Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Danger Zone for mid-pack Big East teams

What a rotten night. You can't enjoy a Syracuse loss at Providence when it comes 20 minutes before a Hoya loss at Cincinnati.

Syracuse loses three in a row and four out of five, and you can't enjoy it because...holy crap, the Hoyas have lost four in a row and six out of eight and are in a stone-cold free-fall with a trip to Marquette coming Saturday.

And you start doing math, and you start worrying, seriously, about making the NCAA tournament.

Georgetown is now 12-7 overall and 3-5 in the conference. The last two losses, at Seton Hall and Cincinnati, rank as bad losses, plain and simple -- the kind that will stand out to an NCAA selection committee evaluating a team on the bubble. And that bubble is exactly where these Hoyas are headed.

Ten games remain on Georgetown's regular-season schedule. The ones they should win (grain of salt here, of course, remembering that if they could lose to Seton Hall and Cincinnati they can lose to anybody) are the home games against Rutgers, Cincinnati and DePaul and the road games at South Florida and St. John's. Games in which they will not be favored are the road games at Marquette, Syracuse and Villanova and home games against Louisville and Marquette.

Assuming they go 5-5 (winning the ones they should win and losing the rest), that makes them 17-12 overall and 8-10 in the conference going into the conference tournament (where they'd be playing on Tuesday in the bottom-half, first-day group that has to win five games in five days to win the tourney title).


Now, we can all look back on the road win at Connecticut, and how good they looked at home against Syracuse, and imagine that things can get better -- that somebody will wake up on offense, that the turnovers will ease up and that somebody will fight somebody for a rebound and the Hoyas will play better than .500 the rest of the way.

But right now, the evidence is running thin. We're like Coach Taylor in the first episode of this "Friday Night Lights" season -- we need something good to happen.

Elsewhere on a Big East Wednesday, big, big win for Villanova against Pitt, Louisville and West Virginia continue to look strong and at this writing UConn is pulling away from DePaul. More on this in the morning, if I can drag my depressed butt out of bed to blog on the good teams in the conference.

But one final note:

We've been tracking these so-called "bad losses," in which teams from the supposed Top Nine lose to teams in the supposed Bottom Seven. For the first four weeks of conference play, there was only one of these -- Notre Dame's loss at St. John's on Jan. 3. But in the last four days, there have been three more, two by Georgetown (at Seton Hall and Cincinnati) and one by Syracuse (at Providence).

This could be a symptom of burnout. It could be a sign that the conference isn't as deep as we thought it was. But it's definitely a sign that those "Top Nine" and "Bottom Seven" designations aren't set in stone. Right now, Providence and Pitt are in a tie for fourth place. Cincinnati is alone in ninth. Georgetown and Notre Dame are tied for 10th. Those nine NCAA bids for the Big East look like a pipe dream right now, and even if they got them, they wouldn't go to the nine teams everybody thought they would.

Deep breaths, I know. A whole February still to go, and things could turn around quickly. But after a long, cold, snowy, slushy day ended with another Hoya loss, it's tough to feel real good about things.

Wednesday Wonderings

Six games in the conference tonight, but not too many compelling matchups. Pitt at Villanova looks like the best one, though I am curious to see if Providence can finally pick up a quality win as they host Syracuse. (Regular readers know we here at RCR are always on the lookout for something bad happening to Syracuse.)

So, a couple of random notes on a snowy Wednesday morning here in NJ. (Kids are home from school -- yippee!!)

-Cracked Sidewalks points out two interesting things about Marquette's win at Notre Dame on Monday night. First, it was apparently the eighth anniversary of Al McGuire's death (which doesn't seem that long ago). Second, only four players scored points for Marquette in the game. That's right. They scored 71 points, and the only ones who scored were Jerel McNeal (27), Dominic James (15), Wes Mathews (16) and Lazar Heyward (13).

And they say Georgetown's not deep!

Seriously, though, you can get away with a lack of depth when your best four players are this good. I still think Marquette will lose a game here at some point. Once they stop playing DePaul every other game, maybe. Somebody will be able to out-physical them inside. Their guards will have a cold shooting night. Their schedule has been relatively soft so far, and their final five games at at Georgetown/UConn/at Louisville/at Pitt/Syracuse. So they will be tested. But they are good, and the ND win proves it. Even if it was a four-man effort.

-Our fighting Hoyas do need a win tonight at Cincinnati. Can't go to Marquette on Saturday with a four-game losing streak. Something needs to happen to stem the feel of a free-fall and avoid a situation like the one in which Notre Dame now finds itself. I'm among those who would like to see more of Henry Sims, if for no other reason than to help with the horrendous rebounding problems. (Though I do feel like this could be a case of the most popular player in town always being the backup quarterback.) GU will need some size and toughness inside to combat Mike Williams and Yancey Gates tonight, and if they get pushed around early (and they keep chunking those three-point bricks), I fear a disaster.

-The key for Villanova is always Scotty Reynolds, but I think the key tonight, if they're to have a chance against Pitt, is going to be Dante Cunningham. They'll have to do something to keep the Panthers honest inside, and Cunningham's energetic play last week in the first half was a huge reason the Wildcats were able to hang in the way they did against Connecticut.

That's just off the top of my head in the morning, with the kids screaming their heads off. Maybe I'll check back later.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Marquette 71, Notre Dame 64

It's all about perspective, I guess. As concerned as we here at RCR are about the Hoyas' current plight (justifiably concerned, mind you -- the loss to Seton Hall was inexcusable and devastating), it's possible that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have it worse.

ND has lost four games in a row, the last two at home (where they previously hadn't lost in three years). And their next four games are (sitting down?) at Pitt, at Cincinnati, at UCLA and home against Louisville.


I mean, if they slip up at Cincinnati, they're looking at a real good chance of an eight-game losing streak! NCAA tournament teams don't have eight-game losing streaks, no matter what conference they play in.

Which brings me to my overall point, which is...

How many teams can the Big East expect to get into that tournament, anyway?

We and others have been operating as if nine is the number -- that Louisville, Pitt, UConn, Marquette, Syracuse, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Villanova and West Virginia are all tournament teams and that if somebody like Cincinnati or Providence won some games they weren't supposed to win the number could go to 10.

But not only are we learning that the conference isn't as uniformly deep as we thought (There's a clear "Top Four" of Louisville, Pitt, UConn and Marquette taking shape), we middle group are in danger of slipping onto or even under the tournament bubble.

Think about it. If ND goes 1-3 in those next four games (winning at Cincinnati), they're 13-10 overall and 4-7 in conference. With trips to West Virginia and UConn still on the schedule after that, they're looking at being maybe 18-12 overall and 9-9 in conference going into the Big East tournament. That's no slam dunk for the tournament committee.

