Jumping To Conclusions: Why Pittsburgh Is Overrated… For Now

Posted by mlemaire on November 17th, 2011

Tucked away, within the second-to-last sentence of the preview of his team in this week’s Sports Illustrated,  Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs flashed a little bit of braggadaccio. “We’re good enough to win a national title,” the 6’2” senior told SI‘s Rebecca Shore when she asked about the collection of talent on the Panthers’ roster. And although it’s still very early, after last night’s 86-76 loss to a veteran Long Beach State team, that bold claim looks quite a bit bolder. Of course, when Gibbs gave that quote, the season hadn’t even started yet and coach Jamie Dixon is looking to him for leadership this season, so what else is he supposed to say? But he isn’t the only knowledgeable source who set high expectations for Pittsburgh this year. Many experts readily picked Pittsburgh to finish near the top of the Big East alongside Connecticut and Syracuse. Some even picked them to win the conference title.

If last night was any indication, Jamie Dixon will need to do a lot of coaching this season.

And why not? The team lost three excellent veterans in Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, and Gary McGhee. But they also returned a solid nucleus of Gibbs, Travon Woodall, Nasir Robinson, and Dante Taylor, and a highly rated recruiting class that included consensus top-10 recruit Khem Birch. They also had one of the most consistent and proven coaches in the country steering the ship. But after watching the 49ers thoroughly outplay the Panthers on their home court, it may be time for expectations to be reset.

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Where 2011-12 Happens: Reason #9 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 28th, 2011

Another preseason preview gives us reason to roll out the 2011-12 edition of Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball, our annual compendium of YouTube clips from the previous season 100% guaranteed to make you wish games were starting tonight. We’ve captured the most compelling moments from the 2010-11 season, many of which will bring back the goosebumps and some of which will leave you shaking your head in frustration. For the complete list of this year’s reasons, click here. Enjoy!

#9 – Where Broken Ankles Happens

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 seasons.

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Morning Five: 10.14.11 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on October 14th, 2011

  1. Pittsburgh comes into the season as a borderline top 10 team, but they may have some work to do in the early part of the season as senior Nasir Robinson will be out for 3-4 weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee. Even though this is Robinson’s second surgery on that knee the team is not ruling out the possibility that he could return in time to play the season-opener against Albany on November 11. Even if Robinson returns at that time it is unlikely that he will be at 100%, which will mean more work for a front line that no longer has Gary McGhee anchoring it. Instead, freshman Khem Birch will probably be the one asked to step up and provide an interior presence for a team that has plenty of talent on the perimeter.
  2. While expectations for this season aren’t quite as high in College Park as they are in Pittsburgh, Maryland may also be dealing with similar issue on the inside at the beginning of the season unless they get a favorable ruling from the NCAA regarding the eligibility of Alex Len. The Terrapins were hoping for a decision today, but it appears that the NCAA had made no such suggestion and is “not anywhere close” to making a decision on Len’s eligibility. If Len is out for a prolonged period of time, we could very easily see the four guard line-up that Mark Turgeon referred to this summer because  the Terrapins were going to be thin up front even with Lin and his absence only exacerbates that problem.
  3. It has been rumored for quite a while, but it was not official until yesterday–President Barack Obama will attend the North Carolina-Michigan State game on November 11 on the USS Carl Vinson. While this made a lot of news and has the potential to make the game even more special than it already was, it is worth pointing out that this will not be the first college game that Obama has attended while he has been President. One thing that the early announcement will do is increase the already ridiculous level of security that we expect for the event.
  4. Chapel Hill certainly was a busy place yesterday as news leaked that North Carolina was going to name Bubba Cunningham, the Tulsa athletic director, as its new athletic director at 8 AM today. Before Cunningham takes over, outgoing athletic director Dick Baddour gave Roy Williams (and coaches in two other sports) an extension through the 2018 season. We are certain that Cunningham would not have an objection to giving Williams an extension, but it seems rather strange that the outgoing athletic director would do so just a day before the incoming athletic director was going to be named.
  5. Everybody’s favorite malcontent Renardo Sidney appears to have turned over a new leaf (for now). According to reports out of Starkville, Sidney is in the best shape that he has been in since he arrived there and is actually able to complete the team’s conditioning drills (shades of Albert Haynesworth?). Perhaps more importantly Sidney has reportedly matured (probably very closely related to his weight loss and conditioning). If Sidney can stay in shape and keep his head on straight, Mississippi State could surprise some people. We aren’t saying they are going to knock off Kentucky, but a Sidney-Anthony Davis match-up could be very interesting.
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RTC Summer Updates: Big East Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on July 11th, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our Big East update comes from frequent RTC contributor Brian Otskey, co-author of Get to the Point.

