Two Weeks Remaining: Assessing Big East Regular Season Title Contenders

Posted by Todd Keryc on February 21st, 2014

The latest NCAA Tournament bracket projections put somewhere in the neighborhood of four to six Big East teams in the Big Dance. Xavier is on the inside looking out for the moment, with help from a big non-conference win over Cincinnati. Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown are all hovering on the bubble, their respective fates certain to be determined over the season’s final few weeks. Creighton and Villanova are the only total locks, each heading for top four seeds and possible protected first-week locations barring a late collapse.

For both Doug McDermott and James Bell, much is still up for grabs for Creighton and Villanova.

For both Doug McDermott and James Bell, much is still up for grabs for Creighton and Villanova.

While many eyes are focused solely on the Big East bubble (which will ultimately make or break the realigned conference’s debut) the regular season champion remains very much in doubt. It’s all but certain that either Creighton or Villanova will claim it, but they are about to begin a two-week sprint to the finish. Sure, teams are remembered for what they do in the NCAA Tournament but a banner will be hung somewhere for winning the Big East regular season, so let’s assess which team has the advantage down the stretch. In the preseason poll, the pair were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively — yet they have dominated this maiden Big East season. Villanova is 11-2 in conference play, with both losses coming against Creighton. The Bluejays are 12-2, with only a pair of road losses, as well as the clear conference (and likely national) Player of the Year, Doug McDermott, and that pair of dominant performances against Villanova.

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Three Thoughts as Xavier Dominated Butler Last Night

Posted by WCarey on February 12th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Tuesday night’s game between Xavier and Butler in Indianapolis.

Xavier began February quite ominously with a home loss to Seton Hall and a 23-point defeat at Villanova. Coupling those two losses with a loss at Providence to end January, the Musketeers went from a team that was projected as a lock for the NCAA Tournament to a team on the bubble. Riding a three-game losing streak, Xavier was able to get back on the winning track last Saturday with a hotly contested home victory over Providence. With games at Butler and at Marquette next on its schedule, Chris Mack’s team was presented with a great opportunity to score two more Big East road wins and help improve its overall NCAA Tournament résumé in the process. The Musketeers passed the first test on Tuesday night with a thoroughly dominating 64-50 win over Butler in Indianapolis. The following are three thoughts from last evening’s action.

Xavier Got the Sweep of Butler Last Night

Xavier Got the Sweep of Butler Last Night, as the New Big East Programs Move in Opposite Directions

  1. Xavier’s Defensive Effort Was Impressive. In the Musketeers’ victory over Providence on Saturday, they held the Friars to just 53 total points and a 37.5 percent shooting mark from the field. That defensive intensity carried over to Tuesday, as Butler was held to just 50 points on the evening. The half-century mark scored by Butler was significantly below its season average of 70.9 points per game and represented the team’s lowest scoring output of the season. Xavier’s strong field goal percentage defense was on display once again, as Butler was held to just 34 percent shooting on the evening. Musketeers’ junior guard Dee Davis was tasked with the role of guarding leading scorer Kellen Dunham and he completed it with great success, as Dunham finished the evening with just two points on 1-of-10 shooting. Xavier’s interior defense was also suffocating given the fact that Butler’s starting frontline of Khyle Marshall, Kameron Woods and Andrew Chrabascz finished the evening a combined 5-of-17 from the floor. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking The Panic Meter: Which Teams Should Really Worry About Their January Swoons?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 24th, 2014

As Brian Otskey noted earlier this week, January losing streaks have caused a number of once-top teams to tumble down, and in some cases, out of the polls. The rigors of conference play have deflowered those gaudy late December records, prompting a number of far-sooner-than-expected reality checks. Past history will tell you that some of these January slumps will be reduced to mere blips on the radar by March (e.g., the defending champion Louisville Cardinals lost three in a row in the first month of 2013), while others are indeed the beginning of a fade into college hoops oblivion. Wondering about future prospects for fading powers? Here’s a look at where the panic meter should be (10=High Panic, 1=Nothing to worry about) for five of college basketball’s most downward-trending squads.

