stepka -- so Thompson doesn't have the depth of talent that many of the other Big East teams do.
However, the roster is still put together well enough that, barring foul trouble or injuries, there's enough talent to beat any team in the league. There are frontcourt bodies aplenty with Chris Monroe, Julian Vaughn, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson, while the backcourt boasts Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, and Jason Clark.
That's a very good seven-man core, and it didn't leave much room for Mescheriakov to crack the rotation. But beyond the first seven, just freshmen -- Vee Sanford and Jerrelle Benimon -- stand ahead of the two walk-ons.
Mescheriakov was averaging just over six minutes a game, so his loss won't hurt the team in the short term. But his versatility proved invaluable a year ago, and there will be times when his presence will be missed in the coming weeks.
--John Thompson III has a six-man rotation that gets most of the minutes -- the five starters plus freshman Hollis Thompson. Each of them played 22 minutes or more against Harvard. Fellow key reserves Vee Sanford, Henry Sims and Jerrelle Benimon each played less than 10.
--Greg Monroe had a big day in the victory over Harvard, setting a career high with 16 rebounds against the Crimson. He also added 16 points and tied a career high with five blocks.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: It's an interesting beginning to the conference schedule for the Hoyas, as Georgetown faces some bigwigs as well as other surprising teams. It opens the season at home against red-hot St. John's, travels to DePaul and Marquette, and then comes back to the Verizon Center for games against UConn and Seton Hall. If it can emerge from that stretch unscathed, the Jan. 17 trip to Villanova could be for a top-five ranking as well as first place in the Big East.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think (Chris Wright) is a great player, and I thought we could have done a lot better at trying to keep our chest in front of him, maybe should have pulled back and not challenged him as much. He went by us, but I think they're a good passing team. He got it on the bounce and the drive, but he was the recipient of some good passes from his teammates. I think he scoring wasn't just his driving, but his movement without the ball and the passes by his teammates." -- Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told The Washington Times on Chris Wright's 34-point performance against his Crimson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: For a Top 15 team, Georgetown has somehow had a quiet start to the season. It had nine wins through 10 games, with neutral-site victories over Washington and Butler included, and yet the Hoyas aren't being talked about as much as fellow Big East schools Villanova, Syracuse, and West Virginia. Still, the Hoyas are in as good position as anyone in the league heading into the start of conference play.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Austin Freeman, F Julian Vaughn, C Greg Monroe, G Jason Clark, G Chris Wright. Key Subs -- F Hollis Thompson, F/C Henry Sims, G Vee Sanford, F Jerrelle Benimon.
Georgetown 74, Washington 66
Old Dominion 61, Georgetown 57
Georgetown 86, Harvard 70
vs. St. John's, Thursday, Dec. 31
at DePaul, Sunday, Jan. 3
at Marquette, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. Connecticut, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs, Seton Hall, Thursday, Jan. 14
IN FOCUS: Georgetown has something to prove against the Johnnies in their Big East opener -- St. John's swept the Hoyas a year ago and helped send the team to the NIT instead of the NCAAs. This will be an early sign of whether the Hoyas have enough depth to survive an old-fashioned Big East slugfest, as the deep and physical Red Storm will try and take it to the Hoyas for 40 minutes.
--Chris Wright's 34 points against Harvard didn't just mark a career high. It was the most points any individual has scored in a game in John Thompson III's six years as head coach. The previous high was 30 by Jeff Green, against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament.
--Sophomore Jason Clark has taken to his new responsibilities as a starter this season. He's fourth on the team at 11.1 points per game, has the most 3-pointers on the team, and leads the Hoyas in assists.
--Greg Monroe is having a strong start to his sophomore season, but continues to struggle at the line. He barely broke the 60% barrier in nonconference play, going 34-of-56 for a 60.7-percent clip.
Providence starts two seniors and a junior. But make no mistake: The Friars are one of the youngest teams in the Big East.
Last year, Keno Davis started putting his stamp on the team in changing its style of play at both ends of the court. But all of the players he had to work with belonged to former coach Tim Welsh. This year, Davis' stamp is squarely on the roster.
Five key reserves are newcomers: freshmen Vincent Council, Johnnie Lacy and Duke Mondy, and junior college transfers Kyle Wright and Russ Permenter. Two of the starters redshirted a year ago: Jamine Peterson and Bilal Dixon.
Even the veterans, Sharuad Curry, Marshon Brooks and Brian McKenzie, are playing the Davis way, a more up-tempo style that relies on 3-pointers and an attacking style to overcome the fact that the team doesn't really guard anyone and isn't very big.
For the Friars to succeed, the team is going to have to impose its will on opponents on the offensive end. On days when the 3-pointers fall, it should be able to beat anyone in the conference. When they don't, the team will struggle.
Big East play begins this week, with the opener coming against Notre Dame on Dec. 30. That will be the first test for a young team that will have to learn quickly to avoid falling to the bottom of the league standings.
--After Rhode Island knocked off Providence earlier in December, there were rumors that the series between the in-state rivals would come to an end. However, the Providence athletic director told the Providence Journal that he expects the series to continue for the foreseeable future.
--Providence enters Big East play as the conference's third highest-scoring team, averaging nearly 85 points per game. It's already broken the 100-point barrier twice, in victories over Vermont and George Washington.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The Friars have an opportunity to erase some of the sting of the early losses, thanks to a relatively light start to Big East play. Of course, beginning with two road games is never ideal, but neither Notre Dame nor St. John's is ranked. The team then heads home to play Louisville and Rutgers, and takes to the road against DePaul and Marquette. The team's first game against a ranked Big East opponent doesn't come until Jan. 27, its eighth conference game of the season, when it plays Connecticut.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We realize defense is the key. We know we can score. We know that we pass well. It's just defense. We have to work on our defense and I feel that's something we're getting better at it's just that it's frustrating that we come out hard and teams get easy shots. If we get key stops, we'll be a good team in the Big East." -- Providence forward Bilal Dixon told the Providence Journal.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The issue for Keno Davis has been finding a combination of players that performs well on both ends of the court. Providence has scored enough points to stay in every game, but allowed enough to make them all close. Interestingly, the group that did so in the victory over Yale did not include veteran guard Sharaud Curry, but rather freshman Vincent Council. If that holds true in Big East play, coach Keno Davis will have a tough decision to make regarding the distribution of minutes.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Marshon Brooks, F Jamine Peterson, F/C Bilal Dixon, G Brian McKenzie, G Sharaud Curry. Key Subs -- G/F Kyle Wright, G Vincent Council, G Duke Mondy, F Russ Permenter, G Johnnie Lacy.
Providence 110, George Washington 97
Iona 82, Providence 73
Providence 87, Yale 78
at Notre Dame, Wednesday, Dec. 30
at St. John's, Sunday, Jan. 3
vs. Louisville, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. Rutgers, Saturday, Jan. 9
at DePaul, Thursday, Jan. 14
IN FOCUS: The Friars have problems guarding opponents, and the Red Storm are a big and physical team that prides itself in challenging other teams around the basket. This will be a contrast of styles, with the Johnnies looking to use their size and strength inside while the Friars try and win the game on the perimeter.
