Checking In On… the Big East Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 13th, 2012

Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • Big East Adds Memphis: While conference realignment is unfortunately all about football, the addition of Memphis to the Big East Conference is a boon for basketball. With the league losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, it needed a strong basketball program to limit the damage of three venerable programs departing. Memphis is perhaps the best the Big East could do from a basketball perspective and the Tigers will begin competing in the conference in the 2013-14 academic year. While the Big East cannot replace a program with the stature of Syracuse, Memphis is arguably at least as good, if not better, than Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Temple would be the next logical choice from a basketball perspective but Villanova has long been rumored to be firmly in opposition to the Owls joining the league. Conference realignment is a new reality and won’t end any time soon. Expect some more dominoes to fall over the coming months and years.
  • West Virginia Reportedly Settles: Just 36 hours after Memphis joined the Big East, West Virginia reportedly settled with the Big East on an exit agreement, although no official announcement was made. If the Charleston Daily Mail report is correct, West Virginia will leave the Big East on July 1 of this year in order to join the Big 12 Conference. The reported agreement says that WVU will pay the Big East $11 million, with the Big 12 contributing $9 million. Big East bylaws require all member institutions to give 27 months notice before leaving the conference. If the Mountaineers do leave the conference, the Big East will have 15 basketball members for next season (2012-13) before expanding again in the summer of 2013. Of course, West Virginia’s early exit could pave the way for agreements with Syracuse and Pittsburgh, allowing those schools to leave early for the ACC. In a worst-case scenario, the Big East will have 13 basketball teams in 2012-13. One thing is for sure, this story is far from over. Stay tuned.
  • NCAA Denies Connecticut’s Waiver Request: In what was another good move by the increasingly tough NCAA, the governing body denied a request by Connecticut to retain eligibility for the 2013 NCAA Tournament in exchange for self-imposed penalties. Those penalties included forfeiting revenue and playing a shorter schedule. The Huskies would not quality for next year’s tournament because of their low APR rating, below the four-year minimum requirement of 900 or two-year average of 930. UConn will appeal the decision, one that, if denied, could have a huge effect on the basketball program in Storrs. Will Jim Calhoun stick around? Will recruits want to come there and knowingly sit out a year? Many questions still need to be answered as the Connecticut basketball program enters a period of uncertainty.
  • Win Number 880 for Jim Boeheim: The Syracuse legend now stands alone in third place on the all-time Division I wins list behind Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight after Syracuse beat Georgetown last week. Number 880 is one better than Dean Smith, a legend in his own right at North Carolina. While it is unlikely that Boeheim can catch Krzyzewski since both will keep winning, the Orange coach can pass Knight early next season, especially if Syracuse goes on a deep NCAA Tournament run. It’s so rare to see an athlete or a coach stay at one school for his entire career in sports these days but that’s exactly what Boeheim has done. The Hall of Famer has been at Syracuse as a coach since 1969 and played for the Orange from 1962-66. What a truly remarkable career spanning 50 years (and still going strong).

Josh Pastner Looks Forward To Embracing A More Challenging Change of Scenery In The Big East

Power Rankings

  1. Syracuse (25-1, 12-1) – The Orange dispatched their chief rivals in the Big East, Georgetown and Connecticut, in vastly different ways last week. Against the Hoyas, Syracuse needed overtime to put away a team that out-rebounded them 48-30 and slowed the pace to limit SU’s transition attack. Kris Joseph led Syracuse with a career-high 29 points and Fab Melo had six blocks as the Orange won by three in the extra session. Neither team played well, but Jim Boeheim picked up his 880th career win, moving ahead of Dean Smith and into sole possession of third place on the all-time list. Against Connecticut, the Orange broke open a close game in the second half with a 22-6 game-ending run. Syracuse shot much better (59%), including a scorching 63% from beyond the arc. Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair combined for 32 points and 16 rebounds off the bench while Scoop Jardine added 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting. It seems like Joseph is emerging as the go-to guy for this team, a question that had yet to be answered for the better part of the season. Syracuse faces a quick turnaround with a Big Monday game at Louisville, a team that has beaten them seven consecutive times. This week: 2/13 @ Louisville, 2/19 @ Rutgers. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big East Morning Five: 02.07.12 Edition