In Georgetown's case, the truly brutal part of the schedule is behind them. But (a) they just lost to Seton Hall, which means there are no gimmes for them and (b) they still have Marquette twice, Louisville once and trips to Syracuse and Villanova. Those are five games in which they will not be favored, and if they lose all five and win the rest, they're 18-11 overall and 9-9 in conference heading into the Garden. BUBBLE!

Both of these teams have had their moments, and could play well enough the rest of the way to make these arguments irrelevant. But they've also had bad losses (ND at St. John's, GU at Seton Hall), and if they have one or two more of those, things could get dicey. The Big East thought it was a monster conference that could snag almost 15 percent of the NCAA tournament bids come March. But late January has exposed some cracks, and some of these teams will need to have big Februaries if they want to make that happen.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bloody Sunday

There's a special, sad kind of heartbreak whenever you come to realize that something you thought was true is not and never was. There is no Santa Claus. Fat-free ice cream is, in fact, fattening. And the 2008-09 Georgetown Hoyas are not that good a basketball team.

Oh, they had us fooled, kicking around the top 10 for a few weeks, going up to UConn and winning the conference opener, whipping Syracuse at all looked good. We saw the best of Georgetown, and it looked good enough to beat anybody.

But over the past week, we have seen the worst of the Hoyas, and the problems are very real. You do not lose at home to West Virginia by 17 points if you're a conference title contender. And you most certainly do not lose, anywhere, by any number of points, to Seton Hall. No matter how much PJ Carlesimo nostalgia is going on in the building.

Until yesterday, the only loss by a Top Nine Big East team to a Bottom Seven one this year was Notre Dame's Jan. 3 loss at St. John's. Now, there is finally a second -- this inexplicable, lackluster loss by Georgetown at Seton Hall. They shot terribly, defended terribly, rebounded terribly (of course) and deserved to lose to one of the worst teams in the league.

It was freaking depressing, and the main reason is that it points up so many alarming problems. As I wrote a few days ago, people have said the problem with the Hoyas is depth, meaning lack of good bench play. But I think there's a depth problem in the starting five. Jessie Sapp is just not having any kind of useful season. Chris Wright has settled into mediocrity after a brilliant start. Greg Monroe is incredible, but teams can lock down on him now because they know the guards aren't good enough to beat them. And when Summers has a bad game and can't score (as has happened in each of the past two), the whole team looks lost. They get out of their tight, disciplined offense. They stop looking for the good shot and they start shooting the three, which right now they can't hit.

This doesn't look like a John Thompson III team right now, and it's a shame, because it sure did a few weeks ago. Right now it's tied for ninth place with Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Right now it's failing to take advantage of the easing out of the schedule. Right now, rather than ripping the bench, you want to see more of Clark and Vaughn and Henry Sims, because when they come in at least you feel a change in the energy level.

Again, it's not even February yet. Maybe they go off and win the rest of their games. Maybe they go into Marquette this weekend and do something incredible. Maybe Sapp gets hot, Summers wakes up and it all starts clicking again. At some point this season, that's likely to happen. The question is for how long, and whether the real Hoyas are closer to the team that won at UConn or the one that lost at Seton Hall.

Right now, it's tough not to think it's the latter.

Elsewhere, yada, yada, yada...Louisville wins at Syracuse, continuing to look like the best team in the league, and Pitt wins at West Virginia. Right now, rather than a "Power Nine," there appears to be a "Power Four" atop the Big East. Pitt, Louisville, UConn and Marquette look to be a notch above the rest. (And that could easily be a Power Three if Marquette doesn't handle the toughening of its own schedule in the coming weeks.) Syracuse is good but not as good as those four. Notre Dame, same thing. Villanova, Georgetown...please. West Virgina? Well, you think they can hang with that crew, but then they go out and lose at home to Pitt, so then you think maybe they can't.

Is it possible this conference isn't as deep as we all thought?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

UConn 69, Notre Dame 61

Trying to figure out which commercials make me feel more out of touch -- the Winter X Games ones or the ones where Howie Long makes fun of people because their trucks aren't manly enough. Seriously -- what's so wrong with a heated steering wheel? Sounds like a pretty good idea to me...

Anyway, couple of thoughts on the game that just ended Notre Dame's 45-game home winning streak:

-Given everything that's happened since, the Georgetown victory at Connecticut is one of the biggest upsets of the season in college basketball. Huskies are 7-0 since then, including wins at West Virginia and Notre Dame. Hoyas are 2-4.

-There are few more effective or intimidating forces in the game right now than Jeff Adrien in the second half. The guy is so big, strong, tough and mean that he refuses to wear down while everybody else is, and the result is that there comes a point, late in the game, where he's getting every rebound there is. UConn is absolutely loaded -- the guards, Price and Dyson, are studs, and so is Kemba Walker coming off the bench. But Adrien may be their "glue guy," to borrow a phrase.

-I'm sorry, but the Harangody-Thabeet matchup goes to Harangody. I know Thabeet will yap about having won the game, and he'll be right (though a loudmouth thug). But Harangody dominated him in their one-on-one matchup. There's nobody in the nation who can score the ball in more different ways than Harangody can. Hook shots, three-pointers, reverse layups, mid-range jumpers...he's an animal, unstoppable with the ball even by a guy who's 7-foot-3 and lives for defense. Thugbeet is a monster on defense, but he's absolutely maddening to watch at the other end of the floor. If Harangody knows 50 ways to score, Thugbeet knows maybe two. It's as if he doesn't care. If he became a real offensive force, at 7-foot-3, UConn would be the best team in the country. Of course, they may be already.

-This may be the best defensive game I've seen Notre Dame play this year (which isn't saying much, since in most games they don't play defense at all). Their problem was that McAlarney went cold from the outside, enabling UConn to collapse on Harangody and render him merely great instead of otherworldly. The Irish kept jacking up threes in spite of their inability to hit them, and that offensive strategy let Connecticut put the game away in the second half.

-A lot can still happen (obviously -- it's not even February yet), but the Big East standings are starting to get a little definition to them. Marquette, Louisville, UConn and Pitt look like a clear Top Four right now, in whatever order you want to rank them. That matters because the top four teams in the conference all will get two-round byes in the Big East tournament. After that, you'd have to say Syracuse, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Villanova make up that Next Five. (Yeah, I know Providence is ahead of some of those teams, but a lot of that is schedule, and the Friars have yet to pick up a win against one of the Power Nine in spite of opportunities against Marquette and Georgetown, so we'll keep them out of the top group for now). Providence and Cincinnati remain the teams most likely to sneak into that top group from the bottom one, and then you have the quintet of South Florida, St. John's, Rutgers, Seton Hall and DePaul, who are completely horrendous. To this point, the only loss by a Top Nine team to one of the Bottom Seven remains Notre Dame's Jan. 3 loss at St. John's. Really, it's amazing that nobody else has slipped up, and I think it speaks to how great the conference is at the top than how rotten it is at the bottom.

