Providence’s Cooley Rules

Posted by Patrick Prendergast on December 12th, 2011

When Providence hired Keno Davis as head coach in April 2008 its president, Reverend Brian Shanley, called him a “Godsend.” As they say, God works in mysterious ways. While mysterious is not the word most Friar fans would use to describe Davis’ tenure, that is just what happened. Shanley turned out to be right. Just not quite as intended. Davis was a Godsend because his hire and tenure represented the mistake Shanley, along with Athletic Director Bob Driscoll and the other decision makers at Providence College, learned from. It was a painful and public lesson, but one that led to Ed Cooley.

The Friars, albeit against a soft non-conference schedule,  at 9-2 are off to an encouraging start under Cooley. Providence was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big East, and while wins and losses always matter, the overall record may not carry its customary weight this season. It is about progress. Player development is important but the cultivation of young men is paramount. It is about discipline. It is about defense. It is about bringing relevance and respect back to Providence College basketball and Ed Cooley is the face of the resurrection. Cooley’s compelling story will be recounted during virtually every Providence broadcast this season.  He grew up in a tough section of Providence, seemingly raised by the neighborhood. As an All-State performer for Central High School, he won a state championship in the building where the Friars still play their home games. He was a Friar fan, aspired to wear the black and white as a player, and calls the Providence head coaching position his “dream job.”

Cooley Has the Friars Headed in the Right Direction (Credit: Friarblog.com)

Although he may not have known the full extent of it, Cooley knew he was inheriting a program in shambles. In his first season, Keno Davis took a veteran team comprised of Tim Welsh recruits to an expectation-meeting 19-14 campaign that included a win over #1 Pittsburgh and was capped off by a loss to Miami in the first round of the NIT. It was the next two years that exposed Davis’ shortcomings as a coach, and more importantly. as a leader. On the court the Friars put up back-to-back 4-14 Big East records and became a defensive laughingstock, giving up 75.3 and 82.2 points per game over the last two years. They put up similarly swollen numbers on offense (75.8 and 82.4 PPG) but there often appeared to be no structure or flow on offense other than to get shots up early and often.

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Surprise! Assessing Early Signs of Life at Providence, Oregon & Iowa State

Posted by rtmsf on December 22nd, 2010

Andrew Murawa is an RTC contributor.

Last week we spent some time praising the work of two of the most familiar faces in the college basketball coaching world, Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl, in getting their teams off to sparkling starts in the aftermath of some rough off-court patches. Today, I’d like to recognize some perhaps less well-known coaches who have turned awful offseasons of a different sort into solid starts for their respective teams. At Providence, Oregon and Iowa State, the basketball programs all went through turbulent summers full of personnel changes and uncertainty, but thus far the coaches at each of those programs has fought through the adversity to earn a combined 29-9 record for the three schools, albeit against maybe some lesser competition. None of the three schools are necessarily expected to be major contenders for NCAA Tournament berths, but at least they’ve got their programs headed in the right directions after rough offseasons.

Marshon Brooks Has Been a Revelation This Season

For Keno Davis and the Providence Friars, the offseason was an absolute nightmare – not that 2009-10 was all that great to begin with. The Friars lost their last 11 games of last season on the way to a 12-19 record, during which time junior guard Kyle Wright abruptly left the program. After the season was over, a new rash of bad news hit the Friars. First, it was announced that point guard Johnnie Lacy and center Russ Permenter would be transferring out of the program. Then, a couple days later, Lacy and freshman center James Still were charged with felony assault, leading to Still’s eventual dismissal. A month later, the bright spot in the Friar program was extinguished when leading scorer and rebounder Jamine “Greedy” Peterson was kicked off the team. About a week later, assistant coach Pat Skerry left to head to Big East rival Pitt, and in the process, severely hurt Providence’s recruiting with incoming 2010 recruit Joseph Young announcing that he would be staying closer to his Houston home for college. After Davis lost some face in refusing to allow Young out of his scholarship for a time, he was eventually released and allowed to enroll at the University of Houston. Next, 2011 commit Naadir Tharpe announced that he was withdrawing his commitment to the Friars and opening back up his recruitment. And finally, for good measure, Kadeem Batts suffered a disorderly conduct charge in July. In short, it was a miserable offseason.

