Checking in on… the Big East

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 5th, 2011

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

I am so glad that I don’t have to coach in the Big East.  As of today, UConn is 1-2 in the Big East after losing games at Pitt and at Notre Dame. Georgetown is 1-2 with losses coming at Notre Dame and at St. John’s. The Irish have beaten both the Hoyas and the Huskies, but they aren’t at the top of the league right now because sandwiched in between those two was a loss at Syracuse.  What about Providence? They are now 0-3 in the conference despite having the look and the feel of a team that is much better than an 0-3 Big East team. Why? Because they opened conference play with a trip to the Carrier Dome to take on the Orange before returning home to face suddenly-awesome St. John’s and Pitt.  All of that pales in comparison to the Johnnies*, however.

*For the record, I will note here that every of-the-week award– player, team, coach, rookie, cheerleader, mascot, and fan — that this here blogger has been foolishly delegated by the powers that be at RTC headquarters to give out to the Big East this week is going to St. John’s. I grew up on the Big East. There is nothing better than Big East basketball. And the Big East doesn’t feel right unless the Johnnies are good. Here’s to hoping it stays that way.

The next seven games on St. John’s schedule are brutal. They go to Notre Dame. Then they host Syracuse and Notre Dame. Next is a trip to Louisville before Cincinnati comes to town. To finish out January, the Johnnies head down south for a jaunt to Georgetown and then Duke (Duke!) on the 30th.  And this is coming off of trips to West Virginia and Providence before they knocked off Georgetown in the Garden.  Right now, St. John’s is 3-0 in the Big East. Justin Brownlee and DJ Kennedy make up arguably the most versatile pair of forwards in the conference. Dwight Hardy‘s nickname is Buckets, and if you’ve seen him play, you know why. Paris Horne is an excellent perimeter defender while Justin Burrell, Dele Coker, and Sean Evans are all big and athletic. And, keep in mind, point guard Malik Booth has been hampered by a hamstring injury this entire time.  This team is good. How good? Ask me January 31st.

Power Rankings (overall and conference records, and last week’s ranking in parentheses)

1. Syracuse (15-0, 2-0) (3)

Last Week: 12/28 vs. Providence 81-74, 1/1 vs. Notre Dame 70-58

Next Week: 1/8 @ Seton Hall

James Southerland is a name you are going to want to remember. Lost in Kris Joseph‘s surge of late and Rick Jackson‘s season-long DeJuan Blair impersonation, Southerland has become a very important piece for Jim Boeheim. He’s athletic, lengthy, and stands 6’8. He’s a competent defender — although he’s not great on the perimeter just yet, he blocks shots and makes steals — but more importantly he’s a sharpshooter that can spread the floor offensively. Remember the Orange’s weakness? (Hint: perimeter shooting.)

2. Pittsburgh (14-1, 2-0) (2)

Last Week: 1/4 @ Providence 83-79

Next Week: 1/8 vs. Marquette

This is why Pitt is so good: against Providence, they turned the ball over 22 times as the Friars’ press wreaked havoc. Pitt was in bad foul trouble, even being forced into a zone defense in the second half. Brad Wanamaker fouled out with a few minutes left with Pitt losing after blowing a ten-point lead. And the Panthers still pulled one out on the road, thanks in large part to Wanamaker’s sub, Travon Woodall, making a couple of huge plays late, including hitting the go-ahead three.

3. Villanova (12-1, 1-0) (4)

Last Week: 12/30 @ Temple 78-74, 1/2 vs. Rutgers 81-65

Next Week: 1/6 @ South Florida, 1/9 vs. Cincinnati

I can’t say enough about how good Corey Stokes has been this season. He’s a “role” player according to KenPom’s usage stats, but he leads the teams in scoring and in a stat I like to call “clutch, gutsy jumpers.” He led the team in scoring both games this week, including a very good second half against Temple.