-Just switched over to Texas-Texas A&M on ESPNU, and the color analyst is Dickey Simpkins! Former Providence big man. Love it. Where's Constanin Popa?

Okay, back to the commercials. I don't know, and I'm not a pickup truck guy, but that fold-down step on the back looks like a good idea too. Howie apparently thinks it's for wussies...

Friday, January 23, 2009

West Virginia 75, Georgetown 58

A couple of times a year, the Hoyas play a game that just pisses me off. Two years ago, sadly, that game was a Final Four game against Ohio State. Last year, it was the game at Syracuse. Games in which it felt as if the team didn't play the way it always plays -- coherent, disciplined and determined.

Last night's loss to West Virginia was such a game, and truly I don't have much to say about it.

People talk about a lack of depth on this team, and they mean that it doesn't get much from its bench. But (a) that's improving and (b) maybe there are depth problems within the first five.

WVU locked down on Greg Monroe, double-teaming him and basing their defense on denying him the ball. Dajuan Summers couldn't get anything going, scoring-wise, and...that was it. Nobody else knew what to do with those guys out of the offense. Austin Freeman made a couple of first-half plays, but for the most part they got out of sync and stayed out. By the time there were eight minutes left in the second half, all they were doing was jacking up bad threes that they couldn't hit, and that tight, disciplined offense for which the JTIII teams have become known was already on the bus (hopefully) for Sunday's game at Seton Hall.

It wasn't a "bad loss" in that it didn't come at the hands of one of the bottom seven teams in the conference. (To this point, the only top-nine loss to a bottom-seven remains Notre Dame's Jan. 3 loss at St. John's.) But it was a game the Hoyas should have won, at home against an unranked team, and when it comes time to seed this year's conference tournament, it could be a game that haunts them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

UConn 89, Villanova 83

So the other night, while watching the DePaul-South Florida game (yes, I was the only one watching -- call me with any questions about the game), I learned something about this year's Big East tournament. I'd already known that all 16 teams would be in it, but it hadn't occurred to me how, exactly, they were going to make that work.

Evidently, the top four seeds will all receive two byes, advancing straight to the quarterfinal round, which begins Thursday of that week. So, if you're one of the top four, you'll only have to win three games in three days to win the conference tournament.

The No. 5 through No. 8 seeds will each receive one bye and won't play until Wednesday. So those teams, if they want to win the conference tournament, will have to win four games in four days -- something that's only been done twice, last year by Pitt and a few years back when Gerry McNamara and Syracuse did it.

The No. 9 through 16 teams will begin play Tuesday and will have to win five games in five days to be conference champs. If that sounds freaking impossible, there's a good reason.

Now, why does this matter? Because that means somebody from the top nine will be in that Tuesday group. At least one of these nine teams:

Notre Dame
West Virginia

If you believe (as I do) that any of the nine teams in that list could conceivably win the conference tournament if all else were equal, this is jarring. It means that at least one of the Big East's "Power Nine" will be all but eliminated from contention for the title before the tournament begins.

If Villanova is that team, they will have some regrets.

They'll regret not making one of those tip-in chances in the final seconds of the Louisville game go in the net. And I believe they'll look back on last night's game at UConn and think they could have won that too.

Villanova is a nightmare to play against. They hassle everything. All through the second half, as it kept looking at if Connecticut was about to pull away, the Wildcats got a hand on every pass, a hand in the face of every shooter, a steal off every dribble that wasn't perfect. They created chance after chance after chance...

...and missed them all. I mean, this was hard to watch. They'd get the steal, block or some other kind of turnover, then they'd take it down the other end and miss a layup. Or miss a dunk. Or make the inconceivably bad decision to try and drive the lane and dunk on Hasheem Thabeet, whose large hand ended that quest emphatically.

(Quick note on Thabeet, by the way. This guy should be better, especially on offense. It looks as if all he wants to do is block shots. Now, he's excellent at blocking shots -- a total game-changer on defense. But he's an uninterested rebounder and a sometimes invisible offensive player. Jay Bilas kept saying that nobody else in the country has a comparable player, and he's right. The dude is 7-foot-3. But that doesn't help you score if you don't care about offense.)

Anyway, Villanova was way game. A.J. Price hitting 700 three-pointers in the first half didn't bother them. Jeff Adrien asserting his I'm-stronger-than-you-are-and-will-own-the-second-half act didn't bother them. The only thing that seemed to upset them was when they got the ball within a few feet of the rim. Why would that be so scary?

Nice escape win for UConn, which is rolling, but I call this a big-time missed chance for Villanova -- and one they might regret come March.

*Red-Hot Redbirds Roll Rutgers: Yes, of course I kept an eye on the Louisville-Rutgers game. Yes, I took note that it was tied at 7-7. Yes, I was impressed that Louisville then scored the next 21 points, enabling its mascot to take a 90-minute nap and its coaching staff to start drawing up plays for Sunday's game at Syracuse.

Look, I still think Louisville has shown some weaknesses this season, and that they could be vulnerable. But right now, they are ON FIRE, as good and as locked-in as any team in the conference and super-confident. If this keeps up, and builds on itself, they'll have a real good chance to take that No. 1 seed into Madison Square Garden in early March.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

South Florida 70, DePaul 61

I think the nicest thing to call this DePaul team is a work in progress.

They actually led this game with 7:02 left, until Augustus Gilchrist made the three-pointer that put South Florida ahead for good. But in the end, they lost, which they've done in every conference game they've played this year, and it's not hard to see why.

First, the roster construction is a mess. Did you know DePaul had four centers on its roster? Four. The box score lists Mac Koshwal (6-10), Matija Poscic (6-10), Krys Faber (6-11) and Kene Obi (7-2). Those last two played a combined total of 16 minutes, but the end result is that the Blue Demons have only three guards and three forwards and look like a disjointed mess.

And when things are going rotten, they really rot. Down seven points with 1:40 left, the Blue Demons started in with a pretty good strategy. (A little late, probably, but good nonetheless.) They started fouling. South Florida is a disastrously bad free-throw shooting team -- under 60 percent for the year. So put 'em on the line, see if they'll let you back in the game. Makes sense. With 1:40 to go, Chris Howard goes to the line and, sure 'nuff, misses the front end of the 1-and-1. DePaul gets the rebound! They have a chance! The strategy is working!


Poscic is called for a lane violation. Howard gets to shoot the front end again. Makes it. And makes the second. Nine-point lead. Game over.

This is a bad break, but it's the kind of thing that happens when you're a bad team having a bad year. And DePaul has picked the wrong year to be a bad team in the Big East. Four of their next five games are against top-10 teams. Seriously. Their next five is: at Marquette/UConn/at Rutgers/Marquette/Pitt. (No typo. They get Marquette twice in 11 days.) They're 0-6 and headed for no better than 1-10.