Readers’ Take

Summer Storylines

  • Connecticut Revels In National Championship Glory: Connecticut’s storybook year continued on into the offseason as the Huskies were invited to the White House for an event with President Obama on May 16. The team presented the president with a #1 UConn jersey and posed for photographs after being lauded for their remarkable accomplishment. Connecticut made one of the most improbable runs ever en route to the third national championship in school history, all coming since 1999, going 23-0 outside of Big East regular season play. Nobody could have predicted the way last season unfolded and the NCAA Tournament as a whole was a microcosm of that. Connecticut’s national title made up for a lackluster performance by many of the record 11 Big East teams participating in the tournament. Only one other Big East team (Marquette) managed to make it to the second weekend’s Sweet 16. Life without Kemba Walker has begun in Storrs and while the Huskies will be among the 2011-12 Big East favorites, it’ll be very interesting to see who steps up and how the team performs without its warrior. Jeremy Lamb appears to be ready to take over but the way Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi handle their larger roles will be the difference between a team contending for a Big East title and one that finishes fourth or fifth.

Kemba & Co. Celebrated in Style (H-C/B.Hansen)

  • The Ed Cooley Era Begins In Friartown: After Keno Davis stumbled to an 18-36 Big East record over three seasons in Providence, the Friars desperately needed someone to revive their moribund program. Providence has made only two NCAA Tournaments since its 1997 appearance and the last one was eight seasons ago in 2003-04. Enter Ed Cooley, a Providence-born 41-year-old with the fire in his belly needed to succeed in arguably the toughest job in the Big East Conference. Cooley will instill a system of discipline and fundamentals with a special attention to defense, three attributes of successful programs that were sorely lacking under Davis. Cooley’s Fairfield team ranked #22 in the nation in defensive efficiency last season and he improved the Stags’ record each and every year he was there. Providence, a small Catholic school with hardly any recruiting base along with limited facilities and resources, is an incredibly difficult job even before you have to go up against bigger schools like Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh along with tradition-rich programs such as Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette. Cooley must spend his first season laying the foundation for longer term success. He won’t turn this program around overnight but more discipline on and off the court and hard work on the recruiting trail can turn Providence into a solid Big East competitor. We can’t think of many people better suited than Cooley to get the job done at Providence. While it will be a long and difficult process, brighter days are ahead for the Providence program with Ed Cooley at the helm.
  • Signs Of Life In The New York Area: New coach Steve Lavin and St. John’s brought the buzz back to the Big Apple last winter as the Red Storm earned its first NCAA bid in nine seasons. “Lavinwood” has moved east, but St. John’s now enters a year full of mixed feelings. Cautious optimism as well as uncertainty rules the day with nine new faces, part of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class, making their way to Queens in 2011-12. Malik Stith is the only returnee of note after Dwayne Polee, II, decided to transfer closer to home at San Diego State. St. John’s may be the most unpredictable team in the Big East entering this season. The potential exists for a terrific year if Lavin can mold all this raw talent into a cohesive unit capable of playing with any team in the conference. However, issues with young players, commonly involving playing time and egos, are also very possible and it takes only one incident to destroy the locker room and wreck the season. The Johnnies have enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament again, but Lavin will have to totally adjust his approach to make that happen. With hardly any experience on the roster, he can’t simply roll the ball out and hope for the best. This season will be the biggest test of Lavin’s coaching career on the court, but he faced an even more difficult challenge last year, coaching the entire season with prostate cancer while keeping it a secret until this spring. Turning St. John’s around with that constantly in the back of his mind is an a commendable achievement and we obviously wish Coach Lavin the best of luck fighting this awful disease.
  • Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Mike Rice and Rutgers appear to be building a program to be reckoned with down the road. The Scarlet Knights have been a dormant program for 20 years, never once enjoying a winning season in any of its 16 years as a Big East member. That may be about to change, although it appears unlikely that Rutgers will crack the .500 mark in league play this season. The fiery Rice reeled in a top 25 recruiting class and now must build on a season of close calls and what-ifs. Rutgers was competitive last year, but could only manage five Big East victories. It’ll take time for the new players to adjust to the collegiate level but bigger and better things should be expected from Rutgers in the years to come. Rutgers, a large state school, has the capability of becoming a pretty good program. All it needs is a commitment from the administration, facility upgrades and great recruiting. Rice is taking care of the latter, now it’s time for the Rutgers brass to provide him with the resources needed to build a top flight program. Rutgers needs major facility upgrades (a RAC renovation has been talked about for over a year), but fundraising has been a major problem. With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie trying to get the state’s financial house in order, there is going to be a lot of resistance to an ambitious project such as this one at the state’s flagship university.