Posted by Patrick Prendergast on February 7th, 2012

  1. Adam Zagoria came out with his Big East All-Rookie Team for this year and while some may say it seems a bit early to be locking in what are traditionally postseason honors, how can one not want to talk about the “Diaper Dandies” of this league?  Depth of talent has long been a trademark of the Big East and it is difficult to recall a season in which so many newcomers have played such integral roles on their teams.  This is due in some part to the fact that the conference underwent a youth movement coming into the year with many teams restocking with big freshman classes.  Handicapping the Big East coming into the year proved particularly difficult given the youth factor presented by many teams in the league.  This is also why it is not surprising that some of the more experienced teams, particularly teams with multiple key junior and senior leaders such as Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette, are finding higher ground in the standings while the youngest teams such as St. John’s, Rutgers and Providence have displayed predictable inconsistency.  However, as illustrated by Zagoria’s list, squads up and down the conference have fantastic building blocks for the future getting valuable experience on the court this year.
  2. Big East weekly honors time again and it is difficult to find a more deserving Player of the Week than Pittsburgh’s Tray Woodall.  The fact that Woodall went off last week to the tune of 26.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game would be enough to merit consideration, but the numbers are vastly overwhelmed by Woodall’s overall contribution to winning basketball. The Panthers have won four straight games since his return and have thereby pulled their season out of the dumpster.  In the spirit of the Big East’s depth of youth, it is fitting that the conference named Co-Rookies of the Week for the first time since 2005-06 in Louisville’s Chane Behanan and Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton.  Both players hit for 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in single games last week. Honor Roll recipients were: Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins who had 18 points, five assists and four rebounds in a big win over Marquette; West Virginia’s Darryl Bryant who averaged 23.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists including a 32-point torching of Providence in an overtime victory; Providence’s Gerard Coleman who averaged 22.5 points and six rebounds for the week including a career-high 30 in the loss to West Virginia; St. John’s D’Angelo Harrison who filled it up with two-game averages of 26.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists; and Georgetown big man Henry Sims who averaged 13.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists in a 2-0 week for the Hoyas.
  3. The latest installment of the Top 25 came out yesterday and there was not much movement at the top as numbers one through six remained unchanged, including Big East leader No. 2 Syracuse (23-1).  Georgetown (18-4) hopped up two spots to No. 12 after earning two victories last week.  Marquette (20-5) went 1-1 last week but slid three notches to No. 18, while Louisville (19-5), winners of five in a row on the heels of last night’s drubbing of Connecticut, suddenly find themselves surging as well as back in the rankings at No. 24. That rounds out the Big East’s representation in the poll, but perhaps not for long as Notre Dame stands next in line at 26th with the 83 votes they received.
  4. While Notre Dame is certainly savoring every minute of their shorthanded success this season, steps were taken yesterday to try to lock in some experienced depth for next year as the Irish applied for rare sixth years of eligibility for injured players Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin. As the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton points out, when evaluating for a sixth year the NCAA normally focuses on players who have missed two full years due to injury.  That is not the case for either Abromaitis, who was suspended for four games and played in two games this year before tearing his ACL, or Martin, who sat out a year due to transfer (from Purdue) in addition to missing this season with a torn ACL of his own. However there are mitigating factors in both cases that Notre Dame hopes will tip the scales in its favor. As Hamilton also points out, should the Irish secure both players for next year it will take them over the NCAA’s 13-scholarship limit, so other roster changes in the form of players paying their own way or leaving would need to be made to ensure compliance.
  5. You have to love how coaches are always coaching, motivating, and working the psyches of their players and perhaps always paranoid, invariably looking at chicken salad but seeing chicken you-know-what instead.  Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim (a.k.a Jimmy Brackets) provided some tournament analysis saying there is too much parity to define any clear cut deep-run favorites.  As for his own team, the 23-1 squad that is ranked second in the country, the one that is arguably the deepest team in the country, and the one that has a #1 seed in its sights, Boeheim says he is concerned about three-point shooting based on the Orange’s recent poor performances beyond the arc.  Hey, in true head coaching form, Boeheim has to find something to pick on, right?  The fact of the matter is if there is any team built both for the long haul of the regular season and the do-or-die tournament format, it is Syracuse.  They have experience at every position and can exploit matchup issues with their surplus of depth.  Furthermore, the Orange are a team that can impose their will defensively with a zone that coaches who play against it every year have trouble preparing for, much less those who might be faced with a day to figure it out during tournament play.
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Checking In On… the Big East Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 6th, 2012

Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • Fab Melo Returns: After missing three games due to an academic issue, Fab Melo returned to the Syracuse lineup Saturday afternoon in New York. Melo scored a career-high 14 points in 21 minutes but, more importantly, changed the dynamic of Syracuse on both ends of the floor. Melo’s return adds some rebounding, opens up the middle for others to drive and score/dish and gives the Orange a defensive anchor in the middle of their zone. Melo doesn’t block every shot, but he alters a very high number. With the Brazilian big man roaming the paint, Syracuse is a legitimate national championship contender, something that was plainly evident on Saturday. Despite a backloaded schedule coming into view over the next few weeks, I’d be surprised if Syracuse loses another regular season game.
  • Pittsburgh Is Back: Oh Jamie Dixon, why did we doubt you? We should have known better. After starting the conference season 0-7, Pittsburgh has won four straight games and is actually in a position to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers’ resurgence has been keyed by the return of Tray Woodall and better play defensively. Woodall scored a career-high 29 points against Villanova on Sunday and the Panthers held the Wildcats to 36% shooting. That’s the Pittsburgh defense we’ve grown accustomed to over the years and if it keeps up, Pittsburgh will go dancing. Pitt faces a crucial week. It must take at least one (preferably both) road game of the two at South Florida and Seton Hall between now and Sunday. If the Panthers can get both, they’ll be 6-7 with three of their final five games at home. I actually feel safe saying something that would have been considered outrageous just two weeks ago: I believe Pittsburgh will be in the NCAA Tournament.

Fab Melo's Importance To The Orange Was On Full Display Last Week

  • Order Being Restored: Pittsburgh has won four straight. Seton Hall has lost six straight. South Florida lost by 30 at Georgetown on Saturday. Louisville has turned it around. All of that tells you something, doesn’t it? The Big East is shuffling back into place as we head into the home stretch of the season. While the Pirates and Bulls were nice early-season surprises and feel-good stories, reality has set in. Seton Hall was ranked in the top 25 as recently as January 9, but hasn’t won a game since a victory over DePaul the following day. The Pirates are anemic offensively and can hardly shoot 30% against any opponent. I wrote a piece last week about what has gone wrong at the Hall, but it shows no signs of stopping this tailspin anytime soon. South Florida remains at 6-4, but four of its final seven games are on the road as the schedule stiffens. The Bulls will play Pittsburgh twice, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia down the stretch. Expect their 6-4 record to turn into something like 8-10 rather quickly. Even if that happens, it has still been a successful season for Stan Heath and his team. Nobody expected them to win even six or seven league games.

Power Rankings

  1. Syracuse (23-1, 10-1) – What a difference one player makes. Syracuse played only once last week, but Fab Melo’s return sparked the Orange to dunk-filled 95-70 win over hapless St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. The win, Jim Boeheim’s 879th, pulled him into a tie with legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith for third place on the all-time wins list. Boeheim has this team humming right along and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Syracuse scored 53 bench points against the Red Storm, once again showing off its incredible depth and talent. Michael Carter-Williams electrified the Garden crowd with this dunk while C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph also played very well for the Orange. Syracuse shot 56% for the game. The schedule gets tougher in February but Syracuse should be favored in every game from here on out. This week: 2/8 vs. #15 Georgetown, 2/11 vs. Connecticut. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big East Morning Five: 02.06.12 Edition