Georgetown: Panic Meter=10

John Thompson III, Markel Starks And Georgetown Suddenly Have Their Backs Against The Wall

John Thompson III, Markel Starks And Georgetown Suddenly Have Their Backs Against The Wall

With Jabril Trawick not expected back anytime soon (broken jaw), and Josh Smith out indefinitely due to academics (don’t forget that Greg Whittington’s “indefinite” academic suspension a year ago eventually caused him to miss the Hoyas’ final 19 contests), Georgetown is clearly undermanned right now. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been brilliant, and Markel Starks intermittently so, but finding offensive contributions from players who aren’t 6’2” guards has proven impossible since Smith‘s suspension began. With the 10-day forecast looking especially gloomy — top-15 teams Creighton, Villanova and Michigan State are up next for JT3’s club – Georgetown’s season could be very close to finished by the time Super Bowl Sunday arrives. Even if the Hoyas can get Smith and Trawick back by early February, a challenging closing stretch awaits: Six of Georgetown’s final seven opponents are currently ranked in KenPom’s top 75. It’s probably not the way Georgetown wanted to find March peace, but Hoyas’ fans may finally avoid their annual NCAA Tournament heartbreak.

Wisconsin: Panic Meter= 1

If you play basketball in the Big Ten, you are going to lose games. The league is simply too strong top-to-bottom to cruise the entire winter without resistance. Yes, Michigan and Michigan State – losses are coming for you as well (beginning for one of the two on Saturday). In any case, Wisconsin should be just fine. Aside from some struggles from three-point range (likely temporary), the uber-efficient Badgers’ offense has continued to roll, even through their current three-game losing streak. The defense could stand to improve marginally (55th nationally in defensive efficiency), but there is just too much offensive firepower in Madison for Bucky’s train to go too far off the tracks.

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Making Them Pay for It: How Creighton Lit up Villanova on Its Home Court

Posted by Joseph Dzuback on January 21st, 2014

Less than 48 hours after suffering their worst loss in the 2013-14 season (an 81-68 pounding at the hands of Providence), Creighton made turnaround fair play by dropping a bomb on #4 Villanova (for this week anyway) with a 28-point victory. The Bluejays had been ranked #20 in the national polls last week, but the disaster at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Saturday gave the sportswriters pause. In a little less than two hours, the game that was supposed to settle the Big East race early instead became the rout that threw the race up for grabs.

Doug McDermott Gives The MVC Something It Hasn't Had In Many Years: A Bona Fide National POY Candidate.

Doug McDermott and his Creighton teammates pulled off a surprise against ‘Nova. (AP)

Late-arriving spectators who checked the Jumbotron at the under-15 timeout could be forgiven if they thought the 24-5 score favoring Creighton was a scoreboard malfunction. They also missed an astounding  shooting exhibition where the Bluejays hit seven of their first eight field goal attempts as 6’7” center in name only, Ethan Wragge, hit five consecutive three-pointers on his way to a 9-of-14 night from beyond the arc. Wragge never took a two-point attempt because he didn’t need to. Overall Creighton converted 21 of its 35 threes for a scorching 60 percent conversion rate. Translated using Dean Oliver’s eFG% formula, that results in a 90 percent two-point conversion rate. “They were outstanding,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright with perhaps the understatement of the year. Regarding NPOY candidate Doug McDermott, who contributed 23 points, five rebounds and three assists: “He is a joy to watch, you don’t like it when he is doing it to you, but he is a joy to watch.” Wright may as well have been referencing the entire Creighton team and their offense on this night.

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ACC Teams Struggling to Adapt to Styles of New Programs

Posted by Christopher Kehoe on January 16th, 2014

Much was made of the three former Big East teams entering the league this season and having to adapt to the ACC’s style of play. This notion was supported by the simple fact of sheer numbers; the returning ACC teams would number 12 teams while the Big East was sending over only three units. What did not get enough preseason attention was how the ACC as a whole would adapt to the very different styles of play of the three incoming teams, all quite successful programs in their own rights. Notre Dame under head coach Mike Brey is known for its selfless team basketball, execution, cutting and the extra pass, while developing a litany of elite low post big men like Luke Harangody, Jack Cooley, and now Garrick Sherman. While the Irish lost its best player in Jerian Grant for the year, their style of play was on display and ultimately decided the outcome in a statement win against Duke.