--Senior center Ray Hall hasn't played yet this season because of a leg injury, and originally was expected to be sidelined for the year because of an inability to put weight on it. However, his rehab is progressing unexpectedly well, and Hall now expects to play this season.
--Senior guard Sharaud Curry is two points away from moving into the top 20 in the school's list of all-time scoring leaders. Currently occupying the No. 20 ranking is his former teammate, Donnie McGrath, who was a senior while Curry was a freshman.
--Jamine Peterson's nickname is "Greedy," and he's definitely been that on the boards this season. His 10.9 rebounds per game lead the team and are second in the Big East, and he leads the conference in offensive rebounds by averaging five per game.
This is the most talented team Norm Roberts has had at St. John's, but it's not the biggest. And in the Big East, sometimes size matters.
There isn't a seven-footer on the Red Storm roster. Dele Coker is the closest at 6-foot-10, and Sean Evans and Justin Burrell are 6-8. With Burrell slowed by an ankle sprain, St. John's is even more vulnerable to a strong inside player.
That's had a big effect on the team's second-chance opportunities -- how many it gets on offense and the number it surrenders on defense. At the start of the Big East season, St. John's was 13th among the league's 16 teams in rebounding margin.
Because the Red Storm is undersized, technique becomes more important. If St. John's allows opposing centers to set up on the blocks, bad things usually happen, particularly given Coker's tendency to pick up tick-tack fouls.
Roberts has a lot of smaller bodies he can throw out there to shove centers away from the basket, and that will start happening more regularly now that he'll see more of them in other uniforms in conference play.
The opener provides one of the biggest matchup challenges the team will face all season -- Georgetown's imposing 6-foot-11 center, Greg Monroe. Considering Cornell's Jeff Foote went for 19 points and 11 rebounds against the Red Storm in a Big Red victory, it's obvious that Roberts' crew still has a lot to work on in advance of that meeting.
--The game against Bryant on Dec. 23 was promoted as Ugly Holiday Sweater Night. Fans wearing their least flattering finery got in with a $10 ticket and were eligible for prizes. The idea honored former coach Lou Carnesecca, who was legendary for his sweaters during his Hall of Fame coaching career.
--A pair of walk-ons took advantage of their opportunities in the Bryant game to get into the scoring column for the first time. Kevin Clark and John Taubeneck each scored the first points of their college careers in the victory.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The next step for the Red Storm is to get into the top half of the Big East standings. St. John's begins conference play at traditional rival Georgetown, then get three of their next four games at home against Providence, Cincinnati and DePaul. The games against the Friars and Blue Demons are at Carnesecca Arena, and the on-campus home of the Red Storm should be hopping.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I knew it would happen for me eventually. I knew I would have to stay with it and it would come." -- St. John's guard Paris Horne told the New York Daily News, after emerging from a shooting slump by going 5-6 from beyond the arc against Bryant.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: As the team enters Big East play, there are more reasons for optimism than at any time in the Norm Roberts era. The only two losses are to Duke and Cornell, with the latter the best Ivy League team in recent memory. Among the victories are a seven-point win over a Temple squad that has since risen into the Top 25, and a 10-point victory over Georgia in the SEC/Big East Invitational.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F D.J. Kennedy, F Sean Evans, G Paris Horne, G Dwight Hardy, G Malik Boothe. Key Subs -- F Dele Coker, F Justin Brownlee, G/F Omari Lawrence, G Malik Stith, F Rob Thomas.
St. John's 72, Hofstra 60
Cornell 71, St. John's 66
St. John's 80, Bryant 44
at Georgetown, Thursday, Dec. 31
vs. Providence, Sunday, Jan. 3
at Louisville, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Cincinnati, Wednesday, Jan. 13
vs. DePaul, Sunday, Jan. 10
IN FOCUS: The Red Storm swept the Hoyas in 2008-09, so Georgetown will be looking for payback in the Big East opener for both schools. A big challenge -- literally -- will be covering Georgetown center Greg Monroe, one of the best big men in the country.
--The loss of Quincy Roberts to a medical redshirt and the continued injury woes suffered by Anthony Mason Jr. has provided an opportunity for freshman Omari Lawrence. The swingman has lost 10 pounds already this season and has reportedly spent extra time working on his shooting to contribute early in his Red Storm career.
--Forward Justin Burrell missed the Bryant game with a high ankle sprain, but hoped to return for the Big East opener against Georgetown.
--The Red Storm are hoping that the performance by Paris Horne against Bryant is a sign that he's out of his shooting slump. He went 5-6 from 3-point range, after beginning the season 13-42 from long range.
One thing to watch as Big East play looms for the Golden Eagles is whether the uptick in competition leads to a change in the playing rotation.
Coach Buzz Williams has gone with a small backcourt in the early season, with Maurice Acker and David Cubillan forming the starting lineup. Acker is just 5-foot-8, and Cubillan is 6-0 in sneakers. That got the team to an 8-3 record and wins over Xavier and Michigan.
But it's hard to see that lineup working against bigger guards in the Big East, especially given the lack of a dominant center. Fortunately, the Golden Eagles have some solutions on the roster.
Sophomore Darius Johnson-Odom, a junior college transfer from Hutchinson Community College, is averaging double figures off the bench and gives a slightly bigger look at 6-foot-2. Fellow guard Dwight Buycks is 6-3, and also has some experience as a junior college transfer who piled up points at Indian Hills CC.
Playing one or both of them more minutes has a couple of benefits. Both can get to the rim on offense, which forces defenses to account for their quickness. Cubillan is more of a spot-up shooter, while Acker's size limits his ability to finish at the rim. It also gives the Golden Eagles more size and physicality on defense, which will come in handy in conference play.
In the final pre-conference tune-up against Presbyterian, Buycks was in the starting lineup, while Acker came off the bench. That might be a preview of a rotation for the league slate.
The Golden Eagles will need production from all of their guards in order to surprise again the Big East, and Johnson-Odom and Buycks will likely find themselves key parts of the equation in the coming months.
--One interesting statistical note for the Golden Eagles is that if Marquette is ahead at crunchtime, it doesn't make much of a difference who the opponent chooses to foul. Marquette shoots 72 percent from the line as a team, which includes the departed Jeronne Maymon's 10 makes in 18 attempts (56 percent), and of the players in the rotation the best performer is Lazar Hayward at 80.4 percent, and the worst David Cubillan and Joe Fulce at 71.4 percent (both in just seven attempts).
--Darius Johnson-Odom is third on the team in scoring even though he currently comes off the bench, in part because he's been great from 3-point range. The juco transfer is 25-of-45 from beyond the arc entering Big East play, a very impressive 55.6 percent.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: Marquette has traditionally gotten off to strong starts in the Big East, but 2009-10 makes that more challenging than it usually is. The Golden Eagles begin conference play with a trip to West Virginia, and then host Villanova and Georgetown. The first two opponents will test the Golden Eagles lack of depth, while the Hoyas will be a tough matchup for the Marquette frontcourt.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had real practice in here for two hours this morning, and I thought they were extremely unselfish. I thought we did really good things more consecutively than we had over the last month." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, on the Presbyterian game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Even more than usual, the Golden Eagles have a lot of questions to answer as Big East play begins. Once the physical Big East opponents key on Hayward, how will newcomers like Darius Johnson-Odom and Dwight Buycks pick up the slack? While results were generally good in nonconference play, the three losses make this team an underdog to return to prominence in the league standings, which is a position the team has had success in overcoming in recent years.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Joseph Fulce, F Lazar Hayward, G/F Jimmy Butler, G Maurice Acker, G David Cubillan. Key Subs -- F Dwight Buycks, G Darius Johnson-Odom, F Youssoupha Mbao, F Erik Williams.