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Conference Report Card: Big East

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 19th, 2011

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.

Conference Recap

  • College basketball has never witnessed a season like this year’s Big East. The conference destroyed its own record of eight NCAA bids by placing 11 clubs in the Big Dance this year and also claimed the national champion with Connecticut, which spent most of the season in the middle of the pack in the Big East. The Huskies also gave the conference its first title since the Huskies last did the trick in 2004. While there was not a truly great team in the Big East (including Connecticut), the league was better than any other from top to bottom. Of the five teams that failed to make the NCAA Tournament, only South Florida and DePaul were truly uncompetitive. Rutgers showed signs of improvement while Seton Hall managed to win seven league games and gave some good teams a major scare in the process. Even Providence, which finished 4-14, knocked off Louisville and Villanova in consecutive games back in January. Despite the lackluster NCAA showing by most Big East members, it says here the conference boasted the best player in the nation (sorry, Jimmer) and a deserving national champion. Additionally, ten Big East teams were ranked in the AP Top 25 at some point this season. Say what you want about its postseason performance (it’s certainly fair to bash the league in that regard), but this was by far the best conference in the nation this year.

Jim Calhoun (left) and Kemba Walker will be inextricably linked to UConn's memorable NCAA Tournament run. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Team-by-Team (teams are in order of finish, but grades are based on performance vs. expectations):

  1. Pittsburgh (28-6, 15-3): The regular season was terrific once again for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers but, as has become common over the years, they fell short of their goal–getting to the Final Four. Pittsburgh lost four of their final eight games after starting the season 24-2. A mid-season injury to Ashton Gibbs was thought to bring them down a peg, but Pitt responded with wins at West Virginia and Villanova without him to quiet any doubters. That turned out to be their peak. Dixon did not really test his team out of conference except for two games at Madison Square Garden against Maryland and Texas back in November as part of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer event and a “home” game (in Pittsburgh) against Tennessee, which they lost. Looking back, one theory could be that an average non-conference schedule did not adequately prepare this team for the NCAA Tournament which is all about match-ups and teams you haven’t seen before from other leagues. While Big East coaches love to use the strength of the league as a crutch when questioned about a lack of non-conference heft to their schedule, I think this is a theory that has to be taken into consideration. Big East play is obviously rough and tumble every night but that can actually be a detriment come tournament time when games are officiated tighter and you don’t have as much time to prepare for an opponent who you likely don’t know very well, if at all. Pitt will lose Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker, and Gary McGhee to graduation while Gibbs tests the NBA waters. I expect Gibbs to come back to join a very good recruiting class led by five-star forward Khem Birch. Despite the loss of three senior leaders, look for Pitt to be in the thick of the Big East race yet again next season. Dixon has established a culture of winning and I have learned never to doubt him after witnessing the 2009-10 campaign, a season that certified Dixon as one of the best basketball minds in the country. While this year was a great success during the regular season, Pitt’s inability to get to the Sweet Sixteen and eventually the Final Four renders this year a disappointment. GRADE: B- Read the rest of this entry »
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2011-12 RTC (Way Too Early) Top 25