But, in the face of all of that turmoil, the Friars are off to an 11-2 start to this season. Yes, they’ve dropped games to La Salle and Boston College, and for every win over a Rhode Island and an Alabama, there’s a win over Central Connecticut and Prairie View A&M, but at least Coach Davis has not allowed the negative momentum of the offseason to boil over into a disastrous 2010-11 campaign. Senior wing Marshon Brooks has developed into a versatile threat (22.9 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 2.0 3PG) and a team leader, while sophomores Vincent Council and Bilal Dixon are each developing into serious Big East-level talents. Council is among the top ten point guards in the nation in assists, with seven per game (he had 16 in a game against Brown), while Dixon has been killing the boards on both ends, to the tune of 9.7 rebounds per night (more than three of those on the offensive glass), and adding almost three blocked shots a night. While much more serious competition awaits the Friars come Big East play, Davis has focused on tightening things up on the defensive end where PC ranked in the bottom 100 teams in Division I last year in defensive efficiency; now PC ranks in the top 100. There is certainly a ways to go for this Friar team, and the talent level  is still such that any dream of a run to an upper-division Big East finish should be tempered with, you know, sanity, but Davis has taken what was a disastrous offseason and settled things down in Providence to the point where the program is no longer in freefall and is playing up to their talent level. There are sure to be plenty of losses (and losing streaks) in conference play, but expect the Friars to beat a team or two that they have no business beating, and to be competitive on a regular basis.

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What In The World Is Going On At Providence?

Posted by jstevrtc on July 21st, 2010

Did Keno Davis run over a nun, or something?  Is there a Boston College fan somewhere snickering  sinisterly while poking pins into a Providence College doll?

This past Saturday, Kadeem Batts, a redshirt freshman at Providence, was arrested outside a club on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and failure to leave premises.  He’s still on the team, but it’s not the most confidence-inspiring start, and it’s just another in an improbable string of unfortunate events that have befallen the PC men’s basketball program in recent months.

Back in April, forward Johnnie Lacy and guard James Still, both freshmen, were charged with felony assault in the beating of a PC student.  They’re not just off the team, they’re gone, expelled from the college.  About a month later, sophomore Jamine Peterson — only the team’s leading scorer (19.6 PPG) and rebounder (10.2 RPG) — was dismissed from the squad for violating team rules (not otherwise specified) while hosting a recruit for a weekend.

And then there’s this Joseph Young situation.  In case you’re not familiar, Young is the son of former Houston Cougar and Phi Slamma Jamma member Michael Young, who’s currently the Director of Basketball Operations and Performance Enhancement at the University of Houston.  Last month, Joseph signed a letter of intent to play for Providence as a freshman in the 2010-2011 season.  He changed his mind soon after, citing his concern for an aunt to whom he’s particularly close who is awaiting a heart transplant, and an increased desire to therefore attend school close to home.  He asked Providence for a release from his LOI — and was denied.

At this point, if we were Coach Davis we'd be looking upward for random falling anvils. (AP/H.R. Abrams)

Providence didn’t do this just to be mean, though.  Check it out:  Mr. Young was quickly hired to his current position at Houston (he was also an assistant coach for a year and strength/conditioning coach for five years) after James Dickey was brought on to replace the retired Tom Penders, and Young happens to have a basketball-playing son with some skills.  You can’t blame Providence for at least raising an eyebrow in regard to the timing, here — the elder Young is hired to a new position at the hometown school right at the time the younger Young is about to embark on his college basketball career? With all that Providence has had to deal with recently, you can’t blame them for wanting to hold onto a player for whom they have high hopes, especially if they have reason to think they’re not being given the whole story about that player’s desires to leave.  Providence has stated that they expect Joseph Young to honor his commitment, a lesson it’s never too late to teach (or learn).