Posted by Patrick Prendergast on February 6th, 2012

  1. The Nerlens Noel watch is on.  After Noel reclassified to the Class of 2012 last week and disclosed a list of seven schools (Syracuse, Connecticut, Providence, Kentucky, Florida, Georgetown and North Carolina), all eyes have been on the 6’10” center who is now the number one player in his class.’s Jeff Goodman tweeted last night that Noel will visit Providence this week, Syracuse next weekend, and Kentucky on February 17. Noel made an appearance at the Dunkin Donuts Center yesterday for Providence’s overtime loss against West Virginia, sitting behind the Providence bench next to Friar signee Kris Dunn, transfer Sidiki Johnson, and Kiwi Gardner, who was slated to suit up for Providence this year but was ruled academically ineligible due to a high school transcript issue.  Noel was in town for the National Prep School Invitational which was being held about a ten minute drive away at Rhode Island College.
  2. Just a few short weeks ago Seton Hall enjoyed its first national ranking in 11 years and had its eyes on an NCAA Tournament bid.  Flash forward and the Pirates have lost six straight losses and are now reeling. To add injury to insult Seton Hall found out before Saturday’s game (ultimately a 69-46 loss) to Connecticut that they would have to take on the Huskies without star big man Herb Pope.  Pope (15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG) suffered bruised ribs in last Tuesday’s loss to Marquette and did not travel with the team to Connecticut.  Pope had not played his best basketball of the season in the five losses leading up to the injury (10.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG during that span), but the Pirates can ill-afford to be without him for very long if they hope to get their season back on track.  Seton Hall next heads to Piscataway on Wednesday for a road battle with in-state rival Rutgers.
  3. Notre Dame jack-of-all-trades point guard Eric Atkins was at his best again Saturday in the Fighting Irish’s systematic dismantling of a talented Marquette team at home. Freshman Pat Connaughton (23 points, 11 rebounds) might have had the best statistical game, but Atkins (18 points, five assists, four rebounds in a team-leading 39 minutes) was right behind him and probably played a more important role. He is easily the team’s most consistent offensive weapon and his decision-making and ball-handling have improved as the season has progressed. He is one of the main reasons the Fighting Irish are staring directly at an NCAA Tournament berth.
  4. Another man who deserves a tip of the cap for Saturday is much-maligned Connecticut center Alex Oriakhi. First — albeit against a Seton Hall team playing without Pope — Oriakhi matched a season-high in minutes with 28 and chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds as the Huskies got off the schneid. Then, he delivered this quote, which if true, could signal that the team and player still have a lot of fight left in them. Granted the remark came after he received plenty of playing time, but Oriakhi has been disappointing this season and he can still help salvage his year and his reputation by playing well down the stretch. UConn still have plenty of time to turn things around, and Oriakhi setting a new tone (especially for as long as Jim Calhoun is off the sideline) would certainly help.
  5. You think Tray Woodall has been important to Pittsburgh this season? There is no way he is a better conference MVP candidate than Kevin Jones, but he is in the discussion. Yesterday he went off for a career-high 29 points as the Panthers won their fourth-straight game over Villanova. His team is now 10-3 when Woodall is in the lineup and they are picking up steam at just the right time. To add to the good news, his return seems like it has relieved some pressure from the shoulders of Ashton Gibbs, who looked much more comfortable Sunday and scored 25 points to prove it. The Wildcats aren’t an elite opponent, especially not this season, but at this rate, each and every win should feel good for Pitt.
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ATB: Border War non-RTC, Is It a Duke Loss If Nobody Noticed, and Melo Returns to Syracuse…

Posted by rtmsf on February 6th, 2012

This Weekend’s Lede. Forget the Super Bowl, it’s Rivalry Week across the college basketball nation… On Saturday, it was a Border War to remember, followed by a Sunday battle for bragging rights in Michigan, and we have a whole slew of great rivalry games coming up this week. From Florida-Kentucky to Duke-Carolina to Syracuse-Georgetown to even Gonzaga-St. Mary’s and Creighton-Wichita State, center stage is now ours. For the next 35 days until Selection Sunday, games will count a little more than they did before as teams position themselves for the postseason. And for that guy who says the college basketball regular season doesn’t matter? Remind him of three of the last five Super Bowl champions — one 9-7 team and two 10-6 teams won it all, while a 16-0 and a 15-1 team ended up ringless. This is why we play the games.

Your Watercooler Moment. The “Last” Border War in Columbia Goes to Missouri.

Marcus Denmon Motions At Students To Stay Put (credit: The Dagger/J. Eisenberg)