Posted by KDoyle on April 5th, 2011

The 2010-11 season just concluded — we are just as sad as you guys are — but rather than get all nostalgic, teary-eyed, and lament the next  seven months without college basketball, let’s look towards the future. That’s right, folks, hot off the presses: the first 2011-12 Top 25. Our assumptions on who is staying/leaving are within the team breakdowns.

  1. North Carolina—The Heels have a whole lot coming back and lose next to nothing. Harrison Barnes looked like the stud he was advertised in the preseason as he developed into Carolina’s top player down the stretch, and Kendall Marshall flourished at the point guard position once he was given the keys to the car. It sure doesn’t hurt that a couple McDonald’s All-Americans will be joining the program next year, either. Look for Roy Williams to be significantly happier next season than he was for much of this season.

    Roy Williams should be in a good mood next season

  2. SyracuseJim Boeheim’s squad returns virtually all the pieces to the puzzle — a puzzle that certainly went unfinished this year — and the Orange look like they may be the top dog in the Big East next season. Scoop Jardine has the ability to be one of the top guards in the BE and Kris Joseph is a very explosive scorer, who should continue to develop in the offseason. The development of Fab Melo is an absolute must in the offseason, though, if this team wants to reach its potential.
  3. Kentucky—With the instability of the NBA next year, the Wildcats may be fortunate enough to hang onto their young stars for at least another season. Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are all NBA talents and all three of them could enter the NBA Draft, but if even one of them returns, this team will be very dangerous, particularly with the class that John Calipari is bringing in, which might be one of the best assembled in the past ten years. If two of those three return to play with that class, this team immediately becomes the favorite to cut down the nets next April.
  4. Ohio State—Will he stay or will he go? Obviously, we are referring to Jared Sullinger’s decision to remain a Buckeye for another year. While graduation will claim Jon Diebler and David Lighty, there is still ample talent returning to help the Buckeyes take care of some unfinished business. William Buford could be the X-factor that determines just how good the Buckeyes will be.
  5. Louisville—The coaching prowess of Rick Pitino and his most important assistant Ralph Willard was a thing of beauty this year. Not much was expected out of the Cardinals, but the ‘Ville had an exceptional season up until their Tournament collapse to Morehead State. Loftier goals will be set for Louisville next year with Preston Knowles the only player departing. The Cardinals might not have quite as publicized a recruiting class as their in-state rivals, but still have one of the top incoming classes in America. Read the rest of this entry »
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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.18.2011

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 18th, 2011

Throughout the NCAA Tournament, we’ll be providing you with the daily chatter from around the webosphere relating to what’s going on with the teams still playing.

East

  • Ohio State standout Jared Sullinger has basketball in his blood. If you recall, his older brother, JJ, pieced together a solid career for the Buckeyes in the early 2000’s
  • Marquette head coach Buzz Williams believes Xavier guard Tu Holloway would receive acclaim similar to Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette if he played in a major conference. A high compliment, but it might be a bit of an exaggeration.
  • With the memory of his late mother always in his mind, Indiana State guard Jake Kelly has led the Sycamores all season. It is tough not to root for a kid like Kelly, as he has battled through all kinds of adversity throughout his career.
  • Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim believes that freshman big man Fab Melo is the Oranges’s “X-Factor” in this season’s tournament. This is a bit stunning to me, as Melo spent most of the conference campaign relegated to the bench.
  • Georgia head coach Mark Fox may get a chance to battle his mentor, UNC head coach Roy Williams, if both teams advance to the second round. Fox got his start in the coaching world as a volunteer assistant at Kansas.