But who knows? Maybe this builds character...

Nova, UConn and Louisville all in action tonight. Fire it up.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pitt 78, Syracuse 60

Never gets old, really. I could watch Syracuse lose at anything. Basketball, football, lacrosse ("Lacrosse, Liz Lemon!"), chess...anything.

But on to the larger point, which is Pitt. Syracuse has a fine little orange team this year, but it's simply not equipped to beat Pitt at Pitt. Even among the great teams in this conference in this great year, there are mismatches, and this game was one of them.

The amazing thing is, Syracuse has a cat that can actually play DeJuan Blair. Arinze Onuaku is as like Blair as anybody in the conference. (With the possible exception of Jeff Adrien, who scares the hell out of me. He might even scare DeJuan Blair -- I haven't had the chance to ask.) He's big and physical down low and plays with a lot of Blair's toughness and (on defense, at least) nose for the ball.

But Blair is so much more than big and tough. He's got post moves. He's got energy. He plays with the fluidity of a swing-forward. He can hit a jump shot, for goodness' sake.

And he's got that smile, which sounds like a corny thing to say but actually does matter. It's all part of his on-court persona, which is about emitting the very clear impression that he's got it all under control. The expression on his face when Onuaku shoved him out of bounds under the basket after a rebound and got teed up for it late in the first half was downright whimsical -- as if to say, "Yeah, I got you, man. You got the ball this time, but I got you."

Blair's an elite player -- the kind of player a team like Pitt needs to ascend to real Final Four contention. But one of the best things about Pitt is that, even if a guy like Onuaku plays some fantastic game and somehow neutralizes Blair, you still have to contain Sam Young. And Syracuse could not.

Pitt needs to watch those free throws -- that was scary bad in the first half -- but they have a lot going for them, not the least of which is a little bit of perimeter defense. Rautins and Flynn of Cuse were a combined 9-for-30 in this game, which is horrendous. I mean, unless you really, really don't like Syracuse.

Just sayin'.

*One other point: This game says a lot about Louisville, which didn't play in it. Pitt is excellent at wearing down an opponent. They are big, tough and physical, and they're in great shape. They can physically outlast people. And Louisville physically outlasted them on Sunday night. Yes, I still would have liked to see the Pitt-Louisville game with Blair in it the whole way (instead of limited to 20 minutes due to foul trouble), but the fact remains that Louisville is scary as hell, and as dangerous as any team in here if it's getting its collective head together/ass in gear. Which it appears it is.

*Miscellaneous crap: Providence held off Cincinnati in a somewhat meaningless Bottom Seven affair. It'd be totally meaningless except I can't seem to quit Providence. I still think they have a little run, or at least an upset or two in them. But watching them gag away that game to Marquette on Saturday shook me up, and if they'd gone out tonight and lost to freaking Cincinnati, I'd have probably given up my mild but admittedly inexplicable fascination with them.

*Upcoming: The only game on the Big East schedule Tuesday is DePaul-South Florida, which is probably going to be a strong candidate for Worst Big East Game of the Year. The only interesting storyline is whether DePaul can actually win a conference game this year. This offers some semblance of an opportunity, though I wouldn't run out and bet it. The game is on ESPNU, so I may actually watch some of it. Yeah, that's right. That's how sick I am.

*Upcoming Wednesday: Villanova at UConn, Louisville at Rutgers. The former is the obviously better matchup, but I am curious to see if Louisville has any kind of hangover after the big win Sunday. They seem like a hangover-type of team, and not just because that mascot of theirs is always lying down next to the court. We've still had only one bad in-conference loss (meaning: a loss by one of the top nine to one of the bottom seven -- in this case, Notre Dame at St. John's on Jan. 3), so we're ever on the lookout. The Scarlet Knights get the next crack at it, and they'll have their undersized hands full.

Schedule Musings -- "Next Fives"

Three weeks into the Big East season, and still only one loss by a Top Nine team to a Bottom Seven team -- Notre Dame at St. John's on Jan. 3.

Marquette came close Saturday night, falling behind by 13 in the second half at Providence. But as we've already discussed, not even angry family members of Friar players were enough to keep Marquette from improving to 5-0 in the Big East.

So what's coming up? What potential pitfalls do the Big East's Power Nine teams face in the coming weeks? Today we're taking a look at the next five games on each of those teams' schedules, and analyzing what may be in store as we lurch toward February.

It all starts tonight with Syracuse traveling to Pitt, but we'll do the "Next Fives" in order of current standings, since these teams have earned that.

Next Five: DePaul/at Notre Dame/Georgetown/at DePaul/at South Florida
Trouble Spot(s): at Notre Dame on Jan. 26.
Breather(s): DePaul twice in four games? Somebody's livin' right in Milwaukee.
Assessment: Nobody ever wins at Notre Dame, and the Hoyas will cause problems inside, but the Eagles should get to 8-2 without any trouble and could win four of these five if they shoot it well enough.

Next Five: at Rutgers/at Syracuse/South Florida/West Virginia/Connecticut
Trouble Spot(s): at Syracuse on Jan. 25, home to UConn on Feb. 2
Breather(s): Home to South Florida on Jan. 28
Assessment: This is no easy stretch, including the trip to Rutgers, which is always harder than it should be. But this team has looked tough enough to handle anything, when it focuses.

Next Five: Villanova/at Notre Dame/at DePaul/Providence/at Louisville
Trouble Spot(s): at Notre Dame on Jan. 24, at Louisville on Feb. 2
Breather(s): at DePaul on Jan. 28
Assessment: Huskies have looked fantastic since losing to Georgetown in the conference opener, but things are about to get rough. Even the home games in this stretch are Villanova (Scottie Reynolds is always a problem) and Providence (which will sneak up on you if you're off your game). UConn should be the conference's best team, and now's their chance to prove it.

Next Five: at Pitt/Louisville/at Providence/West Virginia/at Villanova
Trouble Spot(s): Wow. The whole thing, really. They play the No. 4 and 12 teams in the country this week.
Breather(s): Home to West Virginia on Feb. 4
Assessment: They should win at Providence and beat West Virginia at home, but neither is a gimme. They have practically no chance tonight, and I don't love their matchup with Louisville either. So I say the Villanova game is the difference between going 3-2 and 2-3 over the next five.

Next Five: Syracuse/at West Virginia/at Villanova/Notre Dame/Robert Morris
Trouble Spot(s): at Villanova on Jan. 28, home to Syracuse tonight
Breather(s): Robert Morris? No, it's not a typo.
Assessment: The first four are tough, but there's no reason to think DeJaun Blair and Co. can't handle it. They could have problems with Reynolds on the road, and they'll need to focus on defense to keep Notre Dame from scoring, but the Panthers could come out of this 9-1 in conference play.