Pitt's James Robinson is a large reason they are 16-1 (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Pitt’s James Robinson is a large reason the Panthers are 16-1 (Photo: pittsburghpanthers.com)

Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone has helped in establishing itself as one of the best teams in the nation and has put the Orange among a group of three unbeaten teams remaining. Their defense has flummoxed ACC opponents to the tune of allowing only 50.0 PPG to ACC foes through their first four games. They clearly have taken charge and dominated the tempo in their outings, most recently holding UNC a full 30 points below its season average of 75.6 PPG. While it remains early in the ACC race, so far it seems obvious that both Syracuse and Pittsburgh have been forcing their own tempo and style of play on their opponents and not vice versa. Jamie Dixon’s Panthers are known for their toughness and gritty play, both of which were evident in their recent 12-point road victory over N.C. State. Famed ESPN analyst Dick Vitale confirmed this theory and perception when he noted: “There are certain programs that get certain labels that help them big-time psychologically… the mindset is where you’re at a negative before you ever start playing, and I think Pittsburgh has that, that label of being tough.”

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Conference Play Already Delivering Unexpected Drama

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 11th, 2014

We may still be in the nascent period of conference play, but early developments have hinted that a number of league races may not play out as planned. Heading into another good college basketball weekend, here are a few of the more surprising twists supplied by the early days of conference action.

The American Athletic Conference Is Up For Grabs

Remember when Louisville was supposed to be head and shoulders above the rest of this conference? Or when UConn was the Cards’ only real competition for the inaugural AAC crown? Yeah, me neither. Rick Pitino’s team may still be the AAC favorites, but after a non-conference season featuring just one victory over a top-100 team, the recent dismissal of Chane Behanan, and Thursday night’s home loss to Memphis, it’s safe to say that the Cardinals’ grasp on pole position has been significantly weakened. As for the Huskies, an ugly 0-2 beginning to conference play (losses at Houston and SMU) has altered the trajectory of their season. Shabazz Napier and company should be able to handle UCF later today, but with a trip to Memphis and a home date with Louisville looming next week, a 1-4 start to conference play is a definite possibility. It’s not the AAC we expected to see, certainly, but this unforeseen parity could give the league one of the better, more entertaining conference races the rest of the way.

It's Early, But Russ Smith And The Cardinals Have Unexpected Company In Their Chase For The American Athletic Conference Crown

It’s Early, But Russ Smith And The Cardinals Have Unexpected Company In Their Chase For The American Athletic Conference Crown

Butler Still Seeking Its First Big East Win

Expectations were initially modest for Butler this season, but a non-conference campaign with just a pair of minor blemishes – two-point losses to Oklahoma State and LSU – gave hope that the transitions between coaches (Brad Stevens to Brandon Miller) and leagues (A-10 to Big East) might be smoother than expected. Not so much, however, as the Big East has so far proved daunting for the Bulldogs, dropping their first three games: on the road at Xavier, and home games to Villanova and (gasp!) DePaul. Three total overtime periods were needed for those two home defeats, but no number of extra sessions will excuse a loss to DePaul, a program that was 7-86 in the five-plus Big East seasons that preceded their successful trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Bulldogs are better than that Big East record would indicate, but a brutal upcoming schedule has the potential to permanently sink the Butler ship. Georgetown visits Indianapolis tonight, and 11 of the 12 games that follow come against teams in Ken Pom’s current top-75. At least for a season, the Butler faithful may end up missing not only Brad Stevens, but also the Atlantic 10.

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Is the Big East Really Only a Three-Bid League Right Now?