Southeast

  • Florida guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton were key in the Gators’ rout of UC-Santa Barbara. The duo has battled inconsistency all season, but yesterday might be a sign of good things to come.
  • After a fairly below average start to the regular season, Gonzaga is finally starting to look like the team they were thought to be. The Zags proved this in their upset of St. John’s.
  • Pittsburgh big man Gary McGhee will seek revenge on his prep nemesis, Matt Howard, when the Panthers battle Butler in the second round. During the Indiana high school basketball and AAU seasons, McGhee never won a game against Howard.
  • Wisconsin got a big contribution from forward Mike Bruesewitz in the Badgers’ victory over Belmont. The sophomore forward recovered from a late-season injury to provide Bo Ryan‘s squad the necessary spark off the bench.
  • UCLA head coach Ben Howland will not rest following his squad’s victory over Michigan State. The Bruins have a big matchup with Florida on Saturday.

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It’s a Love/Hate Relationship: Volume XV

Posted by jbaumgartner on March 14th, 2011

Jesse Baumgartner is an RTC contributor. In this weekly piece he’ll review the five things he loved and hated about the previous seven days of college basketball. This week, Jesse asks who the best prototype player in the game is, backs the Princeton Tigers, and laments his bad bracket luck. Yeah, Jesse…tell it to Coach Greenberg.

Five Things I Loved This Week

I LOVED…..trying to figure out a unique question. I was having a debate with someone about Connecticut, and in the course of that argument said that “you have to remember, the Huskies don’t have five Kembas.” Well, my buddy (RTC’s own David Ely) asked which player I would take five of in order to form a team that would be the most competitive against a full squad from another school. Think about it, it’s a really interesting question. They have to be able to handle the ball if a team pressed, have to be big enough to compete on the boards (is 6’4 or 6’5 big enough?), have to shoot well enough to keep a D honest, have to be a versatile defender, etc. I think Jordan Hamilton from Texas might be my pick, but here are some of players that came to mind: Harrison Barnes (he’s the prototype you’d think of, 6’8 with some guard skills), Kyle Singler, Derrick Williams, Daniel Hardy, Brad Wanamaker, Scotty Hopson, DeAndre Liggins, Brandon Knight, Cory Joseph. Who would you take?

Is Barnes the Best "All-Rounder" of a Player?

I LOVED…..two perfect buzzer beaters. Kemba Walker and Washington’s Isaiah Thomas gave us a couple of doozies to salivate over this week, and I liked them for different reasons. With Kemba, it was the ridiculous move. Yes, he had a post player on him, but that stepback was so comically absurd (Pitt’s Gary McGhee fell down) that the only critique might be that he exerted too much energy getting more space than he needed. He’s still my POY, by the way. With Thomas, it was the perfect setup. It was an incredible game (a TITLE game), overtime, swings for both teams…and a perfect ending. Thomas played the clock absolutely perfectly, and the backboard lit up just as his J swished through the hoop. Oh, and by the way, Gus Johnson was on the call (watch to get excited for this coming week): “Thomas….shake….crossover….stepback…..AHHHHIAAHHHH!!!!! AT THE BUZZER!!! YOUNG!!!…..ZEKE!!! (someone told Gus that Thomas was named after the NBA great PG)…….. COLD!!!! ….. BLOODED!!!!!”

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Set Your Tivo: 03.10.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 10th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

The power conferences take center stage on Thursday with quarterfinal matchups from New York to Kansas City to Los Angeles on the schedule. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

Big East Quarterfinals (at New York, NY): #3 Pittsburgh vs. #18 Connecticut – 12 pm on ESPN (****)

Dixon Will Have To Knock Off a Hot UConn Squad To Avoid Last Year's Fate

The double-bye was not kind to Pittsburgh last year, as they fell victim to Notre Dame on Thursday of last season’s conference tournament. They’ll look to avoid a similar fate today against a hot Connecticut team coming off two convincing wins in the first two rounds. These teams played way back on December 27 in the first Big East game of the year, a contest won by Pittsburgh, 78-63.