4. Notre Dame (12-2, 2-1) (6)

Last Week: 12/29 vs. Georgetown 69-55, 1/1 @ Syracuse 58-70, 1/4 vs. UConn 73-70

Next Week: None

The Irish are legit, folks. Two solid wins to start the Big East season. Experienced, heady group of players. Lots of shooting, multiple scoring threats, versatile lineup. They aren’t that deep, and they will be without Carleton Scott for a while as he deals with a hamstring injury, but, like I said, this team is legit.

5. Georgetown (12-3, 1-2) (1)

Last Week: 12/29 @ Notre Dame 55-69, 1/1 vs. DePaul 86-75, 1/3 @ St. John’s 58-61

Next Week: 1/8 vs. West Virginia

Hmm. Did I overrate the Hoyas when I called them the Big East favorite? Three games in, it looks like it. I’m not ready to back off of that yet, but the way their backcourt played in losses to Notre Dame and St. John’s concerns me. They get dropped this week, but I expect a rebound.

6. Connecticut (11-1, 1-2) (5)

Last Week: 12/31 vs. South Florida 66-61 OT, 1/4 @ Notre Dame 70-73

Next Week: 1/8 @ Texas

Yes, UConn lost to Notre Dame, but there were some positive signs. The Huskies got 46 points out of Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, Jeremy Lamb, and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. Alex Oriakhi gave them nothing. Literally, zero points. Kemba Walker struggled, going 8-23 against a swarming defense while also missing some shots he normally makes. And UConn still lost by just three at the Joyce Center after blowing two chances to tie the game with under 30 seconds left.

7. Louisville (11-2, 0-0) (7)

Last Week: 12/31 @ Kentucky 63-78

Next Week: 1/5 vs. Seton Hall, 1/9 @ South Florida

The Cardinals had an embarrassing loss to Kentucky. That said, Kentucky is, in my opinion, underrated this season. More concerning for me is the fact that Rakeem Buckles is now out with a broken finger.

8. Cincinnati (14-0, 2-0) (8)

Last Week: 12/28 vs. DePaul 76-60, 12/31 vs. Seton Hall 70-53

Next Week: 1/6 vs. Xavier

Still reserving judgement (Xavier on Thursday will be my marker), but that win over Seton Hall resonated in these parts.

9. St. John’s (10-3, 3-0) (12)

Last Week: 12/29 @ West Virginia 81-71, 1/1 @ Providence 67-65, 1/3 vs. Georgetown 61-58

Next Week: 1/8 @ Notre Dame

See the introduction for my take on the Red Storm.

10. Marquette (10-4, 0-1) (9)

Last Week: 12/29 @ Vanderbilt 76-77, 1/1 vs. West Virginia 79-74

Next Week: 1/5 @ Rutgers, 1/8 @ Pitt, 1/10 vs. Notre Dame

I just don’t think this program will ever change. And I love it. Every game they play is exciting. Their guards are always talented and unafraid of taking a big shot. Their forwards are always versatile scorers. Honestly, I believe this is one of the top six teams in this conference. Now they just have to prove it.

11. West Virginia (8-4, 1-2) (10)

Last Week: 12/29 vs. St. John’s 71-81, 1/1 @ Marquette 74-79, 1/4 @ DePaul 67-65

Next Week: 1/8 @ Georgetown

I don’t know what’s going on with the Mountaineers. They are now 1-2 in the Big East after nearly blowing a 14-point lead in the last 10 minutes against DePaul. Right now, this is not a tournament-caliber team.

12. Providence (11-4, 0-3) (11)

Last Week: 12/28 @ Syracuse 74-81, 1/1 vs. St. John’s 65-67, 1/4 vs. Pitt 79-83

Next Week: 1/8 @ Rutgers

Providence, I believe, is a tournament caliber team. See the introduction for a look at what’s going on in the Big East headquarters’ city.

13. Seton Hall (6-6) (12)

Last Week: 12/31 @ Cincinnati 53-70

Next Week: 1/5 @ Louisville, 1/8 vs. Syracuse

I feel for the Pirate players. So much talent coming in, but one star gets shot after breaking his wrist and the other isn’t the same after literally dying for a few minutes over the summer.