Next Five: West Virginia/at Seton Hall/at Cincinnati/at Marquette/Rutgers
Trouble Spot(s): at Marquette on Jan. 31
Breather(s): at Cincinnati on Jan. 28, home to Rutgers on Feb. 3
Assessment: Finally, things ease out, if only a little. West Virginia's no pushover even at home, and the three games that follow are all on the road. Still, having survived the meat grinder of the first three weeks, Hoyas are poised to win four of their next five and improve to 7-3.

Next Five: UConn/Marquette/at Pitt/at Cincinnati/at UCLA
Trouble Spot(s): Yikes. The first three and that last one.
Breather(s): at Cincinnati on Feb. 4
Asssessment: Holy crap. Why didn't the Irish get the out-of-conference home game against Robert Morris? Somebody's got to talk to the schedule-makers here. The first two are real testers of that home winning streak the Irish have going. I say it ends with UConn, but then they hand Marquette their first conference loss. Still, ND is going to have to be careful not to come out of this 4-6 in conference and 13-9 overall. This stretch could be a season-killer if they don't toughen up on D.

Next Five: at UConn/at South Florida/Pitt/Cincinnati/at Providence
Trouble Spot(s): at UConn on Wednesday, home to Pitt on Jan. 28
Breather(s): home to Cincinnati on Super Bowl Sunday.
Assessment: Villanova is generally thought to be the team, of the Power Nine, most likely to slip up and dare the NCAA tournament to leave it out. (I still say it's Notre Dame.) They have a home loss to Louisville and a road loss to Marquette, which are fine, to go with an out-of-conference loss to Texas. So they're in good shape right now, and if they take care of business in this stretch, they'll be at least 5-4 in conference and 17-5 overall. If they slip up in Tampa or Providence, then alarm bells could start going off.

Next Five: at Georgetown/Pitt/St. John's/at Louisville/at Syracuse
Trouble Spot(s): First two and last two, baby. This is as tough as anybody's got it but ND.
Breather(s): home to St. John's on Jan. 28
Assessment: Ken Pomeroy still ranks the Mountaineers No. 12 nationally and fourth in the conference, so there's something in the underlying stats that makes them look better than they have on the court so far. If the Moutaineers are looking for an opportunity to assert themselves and have the rest of the country take note of how good they are, this is it. If they can win three of their next five, they're a real contender. If they look like they did in escaping Marshall and South Florida in their last two games, they're looking at a 1-4 stretch and a 3-6 conference record from which it'll be hard to recover.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday Night Recap -- Cards and Eagles Flying High

The only two undefeated teams left in Big East play are Louisville and Marquette, and man did they earn it.

The angle on this one seems to be that Louisville outlasted Pitt physically, wearing down the nation's No. 1 team with its relentless press and handing the Panthers their first loss of the season. It's a viable take that jives with what we saw Louisville do to Notre Dame, but there has to be a caveat. DeJuan Blair missed half the game due to foul trouble. During the brief times in the second half when he was on the floor, Pitt looked like a totally different team. And had he been able to play more, Pitt probably would have looked like the better team. Playing without Blair is like trying to drive a truck through three feet of snow without a plow. Louisville's pressure is the snow, and it's tough to fight through. And if you're trying it without your plow, you have no chance.

But those are the ifs, and these are the facts: Louisville keeps winning, and when they play a focused, intense game, they're as good as anybody in the conference. Their point guard play is shaky, and there are still too many mistakes. I mean, the whole final minute was a mess -- dumb fouls and turnovers that kept Pitt in the game when it could have been salted away. This happened against Kentucky and Villanova, too -- maddeningly sloppy play by a team that should be a better closer. But they won those games too. And if they can keep winning, gaining confidence and growing as they win, they'll be in pretty good shape come postseason time. What we know about them already is that it's real tough to run with them for 40 minutes.

So that's the Pitt-Louisville game, and then there's Marquette-Providence, a bizarre late night show up in Rhode Island in which the underdog home team blew 13-point second-half lead and lost by nine and the brother of an injured Providence player wandered onto the court during a free throw to talk to the officials about a call.

(Yeah, if you didn't see it, it looked as weird as it sounds. Jeff Xavier is the Providence player, and he takes an elbow in the eye. Starts bleeding like crazy. Leaves the court, very upset, and doesn't return to the game. Ugly. Worst part is, no foul was called on that play. A foul was called seconds later, and while they were lined up and getting ready to shoot it, Jonathan Xavier, Jeff's brother, wanders out onto the court in a big old winter coat and confronts one of the officials. All of a sudden people realize what's happening, and a couple of people start rushing the guy off the court. Scary, really.)

In terms of the game, Providence looked heartbroken at the end, and they should have. This was their game, totally, and they let it slip away. Of course it didn't help that Lazar Hayward started bombing threes, but just because that happened didn't mean Providence had to take itself out of its own game on the other end and start rushing perimeter shots too. It didn't mean they had to start turning the ball over as if they were giving out Toys for Tots. And it didn't mean they had to chunk every single free throw in the final five minutes.

Providence is an experienced, senior-heavy team with a size advantage over Marquette, so it was weird to see them fall apart like that. But Marquette is also an experienced, senior-heavy team, and they're much better than Providence, so I guess it should have been a big surprise to see them assert that.

I count this as a big win for Marquette. It was on the road against a team that's probably the best of that "bottom seven" group and had a 13-point lead on them with less than 15 minutes to go. Right now, everyone still wants to say Pitt and UConn are the best two teams in the conference, but Marquette's done nothing wrong. Sure, they haven't played as tough a schedule as some have. And yes, I imagine they will run into problems dealing with the interior size of teams like Pitt, UConn, Louisville and Syracuse. But if they can stretch out defenses with their outside shooting, they'll be able to (a) stay in those games and (b) run their offense around the trees.

Their schedule will get tough, eventually. I mean, they have DePaul twice in their next four games, which really shouldn't be allowed. And they still have South Florida, St. John's and Seton Hall to come. But their final five games are at Georgetown/UConn/at Louisville/at Pitt/Syracuse. So we'll get to find out for sure whether they really are this good. But after last night, I think we have less reason to doubt it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Oh Well -- Duke 76, Georgetown 67

The Hoyas were still in the game -- maybe even leading -- when one play made me realize there was a force at work with which our plucky blue-gray bunch was not equipped to deal.

Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. The inbound play where Duke just lofted the ball up in front of the basket and Gerald Henderson (whose father authored a still-famous dunk on Alonzo Mourning in a regional final game between these two schools in 1989) appeared to drop from the ceiling of Cameron Indoor Stadium and slam the ball home.

The thought I had at that moment was, "Uh-oh. I don't think my team has anybody who can do that."