Wisconsin 72, Marquette 63
Marquette 78, North Florida 51
Marquette 102, Presbyterian 60
at West Virginia, Tuesday, Dec. 29
vs. Villanova, Saturday, Jan. 2
vs. Georgetown, Wednesday, Jan. 6
at Villanova, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Providence, Sunday, Jan. 17
IN FOCUS: Villanova will be a tough matchup for the Golden Eagles. The Wildcats' deep and talented backcourt will require Buzz Williams to find a backcourt rotation capable of checking Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Reggie Redding. On the other hand, the Villanova coaching staff will have to figure out if anyone on its roster can contain Lazar Hayward inside.
--Lazar Hayward had been struggling from the 3-point line, so it was good to see him knock down two of his three attempts from beyond the arc against Presbyterian. Before that, he was 12-of-51 (23.5 percent) from 3-point range on the season.
--Jimmy Butler is second on the team in scoring, and might do better if he looked for long-distance shots more often. He's taken 10 3-pointers on the year entering nonconference play, and made seven.
--Joe Fulce had an impressive first game getting increased minutes in the absence of the departed Jeronne Maymon. He finished with career highs in points (13) and rebounds (10) in the victory over North Florida.
For a team hoping to make the NCAA Tournament, there are no moral victories. So the reaction to the Big East opener -- a 90-84 home loss to West Virginia in overtime -- was more of a downer than anything else.
That was especially true because the game against the No. 6 team in the country was more than winnable. Even an average performance at the free throw line would have made the difference. Instead, Seton Hall shot a putrid 16 of 33.
Although the Pirates took the loss, there was one very good sign. When the situation was rough and the game looked to be a blowout, Seton Hall responded.
The team was down 10 points with 56 seconds to play and no timeouts, and the fans were headed for the exits. But a furious comeback, capped by a 30-footer by Jeremy Hazell with eight seconds to play, forced the extra session.
In many measures, Seton Hall did enough to win the game. It outscored the Mountaineers in the paint and on fast-break points, took good care of the basketball, and played solid defense. And it's not as if the team isn't spending extra work after practice working on free throws. The team, so far, just happens not to be very good at making them.
While the team's effort wasn't enough to overcome the atrocious effort at the line, it did show that the Pirates can play with anyone and score points in bunches even with a smaller lineup, which should serve the team well once the calendar turns to 2010.
--Seton Hall ran a guard-oriented lineup at the Mountaineers and managed to attack the West Virginia defense while being careful with the basketball. The Pirates turned the ball over just six times in the overtime defeat.
--F Herb Pope was the worst offender as the Pirates made just 16 of 33 free throw attempts against West Virginia. He was 1 of 10.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: Coach Bobby Gonzalez will be counting on experience to lead the Pirates through Big East play. Not many teams combine four returning starters with three transfers that have experience in big-time programs, and that level of talent will help as Seton Hall looks to make the leap into the NCAA Tournament picture and the top half of the Big East.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The one thing that I'll concede is that we were home a lot. But Cornell beat St. John's at the Garden, UMass goes and beats Memphis. We didn't beat people by five, we were beating people by 40. So we played good basketball. I don't care what anybody says about our schedule with the cupcakes and the puff-this and all that stuff." -- Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez, in the Newark Star-Ledger, on his team's non-conference schedule.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: What we know about Seton Hall is that it can beat the average teams on its schedule, but not the ranked ones. The Pirates are 9-2, with the losses coming against Temple and West Virginia, both of whom are in the Top 25.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Herb Pope, F Robert Mitchell, C John Garcia, G Jeremy Hazell, G Eugene Harvey. Key Subs -- G Keon Lawrence, G Jordan Theodore, G Jamal Jackson, F Ferrakohn Hall, C Melvyn Oliver.
Temple 71, Seton Hall 65
Seton Hall 94, Navy 56
West Virginia 90, Seton Hall 84 (OT)
vs. Syracuse, Tuesday, Dec. 29
at Virginia Tech, Saturday, Jan. 2
at Connecticut, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. Cincinnati, Saturday, Jan. 9
at Georgetown, Thursday, Jan. 14
IN FOCUS: If there were no moral victories against Temple or West Virginia, that's even more true for Seton Hall's second Big East game of the season -- a home game against Syracuse. Another loss against a Top 25 team would leave the Pirates 0-2 in the Big East, with both losses at home and a lot of ground to make up early in the conference campaign.
--F Herb Pope is playing through what appears to be a minor injury to his Achilles'. Though it hasn't stopped him from putting up big numbers, his 1-of-10 performance at the free throw line against WVU was one to forget.
--Missouri transfer G Keon Lawrence missed the first semester because of a team-imposed suspension, and is still shaking off the rust of inactivity. He did not have a game to remember in his Big East debut, going scoreless with one rebound and one assist against the Mountaineers.
--G Jeremy Hazell's 41 points against West Virginia marked a career high, and the junior has always done well against the Mountaineers. He had 30 points against them as a freshman and 29 a year ago, giving him an even 100 points against WVU in his college career.
UConn has been impressive at times early in the season, but it's not surprising that the big weaknesses on a team that lost so much from a Final Four squad would be 40-minute focus and attention to detail.
A lot of that has manifested itself in a lack of movement off the ball. Getting open against tough defenders, and defending against backdoor cuts and screens for an entire game, has been difficult so far, with corresponding frustration from the coaching staff.
As coach Jim Calhoun told the Hartford Courant, the problem isn't laziness. Nor is it ignorance, especially a couple of months into the season. It's a simple matter of execution.
That got better in the final pre-conference tune-up, a 19-point victory over Iona. After struggling in the first half of the previous two games and failing to put overmatched opponents away, the Huskies led by 14 at the break and held that margin most of the rest of the way.
But that ended the learning time for the Huskies. Next up: the Big East slate, with an opening game at a suddenly dangerous Cincinnati squad.
Those lapses that prevented big victories in the early season could have far more serious consequences in the coming weeks.
--UConn hasn't shot the ball well most of the season, but it enters Big East play coming off one of its best performances of the year. The Huskies made 59 percent of their shots against Iona, and parlayed that into a season-high 93 points.