Posted by Jameson Fleming on January 9th, 2014

The Big East survived conference realignment to become the No. 3 league in terms of conference RPI and KenPom.com at this point of the season. Despite those lofty rankings, the league really only has three teams that sit comfortably on the right side of the bubble as of today. How is this possible? The short answer is that while it is true that the Big East failed to pick up a bunch of notable wins, it also avoided the awful resume-killing losses which weigh down a league’s RPI rating. As a matter of fact, the Big East has just five losses against teams outside the RPI top 100 teams. Let’s take a look at where all 10 teams stand in terms of NCAA Tournament chances with two months remaining in the regular season. From first to worst:

Jay Wright Has Lost His Magic Touch at Villanova (Photo credit: H. Rumph Jr/AP Photo).

Jay Wright and Villanova has bounced back nicely this season. (AP)

Villanova: 14-1, 3-0 Big East

  • Projected Postseason: Villanova is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament after an 11-1 non-conference run which featured wins against Kansas and Iowa on a neutral court. Right now, the Wildcats project to be a No. 2 seed.
  • Best Case Scenario: Jay Wright’s team gets through Big East play with no more than three losses and wins the Big East Tournament. A record of roughly 26-4 would put Villanova in contention for a N0. 1 seed. The Wildcats would need Syracuse to falter in order to earn the No. 1 seed in the East Regional hosted in New York City.
  • Worst Case Scenario: It turns out Villanova isn’t as good as its non-conference performance suggested. Villanova loses six to eight games in the Big East and winds up a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

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Pittsburgh’s Toughness Leads To Big Comeback Win Over N.C. State

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 4th, 2014

Back in October at ACC Operation Basketball, Pittsburgh Head Coach Jaime Dixon sounded as though he had something of a chip on his shoulder. It was as if he wanted the ACC media to know that moving from the Big East to the ACC was not a move up in competition for Pittsburgh. He had good reason to think that way, with the Big East rated higher than the ACC in nearly ever conference metric over the last several seasons, and with Pitt the winningest team in the Big East over the last dozen years. Plus, all the talk about this year’s ACC being the greatest basketball conference ever was based on the power of the schools it was bringing in from the old Big East.

The Pitt Panthers Surround N.C. State's Anthony Barber During 74-62 Pitt Win. (Photo: Ethan Hyman, www.newsobserver.com)

The Pitt Panthers Surround N.C. State’s Anthony Barber During 74-62 Pitt Win.
(Photo: Ethan Hyman, www.newsobserver.com)

Dixon must have been wondering if perhaps he had been mistaken when he witnessed his team down 17-2 after the first six minutes against N.C. State in Raleigh Saturday afternoon. But the veteran Panthers came roaring back, cutting the deficit to eight at halftime before dominating the second half on the way to a 74-62 win. Leading the way were seniors Lamar Patterson (22/8) and Talib Zanna (15/9). In particular, Patterson had an outstanding second half, with 17 points, six rebounds, and five assists after the intermission. Here are some takeaways for each team after their first game of ACC play.

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Big East M5: 01.02.14 Edition

Posted by Dan Lyons on January 2nd, 2014

bigeast_morning5(2)