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Big East Wrap & Tourney Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2011

Rob Dauster of Ballin’ Is A Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. With action at Madison Square Garden set to tip Tuesday, get up to speed with RTC’s regular season recap and postseason preview.

Postseason Preview


Tourney Favorite: Notre Dame: The Irish have been rolling through conference play, winning 11 of their last 12 games. Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis are playing as well as they have all season long. The Irish are the second best team in the conference, and they have owned the best team (Pitt) the past two seasons.

And If They Lose?: Pitt Panthers: The Panthers’ biggest strength — their offensive rebounding ability — has taken a hit with Talib Zanna going to the bench with a broken thumb. But they still have Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor, and experienced leaders in their backcourt (Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Travon Woodall).

Sleeper: West Virginia Mountaineers: Is this team really a sleeper? They are ranked in the top 25, they won this tournament last season, and they made the Final Four. That said, the ‘Eers seem to finally be hitting their stride, as Kevin Jones and Joe Mazzulla are playing their best ball of the season.

Don’t Bet Against: St. John‘s Red Storm: The Johnnies have been great at home this season. Guess where the Big East Tournament is being held?

You Should Bet Against: The UConn/Georgetown Winner: The Hoyas are still playing without Chris Wright. Since he went out, the Hoyas scored four field goals in the second half in a loss to Cincinnati, scored 51 points in a loss to Syracuse, and scored just 47 points in another loss to the Bearcats. UConn has struggled down the stretch as teams have begun to figure out how to stop Kemba. When they run into capable defensive teams (i.e. Pitt), they struggle.

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Set Your Tivo: 02.07.11

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 7th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

Two of the top teams in the country are each without a key player tonight, plus one is on the road. How will the personnel losses affect these two deep teams? All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

#4 Pittsburgh @ West Virginia – 7 pm on ESPN (****)

The Panthers Will Have To Learn to Live Without Gibbs For a While

The Backyard Brawl, hoops edition, tips off for the 181st time tonight in Morgantown with West Virginia owning a 95-85 series edge. However, Pittsburgh has won seven of the last ten meetings with Jamie Dixon’s program reloading every year of late. This evening the Panthers will be without a key cog in their offense, itself ranked #2 in efficiency. Ashton Gibbs, Pitt’s leading scorer and best three point shooter, is out with a knee injury and will miss up to two weeks. That means Travon Woodall will start at the point guard position and the Panthers’ outstanding depth will be put to the test.

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Set Your Tivo: 02.04-02.06

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 5th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

On paper, this isn’t the best weekend of games. However, this is college basketball where anything can happen. You just never know what could happen and it may end up being a thrilling couple of days, anyway. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

West Virginia @ #12 Villanova – 12 pm Saturday on ESPN (****)