--G Kemba Walker had seven assists in the victory over Iona. He enters Big East play on a streak of 44 assists over the past six games.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The Big East season is where the rubber hits the road for the Huskies, because it's where any lack of depth will be exploited. Teams will challenge the UConn frontcourt that lacks Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet from the 2008-09 squad; in particular, newer players like Ater Majok, Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriakhi can expect to get attacked on defense. One thing that will have to change for the Huskies is their consistency, as UConn has been a team that tends to play about at the level of their opponent -- nearly beating Kentucky, while nearly losing to Harvard early.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is a lot more physical than pretty much any game we've played in so far. There are a lot of smaller things they don't know about yet, like going into someone else's house with their fans screaming ... they really haven't played in a situation like that yet so it will be good for us to tell them about the ins and outs of the Big East." -- Connecticut forward Gavin Edwards, on what his younger teammates need to learn about the start of conference play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: In a twist for a program that usually puts up big offensive numbers, the Huskies this season haven't always found it easy to score points. They have broken the 90-point barrier just twice this season, and averaged 60 points in its losses to Duke and Kentucky.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Stanley Robinson, F Ater Majok, F Alex Oriakhi, G Jerome Dyson, G Kemba Walker. Key Subs -- F Gavin Edwards, F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, G Donnell Beverley, C Charles Okwandu, G Darius Smith, G Jamaal Trice.
Connecticut 60, Central Florida 51
Connecticut 71, Maine 54
Connecticut 93, Iona 74
at Cincinnati, Wednesday, Dec. 30
vs. Notre Dame, Saturday, Jan. 2
vs. Seton Hall, Wednesday, Jan. 6
at Georgetown, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Jan. 13
IN FOCUS: Jim Calhoun has already seen his fill of Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, and this year he doesn't have Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet to try and check the Fighting Irish's standout forward. It will be a big test for veteran Gavin Edwards and newcomers Ater Majok, Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu as they attempt to keep Harangody from being a one-man wrecking crew.
--F Stanley Robinson scored a career-high 29 points against Iona, perhaps because he was playing with some extra incentive. It was the first time his two daughters -- 4-year-old Kamilah and 2-year-old Kelsi -- had seen him play. They live in Alabama, but came up to see their father for the holidays.
--C Charles Okwandu has drawn the short end of the stick since Ater Majok became eligible for the second semester. He hasn't played in two of the past three games.
--F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel scored a career-high 13 points against Iona. The freshman made all four of his shots from the field.
The Scarlet Knights surged to a six-game winning streak in nonconference play, its best mark since 2001. But the next trick for Fred Hill's crew is to translate that into Big East play, where the competition is a lot tougher.
It'll have to do so without one of its best players.
Gregory Echenique was originally expected to miss a month with an eye injury, but now the sophomore is out for the season and will seek a medical redshirt.
In his absence, Fred Hill has turned to a veteran who began the season with his minutes in jeopardy but has stepped up his level of play in Echenique's absence.
Ndiaye has always been a shot-blocker first and foremost, and he currently leads the NCAA in that category. But he's done even more in the first four games without his running mate in the frontcourt, with three double-doubles over that span.
There's no question that Echenique will be missed, and his presence in the paint makes him arguably the player the team could least afford to lose. But Ndiaye is playing well enough that thus far, the Scarlet Knights haven't missed a beat with him on the sidelines.
It also means more of a role for freshmen Dane Miller and Austin Johnson off the bench, as well as seven-footer Brian Okam. There's not much margin for error, but the pieces are in place for this team to continue to match up well with opponents on the inside.
--Rutgers' trip to Chapel Hill on Dec. 28 marked the team's first game outside the state of New Jersey this season. Nine of the team's first 11 games were at home; the other two were at the Legends Classic in Atlantic City.
--The Scarlet Knights entered mid-December ranked third in the NCAA in blocked shots. A lot of that has to do with Hamady Ndiaye, who leads the country at 5.3 rejections per game.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: Rutgers has dug itself a hole in Big East play early in the season in recent years, and the frontloaded schedule in 2009-10 doesn't make changing that any easier. The team's first four Big East games are at home against a Cincinnati squad that was ranked in December, road games at West Virginia and Providence, and a home date with Syracuse. If it can win one or two of those games, that will be a sign of optimism for what lies ahead.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everybody's growing, and that's what we need." -- Rutgers coach Fred Hill told the Newark Star-Ledger, on his team's performance in nonconference play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: By an objective measure, this hasn't been a great nonconference season for the Scarlet Knights, with a home loss to Vermont and a neutral-site win over UMass the big surprises. But given the team's lack of success in recent years, a 9-2 mark heading into the last week of the year is nothing to scoff about, especially when it includes a six-game winning streak.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Jonathan Mitchell, F Patrick Jackson, C Hamady Ndiaye, G Matt Coburn, G Mike Rosario. Key Subs -- G James Beatty, F Dane Miller, F Austin Johnson.
Rutgers 80, Rider 70 (OT)
Rutgers 71, NJIT 62
Rutgers 66, St. Peter's 42
at North Carolina, Monday, Dec. 28
vs. Cincinnati, Saturday, Jan. 2
at West Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 6
at Providence, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Syracuse, Wednesday, Jan. 13
IN FOCUS: Rutgers gets the Big East opener at home, but it will be a challenge to knock off the big and strong Cincinnati squad. The Bearcats have been one of the surprises of the conference, with freshman Lance Stephenson, the developing sophomore forward Yancy Gates and standout senior Deonta Vaughn. It's a game where the loss of Greg Echenique will be particularly noticeable underneath.
--Senior center Hamady Ndiaye is first in the country in blocked shots, and set a career high with 10 rejections against St. Peter's. He also added 15 points for his third double-double in the past four games.
--Sophomore Mike Rosario was looking forward to the Dec. 28 game against North Carolina. When the two teams met a year ago, he led the team with 26 points and knocked down four 3-pointers.
--Sophomore center Gregory Echenique had a pair of surgeries to his left eye in December, with the first procedure coming Dec. 9 and a follow-up on Dec. 17. He will miss the remainder of the year, but since he played in only seven games there is a chance he will receive a medical redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.
Given a second chance, the Orangemen have made a positive first impression on the Big East media.
The Syracuse Post-Standard ran its own Big East preseason poll that featured Villanova as the most popular choice to win the title, followed by West Virginia. The Orange came in sixth. But when the newspaper re-ran the poll with 14 of the same writers in mid-December, Syracuse was on top.
Don't blame the writers too much for picking the team sixth initially, even though Syracuse enters the Big East schedule ranked No. 5 in the entire country. The team wasn't ranked in the preseason Top 25 poll, but has emerged as one of the game's biggest surprises with three victories over Top 25 teams -- California, North Carolina and Florida -- away from the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome.
Wesley Johnson deserves a lot of credit here. Most thought the Iowa State transfer would have an instant impact, but not enough to overcome the loss of Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf during the offseason. Not only has Johnson starred, he's been arguably the best player in the Big East in nonconference play, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, and highlight film-worthy plays.
More surprising than that is the team's new-found emphasis on the past. Even without Flynn, one of the best point guards in the country a year ago, the Orange are racking up assists early. Syracuse is playing the most unselfish basketball in recent memory, and the result is a lot of good shots.
Syracuse led the nation in field goal percentage heading into Big East play, making 55.3 percent of its shots in nonconference play. That's a big reason the team has been so good early, and why it's apparently now the favorite among Big East writers to win the league.
--Syracuse leads the country in assists, averaging 22.5 per game heading into the start of Big East play. Five different players average two or more assists per game, with Scoop Jardine and Andy Rautins each dishing out more than five a night.