  1. There were definite ups and downs to be found during the marathon that was the first day of Big East play on Tuesday. While those within the conference will admit that the play on the court didn’t often set the basketball world on fire, there is still belief in the future of the league as a basketball power. Commissioner Val Ackerman cites past experience when discussing this topic: “When I was with WNBA, I remember saying it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The same should be said about the Big East. There’s a long history here, but with a new conference, what we do in the first year or two isn’t necessarily going to be indicative.” While Big East fans hope that the league makes a splash here in year one, the 10 programs aren’t going anywhere, and there is plenty of time for this new-look conference to get its legs under it.
  2. Creighton wasn’t great offensively in its first ever Big East game, but the Bluejays’ defense was able to stifle a struggling Marquette offense, leading to a 67-49 win on New Year’s Eve. Creighton only shot 40 percent from the floor, but they were able to known down 13 threes and kept up with a bigger Golden Eagles’ squad in the paint, where they were only outscored by four. While this win was huge for Creighton — its first-ever in a power basketball conference — the performance is perhaps more telling about Marquette, whose well-publicized offensive struggles seem to be getting worse, not better. The Eagles were the preseason favorite to win the league, but without improvement soon, Marquette will struggle to punch a ticket to the Dance come March.
  3. Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery are going to become very familiar voices for Big East fans (if they weren’t already), especially those who watched the entirety of Tuesday’s basketball marathon.  The team called noon’s Xavier-St. John’s game in Cincinnati and then hightailed it to Indianapolis for Butler-Villanova at 7:30. The IndyStar spent time with Fox Sports 1’s top team on the bus between games, allowing the two to reminisce about some of their favorite Big East and NCAA Tournament memories. Spoiler alert: Butler fans are going to appreciate this far more than… say… Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Florida, or Wisconsin fans.
  4. In anticipation of Tuesday’s Creighton/Marquette clash, Andy from Anonymous Eagle and Jacob Padilla from The Creightonian got together for an enlightening Q&A discussion. Among the topics covered: Bluejay fans’ excitement for this season and the Big East conference; the importance of the McDermotts to the Creighton program; Marquette’s early season struggles; and the best places to get a beer and a bite to eat in Omaha. Even though it predates the game won by Creighton, both pieces are still fun reads. Check out Jacob’s answers here and Andy’s here.
  5. To round out a very ‘Creighton vs. Marquette’ heavy M5 this morning, we have footage from a raucous CenturyLink Arena crowd.  On one play, the sold out crowd belted out Neil Diamond’s stadium staple “Sweet Caroline” after the arena speakers had already cut off the song, and it seemed to throw off the Golden Eagles, who promptly turned over the ball. You can judge for yourself, but NBC Sports‘ Rob Dauster seems to think the crowd played a part in the play.
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It’s a Shame We Didn’t Get the Old Big East For Another Season

Posted by Jameson Fleming on December 11th, 2013

Football and the television money it earns have changed the landscape of college athletics. As the major conferences continue to rise, some of their counterparts have tumbled into the shadows. Big East basketball in its current state teeters on the brink of surviving with great success or squeaking along in mediocrity. The new Big East is good almost across the board. From Villanova to Providence and everyone in between, eight of the teams through one month of this season are in a position to at least be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Despite how much some things change in college athletics, you can still count on DePaul and Seton Hall being terrible. What the league lacks is a signature elite team this season. Villanova is the closest to earning that distinction as the Wildcats remain undefeated. A Wildcats’ win at Syracuse in two weeks would give the league that much-needed premier team it lacks. All that said, it’s a fun exercise to look at what this conference could have been in 2013-14 had conference realignment only existed in the sweet dreams of of athletic directors. Here’s what the league lost:

These Two ACC Teams Would Have Helped Lead a Strong Big East This Season

These Two ACC Teams Would Have Helped Lead a Strong Big East This Season

ACC

  • Syracuse: 9-0, #7 KenPom, #2/#3 in the polls, wins vs. Indiana, Baylor.
  • Pittsburgh: 9-0, #4 KenPom, unranked in both polls, wins vs. Penn State, Stanford.
  • Notre Dame: 7-2, #50 KenPom, unranked in both polls, no quality wins.

AAC

  • Louisville: 8-1, #1 KenPom, #6/#4 in the polls, win vs. Southern Miss.
  • Connecticut: 9-0, #22 KenPom, #9/#12 in the polls, wins vs. Indiana, Florida, Maryland.
  • Cincinnati: 7-1, #31 KenPom, unranked in both polls, win vs. North Carolina State.
  • South Florida: 6-2, #120 KenPom, unranked in both polls, win vs. Alabama.
  • Rutgers: 4-6, #198 KenPom, unranked in both polls, no quality wins.