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Morning Five: 05.19.10 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on May 19th, 2010

  1. Providence has booted its star forward, Jamine “Greedy” Peterson, off the team for undisclosed violations of team rules that involved underage AAU players visiting the campus in April.  Whatever he did, PC officials mince no words in stating that kicking him out was the only option (“it wasn’t working here” and “no” was  the answer as to whether the decision was a tough call).  Peterson blew up last season, going from averages of 5/3 in ten minutes per game his freshman season to 20/10 in thirty minutes per game last year.  The all-Big East honorable mention forward was poised to become one of the top players in the conference next year, but will likely look into foreign opportunities rather than sitting out as a transfer in 2010-11.
  2. From the looks of these photos, the UNC freshman class of 2009-10 seemed to generally be ok with their NIT season.  Maybe all the sun and fun inspired the Wear twins to move back to the west coast (h/t Deadspin)?
  3. Your Big Ten expansion news of the day shows that Commisioner Jim Delany hasn’t changed his timeline for a decision no matter how much we pundits would like for him to do so, and appears to be carefully choosing his words when discussing options.  The only real criteria he regularly refers to is membership in the AAU, which is not the same organization that is currently destroying amateur basketball in the US.  Rather, the AAU Delany refers to stands for Association of American Universities, and there are 63 leading research universities in both the US and Canada as members.  While we don’t think Brandeis and Cal Tech are on the short list despite being AAU member institutions, several of the names we’ve heard bandied about are — Missouri, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Nebraska and Syracuse.
  4. Will the Terrence Jones saga finally end today?  Washington or Kentucky — Kentucky or Washington?  His high school coach believes that Jones will follow through on his verbal commitment from three weeks ago by signing with the Huskies today.
  5. Despite merely a 10% chance at winning the top pick in last night’s NBA Draft lottery, the Washington Wizards won the (presumably) John Wall sweepstakes.  With Agent Zero set to return from suspension next season, GM Ernie Grunfeld would not commit to the choice yet, but regardless of the decision, DC-area fans have to be feeling very good this morning, especially since there’s no Kwame Brown available.  Wall, to his credit, seemed very excited at the prospect of moving to the District next year.
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Big East Tourney Daily Diary: 1st Round

Posted by rtmsf on March 10th, 2010

Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit is spending the week as the RTC correspondent at the Big East Tournament.  In addition to live-blogging select games throughout the tournament, he will post a nightly diary with his thoughts on each day’s action.  Here is his submission on the First Round games.

South Florida 58, DePaul 49

  • South Florida looked really good in the first half. In the second half, a scrappy DePaul team started hitting some shots and made it somewhat exciting. But in the first half, USF looked absolutely dominant. They got just about whatever they wanted offensively, they hit the offensive glass, they scored in transition, and they held DePaul to merely 15 points.
  • Jarrid Famous could be a very good player one day. Great frame, good size and athleticism, but he needs a post game. I like his aggressiveness as well; he had seven offensive rebounds.
  • In one of the stranger stats I’ve ever seen, South Florida scored 58 points. 50 of them came in the paint, and six at the foul line, meaning that the Bulls got just one basket outside of the paint.
  • The most entertaining part of this game was actually the battle of the bands in an empty gym before tipoff. In my opinion, USF clinched it with a stirring rendition of “You Can Call Me Al”.

St. John’s 73, UConn 51 (RTC Live)

  • Where to start about the Huskies?  They turned it over 20 times; they went 6-18 from the foul line; they clearly had no interest in playing this game; Jerome Dyson packed it in three games ago, as he finished with four points and nine turnovers this afternoon. All around, it was ugly.
  • St. John’s is going to be a good team next year given they learn how to hold onto a lead. They will have ten seniors on their team, and the only rotation player they are losing is Anthony Mason, Jr. I’ve already got them slotted as my sleeper pick. They have size, they have athleticism, they have a stud in DJ Kennedy, and they have a couple experienced PGs.
  • Will UConn accept an NIT bid? Did Jim Calhoun just coach his last game in Storrs? Is Kemba Walker going pro? All questions you should keep in mind over the next month.  Another thing to think about with the Huskies – they have not won a Big East Tournament game since the 2005 first round against Georgetown. Jerome Dyson is 0-4 in the Big East Tournamen and 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament. The only year he was on the team and the Huskies had any postseason success was last year’s Final Four run, while he was injured.

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Big East Tournament Preview

Posted by rtmsf on March 8th, 2010

Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference.

Season in Review

The Big East regular season ended on Saturday, and I think it is safe to say that the league had a bit of an unpredictable season. Don’t believe me? Show me a season preview that had Syracuse winning the league, Pitt getting a double-bye, UConn playing on Tuesday, and with South Florida and Notre Dame finishing above UConn and Cincinnati.  See? Unpredictable.