The storylines coming out of the “last” Border War game in Columbia, Missouri, on Saturday night were compelling — Game of the Year type of stuff. Even beyond the hyperbole about marauding Jayhawkers, divorced families and the finality of it all (we’ll wager the two schools are playing regularly again within five years), the game itself captured the essence of college basketball rivalry better than any other we’ve seen this year. Both Kansas and Missouri are outstanding teams, filled with playmakers on each side who are, depending on the day, equal parts dominant and confounding. For parts of the game, Kansas’ favorite whipping boy, Tyshawn Taylor, appeared the best player on the floor — driving the ball with confidence for a 21-point, highly efficient 9-15 shooting game; but it was his late-game mistakes that again cost his team when it mattered most. A turnover followed by two big misses at the foul line with KU down only one point leading to an admittedly questionable charge call, again punctuate his bugaboos (inconsistency and turnovers, especially in the clutch), issues that will haunt Jayhawk fans long after he’s gone. His counterpart on the Missouri side, Marcus Denmon, had backslid considerably from his scorching nonconference start (34.3% against Big 12 competition), but for the first time in his career against Bill Self’s team, he played a focused and effective game, going for 29/9 on 10-16 shooting and singlehandedly leading the Tigers back from the brink of a crushing home defeat. The senior guard dropped a one-man 9-0 run on the Jayhawks in the span of just over a minute, first with a layup and-one, then with back-to-back dagger treys, to erase KU’s eight-point lead with two minutes to go and put the Tigers in position to win the game with just under a minute left. KU’s Thomas Robinson (25/13) was once again the best player on the floor, but it was Denmon’s leadership and poise under pressure against the Jayhawks that made all the difference. His attitude at the end of the game says it all — he and fellow senior Kim English reportedly instructed the student section to stay in its seats rather than flooding the court in a massive RTC. With age comes wisdom, and his position is correct — elite teams only rush the court under very circumscribed conditions, and the Missouri seniors did not want their accomplishment sullied by giving Kansas the pleasure. At the end of the day, the Tigers still have a couple of major flaws that they have to mask (notably, interior size and a porous defense), but with playmakers like Denmon, English, Flip Pressey and a team that believes in itself, we expect that the dream season will continue in Columbia deep into March under first-year head coach Frank Haith.

Five More Weekend Storylines.

  • Fab Melo Returns, Boeheim Ties Dean Smith For Third in Wins. Sophomore Syracuse center probably doesn’t know who Dean Smith is, but maybe with his extra tutelage over the last two weeks, he found time to learn some college basketball history as well. On Saturday, though, he helped his coach Jim Boeheim make history with his 879th win as he contributed a career-high 14 points in his first game back from suspension and again anchored the patented SU 2-3 zone as the Orange destroyed St. John’s from start to finish at Madison Square Garden. Boeheim’s squad had struggled through a road loss to Notre Dame and two close wins at Cincinnati and West Virginia while Melo was out of the lineup, but if Saturday’s performance with him back is any indication, Syracuse may be looking at a one-loss regular season (and Boeheim could catch Bob Knight’s 902 wins as soon as next December).
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The Blueprint: How Pittsburgh Can Make the NCAA Tournament

Posted by mlemaire on February 1st, 2012

Less than two weeks ago, Jamie Dixon and his Pittsburgh Panthers had been left for dead in the Big East. After starting the season comfortably ranked in the Top 20 nationally, the Panthers displayed chinks in the armor early in the season, but the wheels didn’t start coming off until they lost to Wagner, at home, right before Christmas. Pitt followed that disappointing loss with seven more disappointing losses in a row and looked absolutely nothing like the program that Dixon and his predecessor Ben Howland had built into a consistent winner.

Ashton Gibbs and Pitt Have Some Work To Do, But It's Possible...

But now, following a gutsy road win over a talented West Virginia team, the Panthers have a pulse, even if it is a faint one. Make no mistake, Pittsburgh’s NCAA Tournament prospects are still really dim, and even if they win out, they will really have only secured themselves a spot on the bubble. But the NCAA Tournament isn’t completely out of the question and that should be a good enough excuse for Pitt fans to start having the discussion anyway.

Let’s start with the obvious. If Pitt is going to make the NCAA Tournament, they will need to win most of if not the rest of their games. Their RPI and Strength of Schedule will both benefit from a grueling conference schedule, so they don’t need to worry about finding marquee wins as much as they need to avoid bad losses. With that said, they absolutely must win their next three games, because a loss to NIT-bound Villanova, bound-to-come-back-to-earth South Florida, or already-sliding Seton Hall would likely doom their Tournament hopes.

Assuming they can will win all three of those games they will at least re-enter the discussion. But there are three more games the Panthers should be circling on their schedule — a rematch with West Virginia at home, a trip to Louisville 10 days later, and a trip to Connecticut for the last home game of the season. There will be games to win in the conference tournament, but it’s hard to believe that anything short of the conference championship would boost Pitt into the NCAA Tournament if they lose once or more at the end of the regular season.