Yet another big game in the Big East features two teams tied for third place at 6-3 in league play. The winner will tie second place Notre Dame, just a game and a half behind first place Pittsburgh. West Virginia has won seven of nine games and rebounding has been a big reason why. The Mountaineers have not been out-rebounded by an opponent since a New Year’s Day game at Marquette, plus their defense has been solid. West Virginia has scored only 58 PPG over their last four games (three of them without leading scorer Casey Mitchell) but has held opponents to an average of 50 PPG over the same stretch, culminating in holding Seton Hall to 44 points on Wednesday. Bob Huggins’ team is #5 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage but will have to bring their A-game on the glass against Villanova. The Wildcats rank 20th in keeping opponents off the offensive boards and were led by the interior duo of Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou in their most recent win over Marquette. They combined for 32/15 and have been huge factors this season as Jay Wright isn’t counting exclusively on his guards to win games anymore. Although West Virginia has rebounded the ball extremely well of late, they still rank only #291 in opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage, allowing teams to grab 35.6% of their misses. Villanova will likely miss a lot of long range shots against West Virginia’s #2 ranked three point defense (allowing 27%) so offensive rebounding will be important for both teams, especially the Wildcats, in this game. Coach Huggins used 6’7 John Flowers on Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell in their last game and he successfully shut down the Pirates’ gunner. Might we see the same thing on Villanova’s Corey Stokes? It’s a good possibility, though Flowers may be needed inside more often to double Pena and Yarou. Flowers leads the Big East in blocked shots and needs to have another good defensive game against a Villanova team that can score in bunches. The Wildcats score 25.6% of their points from the foul line and attempted 33 free throws against Marquette. Villanova is very difficult to beat when they get to the stripe because they shoot 78% and get there so often. Dribble penetration from Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns leads to good looks inside and plenty of free throw opportunities. West Virginia has to do a good job defending the dribble drive and Kevin Jones will be a key player in doing so. Jones is a taller player who, along with Flowers, will form the second line of defense if the Wildcat guards are able to get into the lane. Jones is also a warrior on the glass, going for 13/12 in his last game. With the status of Casey Mitchell still uncertain, West Virginia will have to stick to typical “Huggy-ball” more than ever, and that’s physical defense and great rebounding. Villanova is 16-0 when they score at least 70 points but only 2-4 when they fail to do so. With the way West Virginia is rebounding and playing defense right now, it’s very possible that this game could be in the 50’s or 60’s. We’re going to go with the upset and take the Mountaineers on the road in this game.

#10 Kentucky @ Florida – 9 pm Saturday on ESPN (****)

With a win on Saturday night, Florida can really create some separation between themselves and Kentucky. With a win against the Wildcats, Florida will hold a two and a half game lead over UK and remain ahead of Tennessee, a team they beat on the road already. Quite simply, a win here puts Florida in a commanding position in the SEC East. Of course, that won’t be so easy against the nation’s fourth ranked team in eFG% defense. The Gators have won 9 of 11 games but Kentucky will be their toughest test since a meeting with Ohio State back in November. The Wildcats are coming off a loss at Ole Miss earlier this week, a game in which they committed 18 turnovers and didn’t defend the three point line well at all. Freshman point guard Brandon Knight had six of those turnovers and needs to do a better job tonight. Young teams can’t turn it over and expect to win on the road no matter how talented they are and Kentucky is finding out the hard way. With a 2-4 record in true road games, the Wildcats need to grow up quick if they want to play deep into March. Knight needs to create shots for himself and others, taking advantage of UK’s 40% shooting from deep. With Doron Lamb shooting the ball very well recently, Kentucky has plenty of threats to win this game. A key battle in this game will be at the forward spot as Kentucky’s freshman Terrence Jones goes up against Florida senior Chandler Parsons. Jones averages 18/9 and had 22/12 at Ole Miss while Parsons has been on an absolute tear on the glass of late. Controlling the boards will be critically important in a game that could be all about pace. The Gators would like to slow the game down and work in the half court while the Wildcats are comfortable at a quicker pace. To keep the tempo in their favor, Florida has to win the rebounding battle and make shots. The Gators are #10 in offensive rebounding percentage but the matchup between Jones and Parsons, as well as Vernon Macklin and Josh Harrellson at the center position, will likely determine who controls the glass in this game. If Harrellson can shut down Macklin (Festus Ezeli of Vanderbilt did a good job of this in the last game), the onus will be on Parsons to carry the Gators yet again. With Erving Walker hitting only 7 of his last 33 threes (21%), Florida will work the ball inside even more than they already do. The Gators get 56.8% of their points from two point range but will face the #4 interior defense in the country. Kentucky allows opponents to shoot only 41% from two point range while Florida is making 50.5% of their two point shots. This should be a physical game and whoever controls the interior will likely come out on top. Despite their road woes, we think John Calipari’s team will be ready to play tonight and hand the Gators their fourth home loss, disappointing the big crowd sure to be at the O-Dome for ESPN Game Day.

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