But what does that mean? Was the Big East better from top to bottom than it was last year? Did teams like Marquette, USF, and Notre Dame benefit from a down year?   The one thing that is for sure is that the top of the Big East is nowhere near the top of last year’s Big East. Five Sweet 16 teams and three No. 1 seeds is a pretty phenomenal feat. But last year the conference only sent seven teams to the tournament, and there is a very good chance that number will be surpassed this season.

The way the Big East bubble is shaping up right now, five teams are in – Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Pitt and Georgetown. Louisville and Marquette should be ok, but a loss on Wednesday and things could get dicey depending on how the rest of the bubble plays out. If Notre Dame happens to lose their first Big East Tournament game (to either Seton Hall or Rutgers), then the Irish could be in trouble as they will likely be right on the cut line.  That gives us eight that are reasonably safe.

It is possible, however, for the Big East to get two more teams in. If today was Selection Sunday, then Seton Hall may actually be in the tournament. While they have 11 losses, the average RPI of the team’s that have beaten the Pirates is 26 and they have not lost to a team with an RPI below 64. Add into that mix that the Pirates have wins over Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt, at Cornell and an RPI of 53. Its not a great profile, but its a very weak bubble this year. That could be enough.  The other team that still has a shot of an at-large bid is UConn, simply because the Huskies have more good wins than most of the bubble teams. That said, they also have 14 losses. UConn will likely need to make it to the Big East semis for any kind of real shot at a bid.

The Big East Conference released their all-conference teams today, and there isn’t much there that I disagree with. (Note: there are six players on the first team because one of those six will win POY; POY, COY, and ROY will be announced on Tuesday between Big East Tournament sessions)

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RTC Live: Syracuse @ Providence

Posted by rtmsf on February 23rd, 2010

RTC Live will be coming to you from downtown Providence Tuesday night for a battle between a top-five Syracuse powerhouse and an upset-minded Providence team. Syracuse enters play tonight fresh off their monumental victory last Thursday at Georgetown but enter the Dunkin Donuts Center hoping to avoid a letdown in their sandwich game between the emotional win over the Hoyas and this coming Saturday’s hyped visit from Villanova to the Carrier Dome. The Orange are led by sensational Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson and the pinpoint long-range shooting of Andy Rautins. Productive big men are also imperative to Jim Boeheim’s success this season from the punishing Arinze Onuaku to the athleticism of Kris Joseph. Providence is hoping they can post a memorable win akin to their stunning upset over #1 Pittsburgh in 2009 at the Dunk. If the Friars win tonight, they must defend in the halfcourt and shoot well from outside, most notably Sharaud Curry and Marshon Brooks. Also, keep an eye on how sophomore Jamine Peterson handles the forwards of Syracuse down in the post. We could have a high-scoring, high-flying, up and down marathon tonight in the Big East. Hope you’ll join me courtside for Syracuse vs. Providence here on RTC Live tonight at 7 PM.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on February 16th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.

I like to mix it up here on Tuesday’s with my Scribbles column. Rather than the usual listing of ten players/coaches/programs catching my eye, I’m going to give this column a bit of a twist. My ten this week will attempt to rank the top ten conferences in America and highlight an underappreciated player residing in that conference. Sure, labeling someone as underrated can be completely subjective, but that’s the joy of having my own weekly column. And team success is not a factor, here; in fact, that’s what makes these players underrated on an individual basis. Let’s get right to it:

1. Big 12: Donald Sloan, Texas A&M- Most thought Derrick Roland’s crippling knee injury would devastate the Aggies both on and off the court enough to destroy their NCAA chances. Instead, Donald Sloan tossed on his Superman cape and carried the load in the absence of his best friend. The run began for A&M with a stunning road victory at a place where nobody wins- Missouri- coupled with a sweep of Texas Tech and a home win over fellow NCAA team Baylor sandwiched in the middle. Sure he struggled in the second half in A&M’s valiant effort vs. Kansas, but just ask head coach Mark Turgeon if Sloan has been the senior leader, the backbone, the constant force behind the A&M attack. Sloan has scored in double figures in every Big 12 game save a loss at Kansas State and even poured in three performances of 26+ points. His 18.2 PPG is good for third in the Big 12 and Sloan is shooting a cool 46% from the field, 78% from the line and 37% from three. The 6’3 senior ranks in the top-75 in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, meaning if a defender respects Sloan’s reliable mid-range shot, he can penetrate and get to the charity stripe as good as any offensive player in the Big 12. Cole Aldrich, James Anderson and Jacob Pullen may get more publicity, but Sloan is just as vital to his team on the offensive end of the floor.