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Misperceptions and Missed Perceptions: Reviewing Some Preseason Predictions

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 5th, 2013

With four weeks of basketball now in the books, it’s time to take a quick glance back at some of the things we thought we knew in the preseason. Some notions have proved accurate, but early results have tested a slew of preseason hypotheses that we once felt confident in. Here are a few examples, on both sides of the ledger:

We Thought We Knew…

Andy Enfield Was the New Coach Bringing Exciting Offensive Basketball to LA

There Has Been Nothing Slow About Steve Alford's And UCLA's First Four Weeks

There Has Been Nothing Slow About Steve Alford’s And UCLA’s First Four Weeks

We weren’t the only ones who thought it was USC, with Andy Enfield now at the helm – and not UCLA, with new head man Steve Alford — which was going to be lighting up Pac-12 scoreboards in the City of Angels this winter. Back in October, Enfield told his players, “if you want to play slow, go to UCLA.” Well, USC isn’t playing slow – they are 33rd nationally in possessions per game –but they are playing slower than the Bruins, which are six spots ahead of them in that category. And if this first month means anything, perhaps Enfield should have also advised any of his players who enjoy scoring, winning, or both, to plan that transfer across town. USC is 5-3, with just one win against a team in KenPom’s top 230 (!!!) and an offensive efficiency that ranks them 170th nationally. UCLA, on the other hand, is 8-0 and averaging more than 90 PPG behind the 7th-most efficient offense in the country. Now, there is a necessary asterisk here: Alford inherited significantly more talent at his disposal than Enfield did. Even so, it was Enfield – not Alford — who invited the cross-town comparisons. The Dunk City architect better have something besides his mouth working by the time USC visits Pauley Pavilion on January 5; otherwise, his Trojans are firmly at risk of getting run out of Westwood, and contrary to popular belief, there would be nothing slow about it.  

The Complection of the Top of the Big 12

At this point, expecting Kansas to win the Big 12 generally equates to peeping out a Southern California window and looking for the sun in the morning. The Jayhawks may not have played their way out of the preseason expectation to win the Big 12 again this year, but they should have company at the top this time around. Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, post play deficiencies aside, have looked every bit the part of Big 12 title contenders themselves, and many would now peg the Cowboys as Big 12 favorites (including yours truly). Kansas State and Baylor were next in line after the Pokes and Jayhawks a month ago, but the Wildcats have suffered through a miserable opening month, while Baylor has looked as shaky as a 7-1 team with two top-40 victories can look, with two of those wins coming against non-D-I competition and three of the other five earned with a final margin of victory of five points or fewer. Iowa State now looks like the team ready to take a step up in class. The Cyclones, 7-0 with a pair of top-40 victories of their own, could easily enter the Big 12 season undefeated and prepared to further shake up a suddenly unpredictable conference race.

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Old Big East Programs Make Presences Felt Early in ACC

Posted by Christopher Kehoe on December 2nd, 2013

Both Pittsburgh and Syracuse have began the 2013-14 season red-hot, with neither a loss between the two of them. Syracuse’s frontcourt depth and one-two punch of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and forward C.J. Fair gifted the Orange a Maui Invitational title this week as Jim Boeheim’s team find itself ranked seventh in the national polls. With solid wins over Minnesota, Cal, and Baylor, Syracuse is heading into its first ACC/Big Ten Challenge (versus Indiana) with a heightened sense of confidence. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, hasn’t faced as many quality opponents as Syracuse, but has a decisive and resounding victory over Stanford on its resumé. The Panthers have also won over the advanced analytics crowd, coming in at #3 on KenPom’s early rankings. Pittsburgh lucks out with a cellar-dwelling in-state rival in Penn State in the Challenge, and only has to worry about its match-up versus old Big East foe Cincinnati for the remainder of the December schedule.

Pitt and Syracuse lead the way early on for the ACC

Pitt and Syracuse lead the early returns for the ACC this season

Credit Pittsburgh’s vaunted defensive prowess for its hot start. The Panthers have not missed a beat with the new defensive rules like many teams have to this date. While much of their success likely comes from an incredibly weak scheduling job by Jamie Dixon (currently 307th, according to KenPom), their undefeated record cannot be discredited on that basis alone. Pittsburgh has put together a roster built on experience and upperclassman leadership and is led by one of the more reliable point guards in all of the nation, James Robinson. While off to a scorching start and representing the ACC incredibly well, look for the Panthers to fall back to earth come January and February.

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