Indeed, Henderson was the difference. (Though I do love a no-nonsense big man like Kyle Singler -- a guy who doesn't do anything fancy but always, ALWAYS figures out how to get the ball in the basket when he gets it down low. He dunks when he should dunk. He goes glass when he should go glass. He doesn't take that dumb dribble Mourning always used to take when he got the ball down low. He just takes it up and scores, and gets back down the other end to try and block one, leaving it to a guy like Henderson to buzz around the floor like a spring-loaded badger and shoot (and hit) from anywhere.)

My fear was that Duke would shoot the lights out, and they did -- better than 48 percent. I don't feel like the Hoyas played particularly poor defense (that number notwithstanding). I don't feel like they were outmanned, or that this was some kind of a mismatch. In DC, it might have gone differently. On a neutral court in March, it might go differently. Basically, this came down to an unreal game by Henderson and that devastating 10-minute stretch at the end of the first half and beginning of the second where the Hoyas made no field goals and the Dukies started bombing threes.

Other than that, it was kind of even, and there were some good signs. Summers fears nothing but the free-throw line, and is having the kind of year where I think he'll just keep getting better and more confident in his offense. Monroe is an animal and will fare better in games where go his way a little bit more.

I worry about Jessie Sapp, who has I think graduated from shooting slump to lousy season. And Chris Wright doesn't look as loose and as sharp as he did in the early going. But what matters is that Georgetown survived this hellish six-game stretch (at UConn/Pitt/at Notre Dame/Providence/Syracuse/at Duke) with a 3-3 record and can get back to Big East business knowing they're still alive in the conference and the national polls. They have questions to answer, sure. You'd still like to see more from Vaughn and Sims and Clark off the bench. And Sapp needs to hit a big three in the worst way. And the next game is West Virginia, which only feels easy because of what's come before it but most certainly is not easy.

But there's a chance for a big finish here. Pomeroy predicts a win for Georgetown in each of its remaining regular-season games, and a 60 percent or better chance for a win in all but one of them (at Marquette, 54 percent). That's not to say they'll win them all, but there is a sense that they've somehow survived the worst and are in a position, if they've been toughened by this stretch, to do some damage and factor into the race for a third straight regular-season conference title.

And who knows? Next time they see Duke, things could be different. Maybe they could even keep Gerald Henderson somewhere near the ground.

Flashback -- Dec. 5, 1990: Georgetown 79, Duke 74

My friend Sweeny texted me yesterday to tell me this game was on TV (ESPN Classic, I guess) and to ask if I'd attended it.

Oh yeah.

This was freshman year. Maybe the first game any of us went to. I remember it like it was yesterday (if yesterday had been a day I started drinking in the afternoon, discovered how good beer tastes when you drink it in the shower and been introduced to a drink called the "pisco sour" by a crazy Peruvian guy with a German name...)

My kid brother was visiting that day, and came to the game with us. This was especially cool because he was a Duke fan (who eventually, though we couldn't be certain of this yet, would attend and graduate from Duke).

The game was unreal. I mean, look at the names in the box score.

No. 5 Duke, with Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner -- a team that would lose only five more games all year and win the first of two straight national championships.

No. 6 Georgetown, with Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and the swing-forward for whom this blog is named -- a team that would peak on this night and be eliminated by defending champion UNLV in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Yeah, I remember this game. I remember how incredible it was to win. I remember it as pretty much the last bad game of the college careers of Hurley and Lattner. (The stats back me up there -- the two of them were a combined 8-for-33!) And yeah, I remember that Mourning hurt his foot in this game and basically missed the whole rest of the season, which kind of put a damper on the national tile hopes.

This really may have been the last real highlight of the John Thompson II era before it plunged into a period of darkness. My sophomore year, the team lost in the second round to Florida State. And my junior year, they missed the NCAAs for the first time in 15 years.

But I guess we'd always have Dec. 5, 1990. That just had to hold us until Thompson's kid showed up a decade and a half later.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Saturday Preview -- Games Big and Small

While passing the jittery, excited time remaining before the Friday Night Lights premiere for non-DirecTV subscribers, I figured a primer on the six Saturday Big East games might be a cool distraction. I came to this after evaluating several other options:

1. Going for a run. (It's 11 degrees.)

2. Going to the gym. (Later, when it's 3:00 and nobody's there. I promise.)

3. Updating my new baseball blog, (Shameless plug.)

4. Eating lunch. (Though, I could eat while typing, and you'd never know...)

5. Looking for a new job. (There aren't any, which is why this blog exists.)

So here are six thumbnails, each of which includes a brief RCR preview along with a Ken Pomeroy rankings comparison of the teams involved. The games are ranked in order of their importance/slash level of interest to this blog, which admits to a bias:

Georgetown at Duke, 1:30 pm, CBS

Pomeroy Prediction: Duke(1) 71, Georgetown(4) 64

RCR's Take: The Hoyas spent the first half Wednesday night shooting over Syracuse's zone. Saturday, they'll have a much harder time in the face of Duke's perimeter pressure. This will be more like the defense they faced last Saturday against Providence, know...a lot better. For Georgetown to win, they'll need to be able to move the ball inside and out, to and from Greg Monroe, whose inside presence is one of the few advantages the Hoyas have and whose passing ability might be the only way to free up the guards for the outside shots. Also, it wouldn't hurt if a massive flu bug hit the Duke campus tonight and kept the crowd to a minimum...

PREDICTION: I fear a game somewhat like the Tennessee game, where the Hoyas played well, especially on defense, but Tennessee hit everything in sight. I don't foresee the Duke pressure rattling the GU guards, but I think the crowd and the Blue Devils' depth will wear down Georgetown in the second half. Duke 79, Georgetown 68.

Pittsburgh at Louisville, 6 pm, ESPN

Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville(14) 66, Pittsburgh(5) 65

RCR's Take: Those who've been reading know I like Pitt a lot and I'm not sold on Louisville, but the Cardinals showed depth, strength and toughness earlier this week against Notre Dame, and they are the home team. And Pomeroy picks an upset against his own rankings. Is it possible? Sure, if Louisville's zone disrupts Pitt's ability to feed the ball to DeJuan Blair inside. And if Samardo Samuels can rebound enough to limit Blair's second-chance points. And if the Pitt players are distracted, as I always am, by the shockingly recumbent Louisville mascot. (Seriously! He just sits there in that corner all game!!)

PREDICTION: It's Pitt's first real test since taking over No. 1. Louisville is feeling good about some recent escapes. It all points red. But I'm not buying it. For me, even if Samuels and contain Blair, somebody's got to contain Sam Young, and I don't think Earl Clark has it in him to do that for 40 minutes. Pitt 62, Louisville 57.