Sloan has done an admirable job leading the Aggies

2. Big East: Jamine Peterson, Providence- This high-flying Friar might be the most athletic player in the Big East outside of Stanley Robinson. I witnessed his athleticism first-hand during the late stages of a win at Northeastern early this season when, inbounding under their basket, Peterson leaped over two Huskies on an alley-oop dunk that iced the game for the Friars. His skill set is incredibly rare: a 6’6 redshirt sophomore that can score with ferocity in the paint, step out and drain a three (40 made on the year) and absolutely dominate the glass. Peterson and the rest of his Friar teammates do have a propensity to turn the ball over with extreme frequency, but Jamine more than makes up for it with his 18.9 PPG. His rebounding ranks even a notch higher as Peterson is just 0.1 RPG from averaging a double-double, ranks in the top-50 in offensive rebounding percentage and has two games this season with 20+ rebounds, including an otherworldly 29/20 effort vs. Rutgers in January. A suspect overall floor game and woeful free throw shooting percentage are the only facets of Peterson’s game hindering his quest towards becoming a top-flight Big East player. With two years left at the Dunk (appropriately named), I’d be willing to bet Peterson receives more and more love from the national media as he averages 20/10 and the Friars improve under Keno Davis.

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ATB: Vandy is Dandy in Knoxville

Posted by rtmsf on January 28th, 2010

Wednesday Night of Upsets.  Although all four of these games were upsets using the Vegas sense of the word, only UT and UConn were what we’d call significant ones.  Still, it’s not often that we see three unranked teams pull wins over ranked teams on a random Wednesday night.

Is Kevin Stallings' Vandy Team the Most Underrated in America? (AP/Wade Payne)

  • #23 Vanderbilt 85, #14 Tennessee 76.  Behold, the value of senior leadership.  On a night when A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffrey Taylor could only combine for 22 points on 7-18 shooting, senior Jermaine Beal stepped up to lead Vanderbilt to a message-sending road win in one of the toughest places to play in America.  The Commodores earned their tenth straight win behind Beal’s 25 points on 8-12 from the field, which included 4-6 from beyond the arc.  Those four treys were half of Vandy’s total of eight, which came on 14 attempts (57.1%).  Tennessee, by contrast, could only manage 6-20 (30%) from three, often settling for shots from deep when there were better ones to be had.  J.P. Prince led UT with 22/4/3, and Wayne Chism owned the boards in this physical game, pulling down 16 boards in addition to his eight points.  Still, Vanderbilt was able to out-rebound the Vols, 37-35 — a major reason why Tennessee just suffered their first home loss of the season.  At the start of last night, Kentucky was the only undefeated team in the nation; now, Vanderbilt is the only undefeated team (5-0) in the SEC, a game ahead of UK in the East.  Eleven days ago, the Commodores did what Kentucky couldn’t — win at South Carolina — but they’ll visit Lexington this Saturday.
  • New Mexico 76, #10 BYU 72.  The two best teams in the underrated Mountain West Conference faced off tonight with more than just conference pride on the line.  BYU came into the game riding a 15-game winning streak, and New Mexico was trying to get its swagger back after starting 0-2 in the conference including an almost unheard-of loss at their home venue, The Pit.  The swagger might just be back, as the Lobos endured a horrid shooting night from their star Darington Hobson (5/14 on 1-11 FG) in giving the Cougars their first loss in conference play.  Stepping up in his place was Dairese Gary, who scored a career-high 25 points, including nine in the last minute-plus to seal the win.  BYU’s star Jimmer Fredette did his part for the visiting team, but the New Mexico defense made him work for it, resulting in an 8-21 shooting night for 27/7 assts.  New Mexico has shown this season that they can play with anybody — beating four ranked teams — but losses to Oral Roberts, SDSU and UNLV show that they sometimes lose their focus.  Expect to see both of these teams remain at the top of the MWC standings during the next month, with the rematch scheduled for February 27 in Provo.
  • Charlotte 74, #15 Temple 64.  In a great way, the A-10 is a mess.  Charlotte’s win over Temple on Wednesday means there are three teams (Temple, Charlotte, and Xavier) at the top of the league with identical 5-1 conference records, Richmond and Rhode Island just a game back at 4-2, and three other teams have three wins apiece.  The 49ers’ Derrio Green went nuts for 26 points on 9-15 shooting, including a three (one of his four) with two minutes left that lifted a four point lead up to seven, and quelled a last comeback attempt by the Owls.  An under-the-weather Juan Fernandez tallied just 3 points in only 24 minutes for Temple, although Lavoy Allen (12/14/2) and Ryan Brooks (20/3/2) did all they could against a Charlotte zone defense that threw up traps at any possible chance at any location on the floor.  Temple was up 32-38 at the half, but just couldn’t decipher that 49er zone which forced The Owls into a poor shooting night (34.8% FG, 31.4% 3FG).  Charlotte took their first lead with seven minutes left, lost it for thirty seconds, and never trailed again after regaining it.
  • Providence 81, #19 Connecticut 66. Someone needs to tell these schools that Connecticut 2010 is not Connecticut 2004 or even 2009, and they don’t need to be RTCing every time they beat the Huskies (see below).  Trust us, they’re going to lose several more games this year.  According to Gavin Edwards, once the Huskies got a ten-point lead in the first half, they thought the game was won.  Providence, however, had other ideas, and used old-fashioned hustle and grit to storm back and dominate the last eight minutes of the game to blow UConn out of the building.  Despite PC’s porous defense this season, they were able to hold Connecticut to 39% shooting and 4-18 from three.  Kemba Walker (17/8/7 assts) and Stanley Robinson (14/4) were able to get theirs, but Jerome Dyson was poor (3-14 FG) and nobody else stepped up.  For Providence, Jamine Peterson had 23/14/4 stls and Sharaud Curry chipped in with 18 points, but this game ultimately came down to the who-wanted-it-more factor, and that team tonight was clearly the Friars.  Now, about that RTC…