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ATB: Kevin Murphy’s 50 Points, Pitt Keeps Surging, and Mizzou’s Dixon From Goat To Hero…

Posted by rtmsf on January 31st, 2012

Tonight’s Lede. It was a standard Big Monday around college basketball nation tonight, but the biggest news from the evening did not come from two pretty good games between Big East and Big 12 rivals in Morgantown and Austin. No, an unknown player from the OVC ended up with tonight’s headlines after waltzing into the night of his basketball life in an otherwise mundane game played in the nation’s midsection. Let’s jump in…

Your Watercooler MomentKevin Murphy’s Half-Century.

Kevin Murphy, Not Kevin Martin, Hit For 50 Against SIU-Edwardsville Tonight (credit: TTU)

Somewhat reminiscent of last year’s 52-point explosion from Lamar’s Mike James, Kevin Murphy, a 6’7″ senior guard from Tennessee Tech, dropped a career-high and NCAA season-high 50 points against SIU-Edwardsville tonight. The wiry wing was on fire from everywhere, hitting 16-21 from the field, including 6-9 from behind the arc and 12-14 from the line. Murphy has always been a gifted scorer, sporting a four-year average of 15.5 PPG and moving into second place on the all-time scoring list at TTU this evening, but he’s never approached this kind of rarefied air. His half-century worth of output tonight was six points more than the 2011-12 season’s previous high game of 44, held by Creighton’s Doug McDermott in a game against Bradley earlier this month. Interestingly, OVC and mid-major darling Murray State’s most likely road loss according to KenPom (at 24%) is its season-ending game versus Tennessee Tech on February 25 — maybe Murphy will have another blow-up left in him to perform the major upset.

Tonight’s Quick Hits

  • Backyard Brawl Win Establishes Pitt. We’ll discuss the larger context further in tonight’s Night Line feature, but Pitt’s win at West Virginia was the win that announced that the Panthers were not going to simply slide off into obscurity for the rest of this season. Since Tray Woodall’s return to the starting lineup, Jamie Dixon’s team is 3-1, but home victories against Providence, and yes, even Georgetown, do not carry the same weight of winning a rivalry game against WVU in Morgantown. Rather than dropping dimes as he had in the last two wins with 19 assists, Woodall tonight took it upon himself to score, going for 24/4/3 assts on 8-12 shooting. Now at 3-7 in the Big East, the Panthers have a lot of work left to do, but the next five games are all winnable, and a 9-9 record with a positive trend line would probably be enough to earn Pitt the unlikeliest of NCAA Tournament bids we’ve seen in a long time.
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Night Line: Could Revitalized Pittsburgh Possibly Make the NCAA Tournament?

Posted by EJacoby on January 31st, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC correspondent and regular contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh has been a massive disappointment this season, beginning Big East play with a surreal 0-7 record during an overall eight-game losing streak. By failing to meet expectations or excel on the defensive end of the floor, this year’s Panthers are entirely unlike what we usually expect from Jamie Dixon’s teams. But after a 72-66 road win at West Virginia on Monday night, Pitt has now won three straight games and looks like an entirely different team with their starting point guard back from an extended abdominal injury. Pitt is averaging about 17 more points per game in conference games with Tray Woodall than without him, and the Panthers are finally starting to look like the team that was picked to finish fourth in the conference during the preseason. At 14-9 overall and 3-7 in Big East play, Pittsburgh has an incredibly steep hill to climb, but the pieces are in place to make a run for NCAA Tournament consideration.

Tray Woodall is Back and Pittsburgh Looks Like a New Team (AP Photo)

Pitt is used to qualifying for postseason play; they’ve made the Big Dance in 10 consecutive seasons, the longest current streak in the Big East. The Panthers’ 80.1% winning percentage since 2001 is the fourth best in Division I over that span, trailing only Duke, Memphis, and Gonzaga. Dixon has been the head coach for the past nine years, and the Panthers have simply been superbly consistent under his watch. So the fact that Pitt sits at 12th place in the conference right now is a complete shock that nobody saw coming. The eight-game losing streak that they suffered, which began with a home loss to Wagner on December 23 and ended also at home against Louisville on January 21, was twice as long as any during the Dixon era. Losing starting big man Khem Birch to a transfer request and Woodall to injury put the team into a massive tailspin, and they’re just now recovering from it all.