Notre Dame at Syracuse, Noon, ESPN

Pomeroy Prediction: Syracuse(32) 86, Notre Dame(42) 79

RCR's Take: First, wow. Look how low Pomeroy has these two teams. He was forecasting an easy victory for Georgetown over Syracuse on Wednesday, and why not? The Hoyas were the home team, ranked in his top 5, while the Orange were sitting there on his NCAA tournament bubble. Looking at his Syracuse page, it appears the Orange lose massive points because they turn the ball over too much and don't hit free throws. But that's not likely to matter against a Notre Dame team that plays no defense. Syracuse's best bet is to do what they can against Harangody inside but not get down once he starts hitting those zany fall-away hook shots from six feet. There's nothing you can do about that. Play your zone, drive their guards crazy, get back down the other end of the floor and score those easy buckets Notre Dame is going to be giving you all day.

Prediction: I'd love to pick against Syracuse, because I'd love it if Syracuse lost all of their games. But I can't do it here. Not at home. Not against the softest good team in the conference. Notre Dame doesn't play defense. Won't play defense. Looks for all the world as if it doesn't consider defense an important part of the game. If he's really, really on, Jonny Flynn could have a Jodie Meeks-level offensive performance against Notre Dame. Syracuse gets the taste of the GU game out of its mouth in a hurry. Syracuse 90, Notre Dame 75.

Marquette at Providence, 9 pm, ESPN2

Pomeroy Prediction: Marquette(22) 81, Providence(78) 76

RCR's Take: RCR is staying up to watch this game. I love the Marquette guards but haven't had the chance to watch them play a whole game yet. I love Providence's experience and toughness. There are going to be seniors all over the court in this game, and I think it's a good candidate to be Providence's first "surprise" win of the season. Remember, so far this year, the only Top 9 Big East team to lose to one of the league's bottom-tier teams is Notre Dame, which fell at St. John's a couple of weeks back. If Marquette can shoot the ball and contain Efejuku, they'll come away with a win about which they can feel really good. Because if there's a team in that bottom tier that's going to sneak up and challenge the Top 9, Providence is it.

Prediction: I've been thinking over the past week that Marquette might be my pick to win the conference. They have a chance to show something here, and if they win easily, I'll drive the bandwagon. But I just have this feeling. Late game, far from home, outmanned inside...I see somebody in black and white going off and having a big game. Providence 78, Marquette 77.

South Florida at West Virginia, Noon, ESPN Full Court

Pomeroy Prediction: West Virginia(7) 71, South Florida (105) 53

RCR's Take: Pomeroy has the Mountaineers seventh in the country, but they're 1-2 in conference following losses to UConn and at Marquette. They rebound the ball well, especially on offense. They force turnovers. They have a big man in DeSean Butler and a shooter in Alex Ruoff who are just going to be way too much for an undersized, undermanned Bulls team that's leaving sunny Tampa for a frigid trip north.

Prediction: West Virginia is dying for an easy conference win, and they'll get it against a South Florida team that won't be able to touch them on the boards. West Virginia 79, South Florida 60.

Cincinnati at DePaul, 2 pm, ESPNU

Pomeroy Prediction: Cincinnati(86) 71, DePaul(181) 67

RCR's Take: It's a testament to how good the Big East is that this game would be on ESPNU, a channel you can actually get nationally. Um, let's see...Cincy is a strong offensive rebounding team, thanks mainly to freshman Yancy Gates. He, Mike Williams and Rashad Bishop form a fairly impressive front line that might be able to win some games in a different conference. DePaul can't shoot from anywhere, doesn't rebound especially well, misses free throws...they're a bottom of the Big East barrel team that's facing a rare chance to pick up a conference win. In fact, a look at the remaining schedules indicates that these two teams are going to be sorry to see each other go.

Prediction: Pomeroy's projecting a total of two wins the rest of the way for these two teams combined. And it's not one each. Cincinnati 80, DePaul 65

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Georgetown 88, Syracuse 74

Well, that was downright satisfying.

For reasons outlined in yesterday's post, I couldn't keep more than half an eye on the first half. I did catch most of the second, but by that point the game was, amazingly, blissfully in hand.

Hoya Prospectus' recap points to unusually strong offensive rebounding and outside shooting in the first half as reasons for the early lead. They also cite a second straight strong performance from the bench, in particular Henry Sims, who really could make a major difference if he begins to contribute with any kind of consistency.

Orange Basketball's take is that the Hoyas' interior defense was too much for Syracuse early. Evidently, the Orange have become used to some level of success near the basket as they've beefed up on a weaker early conference schedule, and they weren't prepared to have those shots challenged quite so much.

And overall, the rebounding numbers came out lousy, because Syracuse pounded the Hoyas on the boards in the second half. But the second half, for Georgetown, was about control -- controlling tempo, emotions and the clock. And they did that well, as the always do. Give this team an early lead, it's going to be tough to come back on them. (Unless you have Stephen Curry, but that was last year's team...)

Hoyas are 3-2 in conference so far, with home wins over Providence and Syracuse, a road win at UConn, a road loss at Notre Dame and a home loss to Pitt. We're going to file that under "Just Fine." Assuming they get past Saturday's out-of-conference folly without anybody getting seriously hurt or irretrievably embarrassed, they can almost start to breathe. They have a home game against West Virginia, followed by road games at Seton Hall and Cincinnati before they have to go to Marquette on Jan. 31. The schedule will never get easy -- not this year -- but at least it's got a chance to make it to manageable.

Only conference game tonight is UConn at St. John's, which should be a massacre on the order of Little Big Horn. But just ask Notre Dame what happens if you go into St. John's and starting assuming stuff.

No conference games Friday, in preparation for a big six-game Saturday slate highlighted by Pitt's trip to Louisville, Luke Harangody's visit to Syracuse and a Georgetown visit to Durham, N.C., the reasons for which have yet to be adequately explained to me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's the most nerve-wracking day of the year...

The job I held for the past nine years -- baseball writer at The Newark Star-Ledger -- led me to a position as chairman of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The latter job comes with a two-year term, which has now expired. And according to tradition, for that reason I will tonight be the subject of a "roast" by other members of the chapter.

This is good, because while the roast will be at a Manhattan bar, where college basketball will certainly be on the TVs, it will distract me from watching most of the Georgetown-Syracuse game.

Why is this good? Because I hate watching the Georgetown-Syracuse game.

I can't stand Syracuse. I don't like their colors, their players, their gym...anything about them. But the thing I hate most about them is that Georgetown always seems to lose to them -- and sometimes without explanation. I mean, last year the Hoyas were obviously the better team and needed to sweat out an OT win at home and got creamed up there.

These head-to-head frustrations take much of the giddy joy out of the now-annual day on which Syracuse is robbed of an NCAA tournament bid, or watching the YouTube replay of the Cleveland State buzzer-beater over and over again. (Hey, I have no job -- I have to do something all day.)

But today, I have anxiety, because the game is at Georgetown, the Hoyas are supposed to win it, and I know it can't possibly be that easy.

Syracuse comes in hot. Georgetown comes in bruised and battered by its early conference schedule. The kid, Jonny Flynn, is playing out of his mind. I know they'll hit a bunch of threes.