Other Games of National Interest.

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Checking in on… the Big East

Posted by jstevrtc on January 15th, 2010

Rob Dauster of Ballin Is a Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference.

Let me paint you a picture.

Pitt is loaded. They have the Big East player in the post, an all-conference 20 PPG scorer on the wing, and a senior leader at the point running the show. They have depth, balance, quality role players, and one of the most unappreciated coaches in the game.

That was last season.

This season its a different story.

DeJuan Blair is gone. Sam Young is gone. Levance Fields is gone.

Before the season started, the consensus seemed to be that with those three went Pitt’s hopes of an NCAA Tournament trip. Nothing the Panthers did before the start of Big East play changed that assumption. Not coming back from a 13 point second half deficit against Wofford. Not an ugly, two overtime win over Duquesne. Not the 47 points they scored against New Hampshire. Not the loss to Indiana in Madison Square Garden.

But there’s something we didn’t take into consideration.

Jamie Dixon isn’t like most coaches.

Jamie Dixon doesn’t rely on talent to win. He doesn’t need a roster full of McDonald’s all-Americans. In fact, when Dixon brought freshman Dante Taylor into the program, he was Pitt’s first McDonald’s all-american since Bobby Martin and Brian Shorter joined the Panthers in 1987.

What we ignored was the fact that Dixon develops players. He grooms the kids that are overlooked by other programs to fit his system. Like Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon and Tyrell Biggs and even Levance Fields and Sam Young before them, guys like Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, and Gary McGhee bided their time last year. They played their limited minutes while practicing every day against some of the best players in the country, while learning how to defend, execute, and carry themselves like Big East champions.

Now that Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown are back in the rotation, now that this Pitt team is finally complete, we are finally seeing just how good the Panthers are; just how good of a program and system that Jamie Dixon runs.

Pitt’s team is built on toughness, defense, and execution on both sides of the ball. While we pointed out in the preseason that the Panthers had flaws this year — they don’t have any sure-fire lottery picks, they don’t have a dynamic playmaker at the point, they don’t have anyone that can go out and get you 25 points on a given night — what we didn’t point out was that they have a group of kids that bought into what Dixon was selling.

Like every team in Dixon’s tenure, this year’s Panthers defend. They rebound. They get seemingly every loose ball. They run their offense until they get an open look or a lane to the rim. They hit big shots. They demonstrate the physical toughness and the mental make-up required to compete with more talented teams, and to beat them on the road.

And they have just enough natural talent to get by.

Proof?

How about a 4-0 start in the Big East.