14. Rutgers (9-4, 0-1) (13)

Last Week: 12/28 vs. UNC 55-78, 1/2 @ Villanova 65-81

Next Week: 1/5 vs. Marquette, 1/8 vs. Providence

Liked Gil Baruta. Then he threw a reverse hammer fist at Dominic Cheek and got tossed against Villanova. Now, not as much.

15. DePaul (6-8, 0-2) (16)

Last Week: 12/28 @ Cincinnati 60-76, 1/1 @ Georgetown 75-86, 1/4 vs. West Virginia 65-67

Next Week: None

DePaul getting the bump! Oliver Purnell has his kids playing hard. Cleveland Melvin is going to be a star in this league, as well as Brandon Young.

16. South Florida (6-9, 0-2) (15)

Last Week: 12/28 @ Seton Hall 55-64, 12/31 @ UConn 61-66 OT

Next Week: 1/6 vs. Villanova

I’m embarrassed to say I’m a UConn fan when I see them get taken to overtime by USF.

Looking Ahead

There will be some terrific Big East basketball to close out the week. Thursday, Cincinnati takes on city rival Xavier. Saturday, West Virginia heads to Georgetown, Marquette heads to Pitt, UConn travels to Texas, and St. John’s has a date at Notre Dame. Sunday, Cincy gets their second test of the week as they visit Villanova.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.31.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 31st, 2010

***** – 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.

A really good schedule awaits college basketball fans today on your New Year’s Eve. The Battle of the Bluegrass gets things going right away with an early noon tip, a game tailor made for Gus Johnson. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#12 Kentucky @ Louisville — 12 pm on CBS (*****)

Louisville will be shorthanded in this game but is favored according to the Vegas odds. The Cardinals, still without Jared Swopshire, will also be missing the services of Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra this afternoon. Still, this is a game you must watch with Gus Johnson on the call. It is a unique rivalry that doesn’t get enough press and has only heated up with the addition of John Calipari and the switch of Rick Pitino from Kentucky blue to Louisville red. It started almost 100 years ago in 1913 but the teams have only met 41 times prior to today with Kentucky holding a 27-14 edge. These teams did not meet for 24 years from 1959 until an elite eight NCAA Tournament game on March 26, 1983. They have met every year since then with UK leading 18-11 in the modern era. One interesting fact is that Kentucky has never failed to win at least two games in a row after winning one throughout the entire history of this series. With the Wildcats on a one game winning streak entering the game today, that statistic, though ultimately meaningless, would suggest a UK win. Expect this game to feature a lot of threes, a big part of each team’s offense. Kentucky actually has five guys who can knock down a triple, much more than the average team. Doron Lamb and Preston Knowles are the big shooters for their respective teams with Lamb being the better of the two so far this year. The freshman has connected on 54% of his treys including a seven for eight performance against Winthrop, a large part of Kentucky’s #13 three point percentage. Knowles is Louisville’s leading scorer and a good defender who teams with Peyton Siva to really disrupt opponents on the defensive end. That will be a big factor against Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, averaging almost four turnovers per game. Rick Pitino loves the zone press so expect a lot of trapping and aggressive on-ball defense from the Cardinals, trying to get Knight out of a rhythm and make him turnover-prone. As a whole, Kentucky takes remarkably good care of the ball with only 11 turnovers as a team. Calipari needs a good point guard to run his dribble drive offense and Knight is often the key to their success. He had an awful game in a loss to Connecticut and fouled out after committing six turnovers in UK’s loss to North Carolina. In the front court, Kentucky has the best player on the floor in Terrence Jones. The 6’8 freshman can score from almost anywhere on the floor and uses his superior athleticism effectively to create space. Another T.J., Terrence Jennings, has to have a good game defensively for Louisville. He’s a good shot blocker and must neutralize Jones inside. Despite their reliance on the three pointer, the Cardinals get a lot of points inside as well, the seventh best two point shooting team in the country. With Buckles out however, Louisville may turn even more towards the trey in order to win. Kentucky lacks a true scoring center as Josh Harrellson rebounds well but doesn’t look to score much, attempting just four field goals per game. Expect Kyle Kuric to step up in the absence of Marra and Buckles. He’s played more minutes lately and scored 25 points against Morgan State on Monday. Quite simply, this game is going to be a war. The fans hate each other, the coaches do too and even the players got into it right away last year. Most rivalry games are close and despite Louisville’s personnel issues, we expect this one to be as well. However, depth could rear its ugly head if the Cardinals get into foul trouble. Louisville fouls a lot and Pitino has to ensure that doesn’t become an issue. Even though they’re on the road, Kentucky is the better team and has to get the edge here. Take the Wildcats and the points today.