--The Orange's 12-game win streak to start the season marked the program's best in a decade. It's the most wins in a row at the beginning of the year since the 1999-2000 squad began the year with 19 wins in a row.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE:
Jim Boehiem is not one to have a big rotation just for the sake of playing a lot of guys. That's great if you're one of the top seven players on the roster, but not so great for everyone else. There have already been issues this season with Mookie Jones, the talented redshirt freshman who hasn't been happy with his playing time, and roster management will once again be a challenge for Syracuse's Hall of Fame coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think Eric (Devendorf) and Jonny (Flynn) were more offensive minded. They wanted to score. They were looking to score more. Our guards can score more. But they look to pass the ball." -- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the Syracuse Post-Standard.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: What's not to like about a 12-0 start? Syracuse used an unselfish attack led by impact transfer Wesley Johnson to rocket into the top five in both major polls and emerge as one of the favorites to win the Big East. Three of the wins came away from home, knocking off California, North Carolina, and Florida.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Wes Johnson, F Rick Jackson, C Arinze Onuaku, G Brandon Triche, G Andy Rautins. Key Subs -- F Kris Joseph, G Scoop Jardine, F Mookie Jones, F DaShonte Riley, F James Southerland.
Syracuse 75, St. Francis (N.Y.) 51
Syracuse 85, St. Bonaventure 72
Syracuse 92, Oakland 60
at Seton Hall, Tuesday, Dec. 29
vs. Pittsburgh, Saturday, Jan. 2
vs. Memphis, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. South Florida, Sunday, Jan. 10
at Rutgers, Wednesday, Jan. 13
IN FOCUS: Syracuse's backcourt will be tested in their Big East opener, as the Pirates have shown an ability to attack in the early going and have an influx of talent led by impact transfer Herb Pope. On the other hand, if the Orange play unselfish basketball, it should be able to get good shots underneath against Seton Hall, and a win on the road would be an impressive start to conference play for Jim Boeheim's crew.
--Center Arinze Onuaku was limited before the holidays by a sore quadriceps, and was replaced by Kris Joseph in the starting lineup. He hoped to be at full strength for the Big East opener against Seton Hall on Dec. 29.
--It didn't take freshman Brandon Triche long to get himself into the Syracuse record books. His six-for-six performance from 3-point range against Oakland (Mich.) is the most threes ever made without a miss in a single game for the Orange.
--Andy Rautins made his reputation as a shooter, and he continues to excel from the 3-point line with 29 threes on the season. But he's had even more of an impact distributing the basketball, averaging 5.5 assists per game heading into Big East play.
That Cincinnati is an improved team cannot be questioned.
Coach Mick Cronin has done a solid job of recruiting and built the kind of team that he believes in, a tough team that rebounds hard and plays defense.
Now it has to find an offensive identity.
While the featured piece of the puzzle is the prize recruit Lance Stephenson, perhaps the key to Bearcats performance is forward Yancy Gates.
Gates put himself in Cronin's doghouse with some lackluster efforts. He played only four minutes against Lipscomb and scored only seven points in the two games before scoring 14 points in the first half against Winthrop.
"Yancy Gates decided to come to play tonight," Cronin told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Gates said it was a matter of putting the polish on before stepping out in the Big East.
"It's just getting ready for the Big East, trying to get back in rhythm," Gates said. "I just came out trying to get touches."
--G Deonta Vaughn broke out of a shooting slump by hitting 3-of-3 from beyond the arc against Lipscomb, a good sign heading into Big East play.
--F Lancy Stephenson, the hot freshman, has not been intimidated as he moves into college play, leading the Bearcats in scoring with 12.5 points a game going into the Christmas break.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: Saturday in New Jersey. That's how it is going to be early in the Big East season for Cincinnati. The Bearcats play consecutive games in the Garden State on the first two Saturdays of the month, first traveling to Rutgers after the conference opener against Connecticut, then playing at Seton Hall. Considering the power there is in the Big East, it's not really a bad way to open the season, getting UConn at home and then sandwiching a home game against Pitt between Rutgers and Seton Hall.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I truly believe we can compete with anybody if we lock in and focus." -- Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin in The Cincinnati Enquirer after beating Winthrop.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: It has been a roller coaster ride through the early days of the season for Cincinnati. The Bearcats had enough good moments to move into the Top 25 at one point and enough bad ones to slip back out. Coach Mick Cronin benched F Yancy Gates and PG Cashmere Wright at one point to get them to play harder. If there was one discovery made in the first part of the season it was that G Dion Dixon is perfect coming off the bench as a sixth man.
"I think he can provide you with energy on both ends," Cronin said. "You look for a guy who can come in off the bench and can change the game. He can come in and give you offensive rebounding. He can give you scoring and he can also give you defensive energy. He's a guy who's had a great attitude this year. He brings a lot of life to our team."
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Yancy Gates, F Rashad Bishop, G Lance Stephenson, G Deonta Vaughn, PG Cashmere Wright. Key Subs -- C Steve Toyloy, F Darnell Wilks, G Larry Davis, G Dion Dixon.
Alabama Birmingham 64, Cincinnati 47
Cincinnati 80, Lipscomb 52
Cincinnati 74, Winthrop 57
Vs. Connecticut, Wednesday, Dec. 30
At Rutgers, Saturday, Jan. 2
Vs. Pittsburgh, Monday, Jan. 4
Vs. Cal State-Bakersfield, Wednesday, Jan. 6
At Seton Hall, Saturday, Jan. 9
IN FOCUS: Highly-regarded freshman Lance Stephenson gets his introduction to Big East play the hard way as the Bearcats open against Connecticut. Coach Jim Calhoun of the Huskies has seen a lot of top-line freshmen come into the Big East and understands the ways to take advantage of their inexperience, no matter how good they are. Stephenson, at least, gets his introduction to Calhoun and the Huskies on his home court, just as he does two games later when he first faces Pittsburgh's stifling defense.
--Coach Mick Cronin used the Lipscomb game to make a point as he benched both F Yancy Gates and PG Cashmere Wright. Gates played only four minutes and didn't score or collect a rebound. Wright did not play in the first half and played only nine minutes in the second half, not taking a shot. He did have four assists and two turnovers. "They've got to understand that around here minutes are earned and not promised," Cronin told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
--With Yancy Gates benched against Lipscomb, 6-11 Oklahoma State transfer Ibrahima Thomas made his first start for Cincinnati and played the best he has played in three games, getting 10 points with six rebounds.
There was good news in a bad defeat for DePaul.
The Blue Demons, who are trying to regain some semblance of credibility, suffered their second difficult defeat in a week when they followed a loss to American with a 64-61 beat-down in Fort Myers, Fla., at the hands of Florida-Gulf Coast, a team that had a 3-6 record.
However, after missing eight games because of a foot injury, big Mac Koshwal, who is going to have to man the inside in the physical, tough Big East game, came back with a strong performance.
Koshwal scored 16 points and pulled in 13 rebounds in his return.
But Koshwal is going to need some help and as the season has begun to unfold, it doesn't look like there's much there beyond guard Will Walker's ability to score.
--Putting the ball in the basket is becoming a major chore for the Blue Demons. Against Florida-Gulf Coast they shot only 34.4 percent but, even worse, made only 12-of-27 free throws, 44.4 percent.