Three of those wins came on the road — in Syracuse, in Cincinnati, and in Hartford. All three are difficult places to play, and all three were NCAA tournament caliber teams.

When playing the cream of the Big East crop, there will be few games where the Panthers will be considered the more talented team on the floor even with their run the last two weeks. But rest assured, the Panthers will come away with more than their share of wins.

If the Big East was a car show, Jamie Dixon would be me and Pitt would be my 1995 Honda Accord. While the Jags breakdown, and the Lambo’s get speeding tickets, and the Corvette’s are traded in for newer models, and the Hummers guzzle gas, my Accord keeps getting the job done. The paint may be chipped on the side, the AC may be broken, there may be four blown out speakers that are useless because I don’t have a CD player and the radio antenna was ripped off, but you better believe that Accord gets me where I need to go and gets me there on time, all on 30 miles-per-gallon.

And while Pitt may not be the most aesthetically pleasing basketball team to watch, Dixon keeps steering this team right where it wants to be.

Atop the Big East standings.

Other notes from this week

  • I think it is safe to say we have the choke of the year, possibly in the country. Up 50-48 with 15 seconds left, Cinci’s Rashad Bishop took the ball out of bounds under St. John’s basket. He thought he had Deonta Vaughn open deep, but pulled a Pennington and underthrew the baseball pass. It was picked off by Dwight “Buckets” Hardy, who was fouled, making both free throws. With the game now tied and just 8.5 seconds on the clock, Lance Stephenson threw an inbounds pass away, which was stolen by Hardy who, again, knocked down two free throws. Vaughn missed a three at the buzzer that would have won it as the Bearcats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • Speaking of “Buckets” Hardy, one thing I’ve noticed in watching, and attending, a lot of these games is the number of fantastic nicknames in this conference. You know about Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, but how about Jamine “Greedy” Peterson of Providence, Stanley “Sticks” Robinson of UConn, Robert “Sticks” Mitchell of Seton Hall, or Darryl “Truck” Bryant of West Virginia. I know there are more out there, as well.
  • Pitt wasn’t the only team getting to 100% as the season progressed. Villanova has now played six games with Reggie Redding, who has been exactly what we expected – 10.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.8 SPG. Take away a two points/seven turnover debacle in Monday’s yuck-fest against Louisville, and those numbers are much more impressive. Nova also got Mouph Yarou back. Yarou had been out with Hepatitis B, but came back on Jan. 6th against DePaul. While his numbers have been less than stellar as he works his way into the rotation, what has impressed about Yarou is his conditioning (Wright is on record saying Yarou is in better-than-expected shape). If Yarou can provide some strength on the glass and on defense, he could end up being a very nice complement to Antonio Pena. All of a sudden, with these two in the line-up, Villanova got a lot more physical.
  • Samardo Samuels was a monster against Villanova. He finished with 21 points and seven boards, hitting every shot he took (4-4 from the floor, 13-13 from the line) and blocking four shots. The problem? Louisville was too concerned about shooting threes to consistently get Samuels the touches he deserved in the paint. The Cardinals will be at their best when they play inside-out, because if Samuels is scoring and defenses are helping down on him (which will more often than not be the case), it will get the Louisville guards better looks on the perimeter.

CO-PLAYERS OF THE WEEKScottie Reynolds, Villanova, and Austin Freeman, Georgetown

Georgetown was dead in the water against UConn. The Huskies had absolutely imposed their will on this game, forcing Georgetown into turnovers and poor shot selection while making it a glorified pick-up game. In other words, they were playing Husky basketball. In Jim Calhoun’s words, it was UConn’s best half of the season. But during the break, Georgetown regrouped and came out more focused on the offensive end. They started to run their offense, to work through their sets, and as a result got much better looks at the rim. It just so happened the majority of those looks came with the ball in Austin Freeman’s hands. Freeman would go on to score 28 of his career-high 33 points in the second half (his previous career high was 21). For the week, Freeman averaged 23.0 PPG  as the Hoyas went 2-1.