#13 Minnesota @ #18 Michigan State – 4 pm on Big Ten Network (****)

A critical game for both teams, the loser will face some tough questions going forward. With a loss today, Minnesota faces the real possibility of starting Big Ten play at 1-3 with a game at Ohio State next Sunday and Indiana in between. Michigan State would drop to 8-5 overall with a loss today, making Monday’s game at Northwestern a huge one for the Spartans. For Tom Izzo’s team, the three point line is critical in this matchup. Minnesota doesn’t defend it well at all (#260) and the Spartans shoot 40% behind a trio of capable long range bombers. Durrell Summers leads Michigan State in scoring and is arguably their best shooter from deep while Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious can also knock down the trifecta. Tubby Smith likes to play a zone but that may hurt the Gophers in this matchup. Unless Minnesota extends their defense beyond the line, Michigan State can easily shoot right over it. Of course when you extend a zone there will be holes inside. Minnesota’s big men must lay down the law in the paint and force MSU to beat them from the outside. A strong defensive game will really limit the Spartans offensively and turn this into a rebounding battle, one Minnesota should feel confident in their ability to win. Michigan State has not been a vintage Izzo team in terms of defense and rebounding, a bad sign against a tall and talented Minnesota team. Trevor Mbakwe could be deadly against the Spartans today with his quickness and long arms around the tin. With Mbakwe inside and Blake Hoffarber outside, the Gophers will keep Michigan State on their toes all game long. Al Nolen must play better for Minnesota. Wisconsin shut him down on Tuesday night held the Minnesota offense in check en route to a victory. Turnovers will again be the story for the Spartans, averaging 16 per game. Extra possessions only enhance the Gophers chances. Michigan State looked awful against Syracuse and the Gopher bigs are even taller than Syracuse’s. Despite the KenPom prediction and the Vegas odds, we’re going against the grain and feel this game will come right down to the very end. This is anyone’s ballgame in East Lansing this afternoon.

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Set Your Tivo: 12.14.10

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 14th, 2010

***** – 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.

A pair of games on the “U” highlight tonight’s schedule, the best of this slow week. Can the two home favorites avoid a letdown after big wins this past Saturday?  All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

Oakland @ #4 Tennessee – 7 pm on ESPNU (***)