--After losing at Florida-Gulf Coast, DePaul's road losing streak had grown to 13 games.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The Blue Demons open their Big East season at Pittsburgh, then spend the better part of the first half of January playing at home. The home opener is a tough one against nationally ranked Georgetown, but considering the Hoyas dropped a decision to Old Dominion of the Colonial Athletic Association, they are not unbeatable. After that the Blue Demons host both Providence and St. John's, teams hoping to show marked improvement this season. The first road game of January is something of kamikaze mission, going to Villanova.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a kid who's always had a great motor, but I'd certainly like to have him swim a couple lengths before he's racing against Michael Phelps." -- Coach Jerry Wainwright on getting F Mac Koshwal back for one game before facing Pitt in Big East play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: DePaul showed that it can be an improved team this season with a healthy Mac Koshwal in the lineup, but it still has a lot of deficiencies. The Blue Demons have not shot well and have been unable to win away from home. They did show they are capable of playing well in a four-point loss to Tennessee, then ranked No. 11, early in the season, but losses to American and Florida-Gulf Coast were difficult to swallow.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Mike Stoval, PG Jeremiah Kelly, G Will Walker, F Mac Koshwal, F Eric Wallace. Key Subs - F Devin Hill, G Mike Bizoukas, F Tony Freeland.
American 62, DePaul 57
DePaul 86, Texas State 69
Florida-Gulf Coast 64, DePaul 61
At Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Dec. 28
Vs. Georgetown, Sunday, Jan. 3
At Villanova, Wednesday, Jan. 6
Vs. Providence, Thursday, Jan. 14
Vs. St. John's, Sunday, Jan. 17
IN FOCUS: DePaul was winless in the Big East regular season last year and they don't catch any early breaks from the schedule-maker. Beginning the year on the road at Pittsburgh, where the Panthers almost never lose, then facing Georgetown and Villanova, two of the conference favorites. After that they do have a winnable home game against Providence, a team that is more in DePaul's class at present.
--After missing eight games because of an injured foot, F Mac Koshwal returned at Florida-Gulf Coast and collected 16 points and 13 rebounds.
--G Will Walker has moved into fourth place on DePaul's all-time list for 3-point baskets.
Considering the distractions and the transition of playing without both Earl Clark and Terrance Williams, Louisville has adjusted nicely to the new season.
Coach Rick Pitino had to find a way to keep his team's mind, as well as his own, on basketball despite the highly publicized court proceedings surrounding his admitted indiscretion, and a couple of early-season losses helped get the focus back.
Pitino actually had to call on a couple of defenses that he had put away over the past couple of years to get straightened out, using attacking, full-court pressure out of a man-to-man press.
"Everybody's loving it," guard Edgar Sosa told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's a lot easier for the young guys to understand. It's ball, trap, rotate. You've got to hold your own.
"Every night you've got a number to guard, and when they cross midcourt, we're staying man-to-man. We're not falling back into the zone. So it's more responsibility for us."
Added guard Preston Knowles: "It made us more aggressive in everything."
With the defensive heat turned up, forward Samardo Samuels also has begun to dominate.
"Last year was a different role that I had on the team," Samuels said after collecting 29 points and 15 rebounds against Louisiana-Lafayette.
"This year if my teammates need me to play a game like this and need me to step up, I think I'm ready. I'm capable of stepping up."
--F Samardo Samuels set career highs in points with 29, rebounds with 15 and in minutes played against Louisiana-Lafayette.
--Coach Rick Pitino surprised his team after they dismantled Western Kentucky, 102-75, by giving them a rare day off during the holidays. According to guard Jerry Smith, that simply doesn't happen. "That's why it was so crazy," Smith said. "It surprised us. That's why everybody went nuts in here."
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: Most Big East teams turn January over to Big Conference games, but Louisville must first get past its annual war with Kentucky, this year at Rupp Arena. After that, the Cardinals play two of their next three games at home, which will be a huge help. They do get to ease into the conference as much as you can ease into the Big East, facing South Florida in the Dec. 30 opener, then playing at Providence and facing St. John's at home before the first real conference showdown in Freedom Hall when Villanova, the conference favorite, invades.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Samardo was an animal tonight. He hasn't been too happy with the way he's been rebounding the ball, so he got after it tonight and just looked like a monster." -- G Edgar Sosa, to the Louisville Courier-Journal, after F Samardo Samuels scored 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Louisiana-Lafayette.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Much of this early season has been spent learning how to play without the two stars from last year, Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, both in the NBA. The Cardinals now rely heavily on F Samardo Samuels for offense and on a man-to-man press on defense. There was a glitch in mid-December when they lost consecutive games to Charlotte and Western Carolina, but coach Rick Pitino turned up the defensive pressure and got his team back scoring points as it can do.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Jarod Shropshire, F Samardo Samuels, G Preston Knowles, G Edgar Sosa, G Reginald Delk. Key Subs -- G Jerry Smith, G Rakeem Buckles.
Louisville 94, Oral Roberts 57
Louisville 102, Western Kentucky 75
Louisville 86, Louisiana-Lafayette 69
Vs. South Florida, Wednesday, Dec. 30
At Kentucky, Saturday, Jan. 2
At Providence, Wednesday, Jan. 6
Vs. St. John's, Saturday, Jan. 9
Vs. Villanova, Monday, Jan. 11
IN FOCUS: The season doesn't depend on Louisville's Jan. 2 game with Kentucky. Much more than that is involved. Two of the most flamboyant, controversial coaches in college basketball meet for the first time as rivals in the Blue Grass State. Playing at Rupp Arena doesn't make it any easier on Louisville, nor does the fact that John Calipari has John Walls and Patrick Patterson, potential All-Americans, on his side. The match-ups between Samardo Samuels and Patterson, and the one between Walls and the Louisville pressure should be classic.
--F Terrence Jenkins missed the Louisiana-Lafayette game after being suspended for violating team rules.
--F George Goode is recovering from a bruised knee and did not dress for the Louisiana-Lafayette game.
Coach Mike Brey saw it as a significant night when Notre Dame buried Bucknell.
During the game, forward Luke Harangody tied for the school record for career double-doubles and moved past Adrian Dantley in field goals while point guard Tory Jackson reached the 1,000-point mark.
"They are the voices and the engines of this basketball team," Brey noted.
In an era when you don't have very many top-line seniors still in the college game, Harangody and Jackson have made the most of their college careers and helped Notre Dame carve a place for itself in Big East basketball.
Harangody's record, of course, speaks for itself, but Jackson has been a valuable player to the Irish, moving in after Chris Thomas at the point.
Jackson not only has 1,000 points but 500 assists, which means he has accounted for more than 2,000 points -- some of the assists coming on 3-point shots.
"It's a huge honor," Harangody said of Jackson. "I mean, you think about all the guys who have gotten there before him. "It's kind of a big deal too because he's a point guard.
"And he's one of the only players to get 1,000 points and 500 assists. That's a great honor and something nice for him going into Christmas break."
Their staying around this season has allowed Notre Dame to ease into a rebuilding process while remaining competitive.
--F Luke Harangody tied the Notre Dame record held by LaPhonso Ellis when he recorded the 56th double-double of his career, getting 20 points and 11 rebounds against Bucknell.