Scottie Reynolds, on the other hand, solidified himself among the best player’s in the country with the most efficient display of clutch shooting I’ve ever seen. Villanova, down 17 points at one time in a first half that saw them turn the ball over 17 times, turned the tables on Louisville in the second 20 minutes, and Reynolds was the reason why. He scored 30 second half points, 36 on the game, while shooting just 9-10 from the floor, 13-17 from the line, and making all five attempts from three. For the week, the Wildcats went 3-0, and Reynolds averaged 24.0 PPG in the three games.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Clearly, the team of the week was Pitt, but seeing as I’ve already wasted the majority of this column on the Panthers, I’m giving the Irish the nod. All-in-all, the Irish are not a bad team. They have the most productive player in the conference in Luke Harangody. They have two solid shooters/scoring options on the perimeter in Tim Abromaitis and Psycho-B Ben Hansbrough. They have a veteran point guard in Tory Jackson. They have some talent coming off the bench. But what the Irish didn’t have was a win to justify their record. They got that on Saturday, as they hit their first nine shots and opened up a 25-4 lead on West Virginia before the Mountaineers decided to start playing. While Notre Dame wasted away just about all of that cushion when WVU got hot (they hit 9-19 from deep in the second half), Harangody scored a big bucket with three minutes left to answer a Dalton Pepper three and put the Irish back up, 69-66. After getting some key stops down the stretch, the Irish can now add claim a resume win.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: 15-1, 4-0

Last Week: 1/6 vs. DePaul 99-72, 1/9 vs. Marquette 78-76, 1/11 @ Louisville 92-84

Next Week: 1/17 vs. Georgetown

2. Pittsburgh: 14-2, 4-0

Last Week: 1/13 @ UConn 67-57

Next Week: 1/16 vs. Louisville

3. Syracuse: 16-1, 3-1

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Memphis 74-57, 1/10 vs. South Florida 82-65, 1/13 @ Rutgers 81-65

Next Week: 1/16 @ West Virginia, 1/18 @ Notre Dame

4. Georgetown: 13-2, 4-1

Last Week: 1/6 @ Marquette 59-62, 1/9 vs. UConn 72-69, 1/14 vs. Seton Hall 85-73

Next Week: 1/17 @ Villanova

5. West Virginia: 13-2, 4-1

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Rutgers 86-52, 1/9 @ Notre Dame 68-70, 1/13 @ South Florida 69-50

Next Week: 1/16 vs. Syracuse

6. Connecticut: 11-5, 2-3

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Seton Hall 71-63, 1/9 @ Georgetown 69-72, 1/13 vs. Pitt 57-67

Next Week: 1/17 @ Michigan

7. Louisville: 12-5, 3-1

Last Week: 1/6 @ Providence 92-70, 1/9 vs. St. John’s 75-68, 1/11 vs. Villanova 84-92

Next Week: 1/16 @ Pitt

8. Notre Dame: 14-3, 3-1

Last Week: 1/9 vs. West Virginia 70-68

Next Week: 1/16 @ Cincinnati, 1/18 vs. Syracuse

9. Marquette: 10-6, 1-3

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Marquette 62-59, 1/9 @ Villanova 76-78

Next Week: 1/17 vs. Providence

10. Cincinnati: 11-6, 2-3

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Cal St. Bakersfield 87-58, 1/9 @ Seton Hall 76-83, 1/13 @ St. John’s 50-52

Next Week: 1/16 vs. Notre Dame

11. Providence: 11-6, 3-2

Last Week: 1/6 vs. Louisville 70-92, 1/9 vs. Rutgers 94-81, 1/14 @ DePaul 79-62

Next Week: 1/17 @ Marquette

12. St. John’s: 11-5, 1-3

Last Week: 1/9 @ Louisville 68-75, 1/13 vs. Cincinnati 52-50

Next Week: 1/17 vs. DePaul

13. Seton Hall: 10-6, 1-4

Last Week: 1/6 @ UConn 63-71, 1/9 vs. Cincinnati 83-76, 1/14 @ Georgetown 73-85

Next Week: N/A

14. South Florida: 10-6, 0-4

Last Week: 1/10 @ Syracuse 65-82, 1/13 vs. West Virginia 50-69

Next Week: 1/16 vs. Rutgers

15. Rutgers: 9-7, 0-4

Last Week: 1/6 @ West Virginia 52-86, 1/9 @ Providence 81-94, 1/13 vs. Syracuse 65-81

Next Week: 1/16 @ South Florida

16. DePaul: 7-9, 0-4

Last Week: 1/6 @ Villanova 72-99, 1/14 vs. Providence 62-79

Next Week: 1/17 @ St. John’s

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