UT Needs to Avoid the Letdown Bug Tonight

After their huge win over Pittsburgh on Saturday behind Scotty Hopson’s career-high 27 points (10-13 FG), the Volunteers return home to face a 5-5 Oakland team out of the Summit League. Sounds easy, right? Not true, Oakland is not your ordinary .500 team. The Golden Grizzlies are in the midst of a brutal non-conference schedule, one that has already included games against West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State and still has Michigan and Ohio State to come after tonight’s game. Oakland nearly upset Michigan State on Saturday, falling by just a single point. Tennessee will look to use its speed and athleticism against Oakland as Bruce Pearl features a lineup of versatile guards and forwards. By contrast, Oakland features a solid front line of Keith Benson and Will Hudson. The 6’11 Benson averages 18/12 plus three blocks a game, a dominant force in the paint. Tennessee needs a strong effort out of Brian Williams in order to defend him. Stopping Hudson will also be key to a Tennessee win as he shoots 66% from the floor. Pearl may even look to a zone in order to defend the Oakland bigs or just use a double team on Benson. Tennessee, which shot 7-11 from three against Pitt, has the potential to outshoot Oakland from deep as the Golden Grizzlies rank just #281 in defending the trey. Reggie Hamilton (16 PPG, 4 APG, 39% 3pt FG) has to be on his game along with Benson and Hudson for Oakland to have a chance to win. Oakland doesn’t shoot it well from deep but Hamilton is their biggest threat, though he’s just five for his last 19 (26%). With Hopson and Tobias Harris, Tennessee has two extraordinary weapons at 6’7 and 6’8 that Oakland can’t quite match. Greg Kampe’s team is going to have to get the job done in the paint with his front court duo and that’s where rebounding comes in. Both teams are excellent rebounding units, especially on the offensive end. Each ranks in the top 15 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage though Oakland could only muster 30 total rebounds against Michigan State. Winning the rebounding battle is critical to any success Oakland hopes to have in this game. Turnover margin is the other key battle to keep an eye on. The Vols struggle handling the ball, averaging 17 turnovers a game including 20 against Pitt. Point guard Melvin Goins does a nice job but it’s really the other players that cause most of the turnover problems. They made up for that with 56% shooting against the Panthers but don’t expect that to happen again. Oakland turns it over 16 times per game so they’ll need to pay attention to this as well since they don’t force many turnovers at all. Tennessee gets to the foul line better than anyone else in D1 and Oakland’s starters play a lot of minutes. Combine those two statistics and you have a potential depth issue for the Golden Grizzlies. If players start fouling out, particularly Benson or Hudson, it’s going to be very difficult, almost impossible, to win. Expect an up-tempo game with Tennessee trying to avoid a letdown after Saturday’s terrific performance. If the Vols don’t take this game seriously, Oakland will hang around all night and have a chance to win. If Tennessee plays their game and doesn’t turn the ball over, expect the home team to come away with a nice win.

Drexel @ #20 Louisville – 9 pm on ESPNU (***)

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Set Your Tivo: 12.10-12.12

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 10th, 2010

***** – 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.

Friday’s schedule is barren but Saturday has a bunch of terrific matchups. Two ACC conference games highlight a soft Sunday to close out the weekend. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.

#13 UNLV @ Louisville – 12 pm Saturday on ESPNU (****)

Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are a surprising 7-0 but when you really look at their schedule you realize they haven’t played top teams. Louisville’s best win is over Butler, a team clearly not even near the level it was last year. Including Butler, Louisville’s opponents have an aggregate record of just 25-31. That changes on Saturday when 9-0 UNLV heads to the KFC Yum! Center. The Rebels have already played five games away from home so they’ll be ready for a tough environment. UNLV is a strong team on both sides of the ball but they’ve really piled up the numbers on offense. They’re in the top ten in effective field goal percentage behind Chace Stanback and his 59% shooting. Stanback is a 6’8 wing/forward type player who can cause a lot of problems for the opponent matching up with him. His game extends to the three point arc as well, hitting 41% of his treys this year. It’ll be interesting to see if Pitino puts Rakeem Buckles (10/9) or Terrence Jennings (56% FG) on Stanback. Buckles is the better rebounder so Louisville may not want him drifting away from the basket trying to defend UNLV’s leading scorer. Buckles has made significant strides in his sophomore season, a theme seen throughout Louisville’s starting lineup. Pitino’s top five scorers have increased their scoring by a total of 31 PPG, making up for a lot of what they lost from last year’s team. We recall Pitino saying he’d have a bunch of guys averaging 8-15 PPG and that’s exactly what he has so far. Louisville is a strong defensive club, rated eighth in defensive efficiency. UNLV gets a lot of points from two point range (#5 in two point %) so Louisville will have to live up to their defensive billing in order to win. The Cardinals rank in the top ten in three point defense and effective field goal percentage against so UNLV point guard Oscar Bellfield (53% from three) has to have a good game controlling the ball and getting quality shots for himself and his teammates. Louisville will look to use their pressure defense to push the pace and create turnovers. Pitino said he’s been using a 24-second shot clock in practice so expect Louisville to really get up and down the floor looking for extra possessions. The Cardinals like to shoot a lot of three’s but they aren’t very good at it (32%). Mike Marra should hoist the most, averaging nine three point attempts per game while converting just 30% of the time. With Tre’Von Willis back in the fold, Lon Kruger can go nine-deep if he so chooses. Fresh legs will be needed against Louisville and could play a role late in the second half. UNLV should look to get to the free throw line to stop the flow of the game and take advantage of a Louisville team rated just #252 in opponents’ free throw attempts per field goal attempts. The Cardinals should have an edge on the boards (42 RPG) as UNLV struggles to keep opponents off the offensive glass. This is going to be a really good game, one that may come down to the very end. Louisville will probably be favored to win at home but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Runnin’ Rebels pick up a key road victory, either.