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Checking In On… The Big East

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 30th, 2012

Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • A Bad Saturday for Big East Referees:  It started in Philadelphia in the noon game between Villanova and Marquette. The referees made themselves the story of that game, calling three technical fouls and 45 total foul in a 40-minute game. That game lasted well over two hours as the officials used their whistles to take all the rhythm out of what was a very good game. James Breeding doesn’t have the best reputation across the conference for the quality of his calls, but apparently he has a short fuse as well. Breeding called all three techs and embarrassed himself on national television in the process. I realize the Big East and NCAA want better sportsmanship, but nothing Jay Wright, Buzz Williams, or Maalik Wayns did warranted a technical foul. It’s never good when officials make themselves the story of the game, but that’s exactly what James Breeding did. The bad officiating continued in the SyracuseWest Virginia game as the crew of Karl Hess, Gene Steratore and, Brian O’Connell blew a goaltending call that was obvious to the 28,740 Syracuse fans in attendance at the Carrier Dome, the ESPNU commentators, and anyone who was watching the game. While the proper call would have only resulted in a tie game and actually given Syracuse a chance to win it in regulation, it denied West Virginia a chance to force overtime. Too often, we see officials swallow their whistles in the final minute to “not affect the outcome of the game.” Once again, a crew of officials decided to do just that and that decision negatively affected the outcome. While there’s no guarantee West Virginia would have won if the game went to the extra session, the Mountaineers were denied that chance by incompetent officiating. My beef is as follows:  I’m all for player safety, but this season it has been ridiculous how many times officials have gone to the television monitor to review elbows that may or may not have been thrown during the course of a game. If they can review every elbow that was ever thrown (not needed in my opinion) as well as end-of-half scoring plays, why can’t they review a call like that? Nobody likes slow games, but the officials should be permitted to review every call they aren’t 100% sure about. All in all, Saturday was a disgrace to the officiating profession.
  • Mike Brey, Coach of the Year?: At this point, it would be hard to argue against him. The Notre Dame head coach led his team to two road wins at Seton Hall and Connecticut last week, holding the home teams to a combined 90 points. Brey’s team executed the burn offense to perfection, protected the basketball and got timely rebounds. Notre Dame, considered an afterthought after Tim Abromaitis went down with a season-ending ACL tear, is now in the thick of the NCAA Tournament conversation. Brey seems to get the most out of his teams when expectations are low, and that reputation is holding true as we head into the crucial month of February. The Irish still have work to do in order to overcome a lackluster non-conference performance but Brey has his team well on its way towards a top half conference finish.
  • Pittsburgh Wins a Pair: After starting league play 0-7, Pittsburgh has won two straight. With Tray Woodall healthy and back in the lineup, the Panthers are a team nobody wants to face down the stretch. Jamie Dixon’s NCAA dreams are almost surely extinguished, but the Panthers have an opportunity to finish the season strong and end with a respectable record. Pittsburgh’s offensive efficiency improved in a big way with Woodall’s return, but its defense was outstanding in Saturday’s win over Georgetown. The Panthers posted an 86.5 defensive efficiency rating, by far their best against a quality opponent. Their season-best was 81.0 against St. Francis (PA) on December 20, their last win before beating Providence last week. With a softer schedule in February, Pittsburgh has the potential to make some noise over the season’s final nine games.

Dante Taylor And The Panthers Are Still A Proud Bunch. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