--Freshman G Joey Brooks made the most of his limited playing time in the Bucknell rout by scoring a career-high 12 points.
--Coach Mike Brey ended the pre-Christmas break with 199 victories in his career at Notre Dame.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: As everyone knows, Notre Dame performs best at home, so January becomes a crucial time as the Irish hit the road for three of their first four conference games. After a home opener against Providence, Notre Dame plays at Connecticut, South Florida and Cincinnati, with a tough home challenge coming from Bob Huggins' West Virginia team. If the Fighting Irish can steal away a victory or two on the road, it could set them up for a strong run in a really tough league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you're not mature enough to understand that if you're not ready to play, you're going to get your butt beat after what happened (against Loyola Marymount), then I can't get to them." -- Coach Mike Brey in the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune on how his team needs to be ready to play every game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The pre-Big East portion of the schedule went about as expected for Notre Dame, except two difficult losses to swallow, one to Northwestern in which the Irish scored only 58 points, and the other a shocker to Loyola-Marymount. The rest of the time, F Luke Harangody was hitting his shots and the boards, piling up double-doubles and F Tim Abromaitis showed he could take some of the scoring load, bouncing in with a 31-point game against North Florida. Abromaitis averaged 15.8 points per game through the first 13 games.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Luke Harangody, F Tim Abromaitis, F Tyrone Nash, G Ben Hansbrough, G Tory Jackson. Key Subs -- G Jonathan Peoples, G Carlton Scott.
Loyola-Marymount 87, Notre Dame 85
Notre Dame 84, UCLA 73
Notre Dame 101, Bucknell 69
Vs. Providence, Wednesday, Dec. 30
At Connecticut, Saturday, Jan. 2
At South Florida, Tuesday, Jan. 5
Vs. West Virginia, Saturday, Jan. 9
At Cincinnati, Saturday, Jan. 16
IN FOCUS: On Jan. 2, Notre Dame leaves the friendly confines of South Bend and travels to Storrs, Conn., for its first showdown game of the season against UConn. Do not be fooled by UConn's two early losses, they were to Duke and Kentucky. The Huskies will be zeroing in on F Luke Harangody, around whom everything Notre Dame does revolves. He'll get his points and rebounds. He always does, but UConn's Jerome Dyson can match Harangody point for point, sitting second in the conference scoring race with more than 20 points a game.
--PG Tory Jackson became the 50th player to score 1,000 points in Notre Dame history but only the fourth to have 1,000 points and 500 assists.
--F Luke Harangody moved past Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley and into second place on the Irish's all-time list fir field goals with 809. He needs 208 to surpass the all-time leader, Austin Carr.
Before you can improve by leaps and bounds, you have to take baby steps, and that is what coach Stan Heath has done at South Florida.
Now, there is some tangible proof that his team is getting better.
When the Bulls defeated San Diego in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic, it gave them nine victories this season, exceeding last year total. According to the Tampa Tribune, only three other schools had surpassed last year's victory total when the Bulls did.
South Florida was 9-22 last season, but has gotten off to a 10-2 start.
"We feel good about ourselves," Heath said. "Ten wins is a good benchmark. Now it's a new ballgame. We've got to come back after Christmas and be an even better team."
The problem is that now Big East play begins and the Bulls go into it without a key component, forward Gus Gilchrist, out because of an ankle injury. It's expected he will miss at least a month.
Gilchrist was leading the Bulls in scored with 18.8 points a game when injured. The injury leaves Heath only eight players on his roster.
--When South Florida went 2-0 in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic, it marked the first time the school had gone 2-0 in a tournament since beating South Alabama and New Orleans in the 2003 USF Holiday Classic.
--G Mike Mercer set a career high when he scored 19 points against San Diego.
--G Dominque Jones continues to be one of the most prolific scorers in the conference, leading the Bulls at 18.6 points a game.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: If you are going to beat Louisville, chances usually are that you better catch them early. That is the good news about South Florida's Big East opener on Dec. 30, but the bad news is that it is on the road, which is never a good thing. The fact is, January will get off to a tough start for one of the improving teams in the conference for its three games after Louisville are Notre Dame, at Syracuse, and back home against West Virginia. That's two Top Ten teams in the Orange and Mountaineers. But, hey, you have to play them all and it's probably better early than late.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not looking for a dogfight. We're best when we jump out early." -- G Dominique Jones on the importance of this short-handed team getting off to quick starts.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Coach Stan Heath has been playing shorthanded, with a roster of only eight players, but he has got his Bulls playing Big East defense and that is making a huge difference. The Bulls have not given up 70 points this season and rank fourth in the conference behind three defensive giants -- Pittsburgh, Georgetown and West Virginia. However, the biggest loss wasn't of a game but instead of a player, F Gus Gilchrist going down for at least a month. G Dominque Jones continues to establish himself as one of the league's top scorers and PG Chris Howard is taking care of the basketball.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- PG Chris Howard, G Dominque Jones, G Mike Mercer, F Toarlynn Fitzpatrick, F Jarred Famous. Key Subs -- G Justin Leemow.
South Florida 69, Central Florida 65
South Florida 69, San Francisco 49
South Florida 69, San Diego 60
At Louisville, Wednesday, Dec. 30
Vs. Notre Dame, Tuesday, Jan. 5
At Syracuse, Sunday, Jan. 10
Vs. West Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 13
Vs. Rutgers, Saturday, Jan. 16
IN FOCUS: Having established that it is an improved team in pre-conference play, South Florida must try to establish itself early by winning on the road. The season opens at Louisville and while the Cardinals have struggled, even losing a couple of home games, they seem to be getting into full stride and will pressure a South Florida team that doesn't have a lot of depth. After hosting Notre Dame, which offers a completely different sort of challenge, South Florida has the nightmare trip of the Big East, going into the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse.
--F Gus Gilchrist, who is a key player for coach Stan Heath, is expected to be out until at least mid-January because of an ankle injury.
--G Dominque Jones averaged 22.7 points and 4.7 assists during a three-game winning streak to earn his first Big East Player of the Week Award on Dec. 21.
For four years, Wellington Smith was waiting for that one big game to pop up.
The forward from Summit, N.J., had come to West Virginia under John Beilein with the reputation as a shooter, but had never scored more than 15 points nor hit more than two 3-point shots in a game.
When Bob Huggins replaced Beilein, Wellington beefed up to help his rebounding and inside play, but was playing only about half the minutes.
Then Ole Miss came to Morgantown.
Having just made a mistake, Smith saw Cam Thoroughman report to the scorer's table.
"I knew I was coming out of the game," he admitted.
Not so fast.
He found himself open and hit a 3-pointer. Seconds later, open again, he hit another three.
Huggins called Thoroughman back to the bench.
Smith blocked a shot that led to a West Virginia basket, then hit two more 3-point shots. He had turned a two-point lead into a nine-point lead.
He finished with a career-high 19 points, hitting 5-of-6 3-point shots, and added six rebounds, three blocked shots and an assist.
"I waited four years for a magical moment like this," he said.
--West Virginia has won 26 consecutive games when it has scored 70 or more points and is 47-1 under coach Bob Huggins when shooting a higher field-goal percentage than its opponent.