Wisconsin @ Marquette – 2:30 pm Saturday on ESPN2 (****)

This annual rivalry is one of the most underrated in the country. Wisconsin holds a 63-53 edge but there’s an added twist this season. Marquette freshman Vander Blue originally committed to Wisconsin before signing with Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles giving Marquette a valuable piece for the future. Each team has a star player going at it in this one, Marquette’s Jimmy Butler and Wisconsin’s Jon Leuer. They’re similar, but Leuer is taller and has a better three point game. The UW big man shoots 48% from deep and is the key man in Bo Ryan’s deliberate offensive system. With Marquette giving up 39% shooting from three on average, expect Leuer and his Badger teammates to have a big game from long range. Wisconsin’s tempo is one of the slowest in the country but they run their offense well and take terrific care of the basketball with Jordan Taylor running the show at the point guard position. Taylor has a stunning 3.92 assist to turnover ratio and teams with Leuer to provide Wisconsin with just under half of their points. Taylor is also a strong defender who will look to disrupt Marquette’s offensive flow. With Dwight Buycks questionable for this game (he did not play Tuesday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), Buzz Williams will turn to the inexperienced Junior Cadougan who missed most of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Wisconsin is solid just about everywhere but they’re vulnerable on the three point line. Unfortunately for Marquette, they shoot just 31% as a team from three and that’s where Darius Johnson-Odom comes in. When hot, the dynamic junior can be one of the best shooters you’ll see. He broke out against Milwaukee on November 27 (29 points, 5-7 from three) but struggled in the two games since. For the year DJO is shooting just 29% from three, down almost 20% from last season’s 47% mark. He can get it going at any time though and that’s what makes this game unpredictable. If Johnson-Odom is on, Marquette has an even better chance to pick up a home win over their rival. Tuesday night’s Marquette game saw Vander Blue break out, scoring 21 points on 9-13 shooting. However it also included the loss of Joseph Fulce, an important glue guy for Marquette. The 6’7 Fulce went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, the same knee that had been giving him problems before. How Marquette responds to the loss of one of their emotional leaders will be important in this game. Don’t expect Wisconsin to get to the foul line much at all so they’ll have to make up for that disadvantage with strong defense and efficient offensive sets. Marquette is third in the country in keeping opponents off the line while Wisconsin is near the bottom of D1 in getting there. The Badgers are a very good rebounding team and they should hold an edge there against smaller Marquette. Though inexperienced, Cadougan is a talented player who’s capable of replacing Buycks at the point if necessary. Look for Marquette to use Butler and fellow forward Jae Crowder inside the arc, trying to penetrate the stout Wisconsin defense. Rivalry games are usually close and this one figures to be no exception. There are a lot of unknowns on the Marquette side in this game but it would be a very big resume-building win if they can get it in front of the home folks at the Bradley Center.

SEC/Big East Invitational: #11 Tennessee @ #3 Pittsburgh (CONSOL Energy Center) – 3:15 pm Saturday on ESPN (*****)

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