Power Rankings

  1. Syracuse (22-1, 9-1) – After suffering its first defeat at Notre Dame, the Orange responded well in a win at Cincinnati two days later. Kris Joseph led the victors with 17 points on eight of 11 shooting. Still without Fab Melo, the Orange big men did an admirable job in his place. Rakeem Christmas had nine rebounds as Syracuse survived an early onslaught of Bearcat three-pointers. Syracuse then beat West Virginia on Saturday in a closer-than-expected game as the Mountaineers were able to score against the zone, mostly because of rebounding. Syracuse was out-rebounded 36-20, but committed only six turnovers as it survived the blown goaltending call in the final seconds. Brandon Triche had 18 points in the win. Rebounding has been a concern all season, but it’s obvious that Syracuse is not nearly as dominant with Melo out of the lineup. Free throw shooting came and went (33% at Cincinnati, 76.5% against West Virginia) but mental toughness is one of its biggest strengths. As we head into the teeth of the season, Syracuse is more prepared to absorb and respond to every team’s best shot. This week: 2/4 @ St. John’s.
  2. Marquette (18-4, 7-2) – I’m not overly impressed every time I watch this team, but it makes the winning plays when needed most. The Golden Eagles won a pair of games last week to push their winning streak to six games. Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, and Davante Gardner combined for 47 points in a home win over South Florida on Tuesday, equaling the total points scored by the Bulls. Marquette ventured to Villanova on Saturday and was involved in one of the more bizarre games I have seen all season across college basketball. The game lasted two and a half hours and didn’t even go to overtime. 45 fouls (three technical) were called and 57 free throws were attempted in a game that wasn’t the finest moment for the officiating crew of James Breeding, Tim Clougherty, and Pat Driscoll. Breeding in particular had a short fuse, whistling Buzz Williams for a technical when the coach simply slipped and fell down. Memo to Breeding: Get over yourself, he wasn’t showing you up. Johnson-Odom had 26 points, Crowder added 20 points and 11 boards for Marquette and Jamil Wilson added 12 points off the bench. Marquette rallied from an 18-point deficit and forced 20 Villanova turnovers to key the comeback. This is a good basketball team, but one that has a ceiling. I’m not sure the Golden Eagles have the scoring depth to make a big run in March. This week: 1/31 vs. Seton Hall, 2/4 @ Notre Dame. Read the rest of this entry »
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Set Your TiVo: 01.30.12

Posted by Brian Otskey on January 30th, 2012

Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him @botskey on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

Pittsburgh finally won two games last week and will look to win its third in a row at the Backyard Brawl in Morgantown. In Austin, Texas looks to stun highly-ranked Missouri. Rankings are subject to change with a new RTC Top 25 coming out today.

Pittsburgh at #22 West Virginia – 7:00 PM EST on ESPN (****)

  • After getting hosed by the referees at Syracuse, West Virginia returns home on Monday night to face rival Pittsburgh. While the Panthers have won two straight games after losing eight in a row, the Mountaineers remain a strong favorite despite Tray Woodall’s return to the Pitt lineup. The Panthers look like a different team with a healthy Woodall in the fold and Bob Huggins’ team will have to come up with a strong defensive effort in order to limit the Pitt point guard from getting into a flow. West Virginia’s two-point defense is not good, ranked #239 in Division I. If Woodall and Ashton Gibbs can get inside, Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones will have a hard time defending Nasir Robinson (9-9 FG vs. Georgetown) and Lamar Patterson. West Virginia’s biggest defensive strength is guarding the three-point line (25.9% in Big East play). If the Mountaineers can shut down Gibbs company from deep, they will have an easier time defending the paint and keeping the Panthers off the offensive glass, where they rank #1 in the nation.

    Huggins and the Mountaineers Will Be Fired Up After Their Controversial Loss at Syracuse

  • Pittsburgh’s offense has run much smoother with Woodall back but the biggest change might be defensively. The Panthers held Georgetown to 60 points and 47.5% interior shooting (below Pitt’s 51% in Big East play), something that will be very important against Jones and a West Virginia team that struggles from deep. If Pitt can force Truck Bryant into a bad shooting night (he’s had many of those), the Panthers will be in the game for all 40 minutes. Defending Jones is a very difficult task but Jamie Dixon just might be content to let Jones get his points and focus on shutting down Bryant and West Virginia’s young supporting cast. The Mountaineers need contributions from players like Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds in order to win consistently.
  • This is the 183rd meeting between these longtime rivals. Pittsburgh won both meetings last year and has won 16 of the last 23. We have a feeling this game will be closer than some might think. The Panthers look like a different team with Woodall back and healthy but West Virginia has the best player on the floor in Jones. Offensive rebounding is going to be the key in this game. Neither team defends the paint well but each crashes the offensive glass with authority. Pittsburgh has had problems with turnovers but that may not be the case with Woodall running the show. If West Virginia can’t create turnovers, it will have to score in the half court against a team playing with some renewed confidence. Call us crazy but we think Pitt has a legitimate chance to win this game. This one will come down to offensive rebounding and the play of Jones and Bryant.

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