--F John Flowers got a chance to handle the ball in the Mississippi game and turned in a magnificent performance. Known as a rebounding and shot blocker, Flowers had eight assists and no turnovers.
--F Kevin Jones is the only Mountaineer to score in double figures in each the first 11 games. He also leads the team in rebounding and is third in the Big East in offensive rebounding.
--Against Seton Hall, West Virginia got double-doubles from Kevin Ebanks, who had 22 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, and Kevin Jones, who collected 19 points and 14 rebounds. In the same game, Da'Sean Butler had 21 points, six rebounds and six assists.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: By the time January is half over, West Virginia will be sick of Indiana. The Mountaineers welcome in the New Year with a New Year's Day visit to Purdue, which will certainly test Bob Huggins' team. Then on Jan. 9, they return to the Hoosier state to take on Notre Dame, a team that has always been tough on West Virginia in South Bend. At least the Mountaineers do not take on the power teams of the Big East early, playing Seton Hall, Marquette, Rutgers and South Florida over the first two weeks of the month.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The greatest motivator coaches have is the bench." -- Coach Bob Huggins, on how he gets his players to play so hard.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Picked to finish second in the Big East and nationally ranked in the Top 10, the Mountaineers did not disappoint through the early going despite some injuries. F Da'Sean Butler took control of the team as the leader both on and off the floor, and F Kevin Jones became a force when inserted into the starting lineup in place of injured F Devin Ebanks. The Mountaineers had to escape a scare at Cleveland State when they blew two 17-point leads, but held on for the victory, then survived against Ole Miss even though they had to start a lineup consisting of five forwards and no guards.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- PG Truck Bryant, F Devin Ebanks, C Wellington Smith, F Da'Sean Butler, F Kevin Jones. Key Subs -- PG Joe Mazzulla, G Casey Mitchell, F John Flowers, F Cam Thoroughman, G Dalton Pepper.
West Virginia 80, Cleveland State 78
West Virginia 76, Mississippi 66
West Virginia 90, Seton Hall 84 (OT)
Vs. Marquette, Tuesday, Dec. 30
At Purdue, Friday, Jan. 1
Vs. Rutgers, Wednesday, Jan. 6
At Notre Dame, Saturday, Jan. 9
At South Florida, Wednesday, Jan. 13
IN FOCUS: West Virginia has been trying to toughen its schedule and is looking at a series of non-conference games against highly-ranked teams while also moving into Big East play. It started on Dec. 23 with a game at home against Mississippi. That is followed with a trip to West Lafayette, Ind., for a matchup of unbeaten teams against No. 4 Purdue, and on Jan. 23 the Mountaineers host No. 17 Ohio State. First, however, it opens conference play with a home game against Marquette and a trip to Notre Dame, where the Mountaineers have always had trouble.
--G Truck Bryant played only 17 minutes against Mississippi because of a sprained ankle and came off the bench at Seton Hall, where West Virginia started a five-forward lineup of Kevin Jones, Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith and John Flowers.
--G Casey Mitchell has been hobbled by a knee injury that he suffered while in junior college. The knee has had to be drained of fluid but his play has been limited.
--G Joe Mazzulla's left shoulder, which required surgery last year after he broke a growth plate, still is troubling him. He left the Cleveland State game in pain. A southpaw, Mazzulla has begun shooting his free throws right-handed because he has trouble raising his left arm.
The Wildcats enjoyed a 10-day break between the nonconference finale against Delaware and the Big East opener against Marquette. Jay Wright is hoping that the long layoff doesn't lead to a repeat of the slow start that plagued the team in conference play a year ago.
Villanova opened 2008-09 with a loss at Marquette en route to a 2-3 start that had the Wildcats as an afterthought three weeks into the conference season. Of course, the team then rebounded to make the Final Four, so it's not like the season was a disaster. Still, in a league as talented and deep as the Big East, getting off to a good start is a critical edge.
One factor Wright feels needs improvement for that to happen is the defense. The addition of Reggie Redding for the second semester helps, but lapses on that end of the court have proved frustrating over the first few weeks of the season and allow overmatched opponents to stay in games.
But the good thing is that even with the loss of Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark during the offseason, this is still an experienced team that heads into conference play. Nobody has a guard who has been through more wars than Scottie Reynolds, and Redding adds another veteran presence to the backcourt. Between the two, they can augment Wright's warning about Big East play with war stories of their own.
As was the case last season, the 2009-10 Big East season begins with a trip to Marquette. The Wildcats enter as the preseason pick to win the league, and a strong start would make that a more likely possibility.
--Through the early portion of the season, the Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country at spreading the ball around. Five players are averaging double figures (Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding, Corey Fisher, Antonio Pena and Taylor King), with a sixth, Corey Stokes, just shy of the mark at 9.3 points per night.
--The Wildcats Big East opener brings an opponent that has something to prove against Villanova. When the two teams last met, it was in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, which the Wildcats won on a layup that barely beat the final buzzer.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The big task for Jay Wright in January is integrating Reggie Redding back into the playing rotation. He gets a bit of a break in that Redding is an easy player to work in -- he does all the little things a team needs to succeed and doesn't demand the ball or act like a prima donna. But it will be interesting to see if and when Redding moves back into the starting lineup, what the trickle-down effects are on the two Coreys (Fisher and Stokes) who currently start alongside Scottie Reynolds and the two freshmen (Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns) who back them up.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You're not picked to finish No. 1 in the Big East for no reason. It looked like they were playing with eight guys all the time. They have more answers than most people have questions." -- Delaware coach Monte Ross told the Philadelphia Daily News after his Blue Hens fell victim to the Wildcats.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Apart from a loss to Temple, the Wildcats had an unblemished trip through the nonconference schedule. That's a similar path to the one the team took a year ago, which isn't a bad thing for Jay Wright -- the 2008-09 team made the Final Four.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Antonio Pena, F Maurice Sutton, G Corey Stokes, G Corey Fisher, G Scottie Reynolds. Key Subs -- F Taylor King, G Reggie Redding, G Maalik Wayns, G Dominic Cheek, F Isaiah Armwood.
Temple 75, Villanova 65
Villanova 96, Fordham 58
Villanova 97, Delaware 63
at Marquette, Saturday, Jan. 2
vs. DePaul, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. Marquette, Wednesday, Jan. 9
at Louisville, Friday, Jan. 11
vs. Georgetown, Sunday, Jan. 17
IN FOCUS: The big challenge in the Big East opener will be stopping Lazar Hayward. Even without the supporting cast that he enjoyed a year ago, Hayward has been dominant in the early season, and has the ability to score from anywhere on the court. The Villanova defense, which coach Jay Wright said had to get better heading into conference play, will face a difficult task in keeping him under control.
--Maurice Sutton missed the Delaware game with an upper respiratory infection, but was expected to be back for the start of Big East play.
--Maalik Wayns won the Big East Rookie of the Week honors on Dec. 21 for his performance against Fordham. The guard scored 12 points against the Rams, and added three rebounds, two assists and a steal.
--Reggie Redding has only been back for two games, but is playing like he never left. The senior had 15 points and nine rebounds in his season debut against Fordham, and came back with 16 points and six rebounds against Delaware.
Big East Conference Preview
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