So I surf a little. Hoya Prospectus breaks it down statistically, citing a Pomeroy projection of an easy Hoya win but also citing reasons for doubt, including the Syracuse zone. The Hoyas struggled early on Saturday with the Providence zone but were able to maintain patience and composure and eventually beat it. But Syracuse is more athletic and likely to hit more shots early than Providence did, so if the zone is working in the first half, the Orange could get out to a big early lead.

Orange Basketball runs the matchups and makes me think Jessie Sapp's defense on Rautins is going to be a key to the game. Cuse Country offers some hope in the fact that Syracuse struggled on the boards at Rutgers last weekend, and maybe the Hoyas' improved rebounding against Providence is a sign that that problem is at least on the road to recovery.

But that doesn't matter. It's the Syracuse game. Which means it's going to be stressful. I really hope the Hoyas can pull it off, but truth be told I'll just be happy when it's over and we can all focus on Saturday's game at (gulp) Duke...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Louisville 87, Notre Dame 73 (OT)

It's possible that I've been too hard on Louisville. I'm not sure why that would be. I have nothing against them. I don't hate Rick Pitino. The mascot annoys me a little, the way he sits there in that corner the whole time looking as if he's waiting for somebody to bring him a pina colada and massage his huge yellow feet, but that's a minor thing.

The only thing about Louisville that bugs me is that, when I've seen them this year, they don't seem to be as good as they're supposed to be. And their failings are failings of focus and hustle.

But I don't know. Maybe their weaknesses aren't fatal. They lost three non-conference games they shouldn't have lost, nearly gave away a game to Kentucky and got lucky to beat Villanova. But here they sit, now 3-0 in conference, and there's no denying this win last night was a good one.

It came against a game Notre Dame team that, sure, plays no defense but is tough to outscore and has Luke Harangody, who is (ready?) the best player in the country.

Yes. No offense to Tyler Hansbrough or Blake Griffin, but I truly believe Harangody is the best college basketball player in the country. The more I see him, the more I recall Christian Laettner, except I think Harangody is physically tougher. He beats up up inside in the first half so that he can roam more freely in the second half and score from all over. He gets rebounds. He gets steals. You look for the ball, you're going to find him. And my god can he score. Playing defense on him is like Rocky trying to catch the chicken in Rocky II. You do everything right, force him into a bad shot, and he still scores. He shoots high, six-foot jumpers off the glass over the hands of taller players, and they go in. The ESPN broadcast crew last night said they'd spoken to a scout who ranked Harangody as a better pro prospect than Hansbrough, and it didn't sound ridiculous.

Anyway, Harangody and the Irish ran out of gas, and the reason was the way Louisville maintained its pressure throughout the game. Sure, there were stretches when they looked like the maddening Louisville team of which I've written before -- as if they were annoyed and frustrated at the idea that they had to work hard and try to do something crazy like maybe not let three-point shooter Kyle McAlarney drive the lane for an easy layup. But more than in any game I've seen them play this year, they maintained their defensive intensity. This gave them a tremendous late advantage over Notre Dame, which has none, and which also doesn't have the athletes Louisville has.

Terrence Williams had the big game and the flashy numbers, but watching the game it felt as if Earl Clark was the impact guy. Samardo Samuels will be a force in the paint as he continues to develop. And they have decent depth, with Knowles, McGee and Jennings contributing off the bench. With Louisville, it's not and never has been a question of talent. They have plenty. It's a question of whether they can keep their intensity and focus throughout the game and hold off the kind of tough opponents they're going to face all year in this conference. Last night, they answered that question.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Weekend Recap -- Still not buying Louisville

I mean, right? They tried to give that game to Villanova about 17 different times in the final minute, and Nova just wouldn't take it. Missed free throws, missed put-backs...So many chances to make the Cardinals pay for the loose, lackadaiscial way they play the game, and yet they come away losers, just as Kentucky did a week earlier after coming back when L'ville refused to close them out.

I guess you could say you should give Louisville credit for winning these games when they're obviously not playing as well as they should be playing. But I don't think a team deserves credit when it's not playing as well as it should be playing. I think Louisville should be expected to play better than they are. I think Pitino should have more control over his team and the on-court decisions he makes than he does.

I think Louisville is going to get beaten a few times this year when it shouldn't. I think they should be able to hold or build on leads in the second half, and I don't like the body language of their players when it does start to slip away -- as if they're annoyed and tired instead of angry and determined.

Villanova by the Numbers has a stat breakdown that shows how the Wildcats hung right with the Cardinals in "athletic" stats like steals and blocks, and how they were able to erase Louisville's shooting advantage in the second half.

Maybe I'm making too much of this. It was, after all, a road win in the conference. The conference's top teams are basically doing what they're supposed to do. Pitt, Marquette, Syracuse and UConn all rolled this weekend. Georgetown looked sluggish early but came back behind Greg Monroe to handle Providence.

The conference's "Power Nine" have a combined eight losses. Of those, only Notre Dame's loss at St. John's qualifies as a bad loss.

Villanova's losses are home to Louisville and at Marquette. Georgetown's are home to Pitt and at Notre Dame. West Virginia's are home to UConn and at Marquette. UConn lost at home to Georgetown.

So far, it's been about taking care of business, which in the end is what Louisville did, no matter how shaky they looked at the end.

Right now, the best team in the conference is Pitt, but I sure wish they played Marquette before March 4, because I'm starting to wonder if the best team in the conference might be Marquette, and I'd like to know.

(And yes, I know it could be Syracuse, but we here at RCR are choosing not to acknowledge that horrifying possibility until we absolutely have to -- like, February 15, earliest.)

Tonight is Notre Dame at Louisville. If I were a betting man I'd bet the over, because neither one of these teams likes playing defense very much. I say Harangody takes down the Cardinals on the road with some help from the perimeter, where the Irish should outwit, out-hustle and out-shoot the home team. Louisville should be able to out-athlete them, but to do that they'll have to maintain their focus for 40 full minutes. And from what I've seen this year, they don't.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Georgetown 82, Providence 75

It was as if the Hoyas played the first half in a funk left over from their previous two losses, then somewhere early in the second half realized they were the better team.

You saw it late in the first, actually, when they started handling the Providence press better (the way to handle the press is to not get rattled by it, and these Hoyas are not easily rattled) and snapping off some pretty backdoor cuts.

But the best thing about this game, from the Hoya perspective, was what Jason Clark and Henry Sims did off the bench.

Hoyas have been having big problems with depth this year, and this was the first time these two guys looked like smooth, relaxed parts of the offensive and defensive schemes. Maybe it had to do with the extra playing time they got as a result of the Summers/Wright/Sapp foul trouble, but it was nifty to watch them making contributions and not playing as tentatively as they had been in their limited time.

Both of those guys are freshman, and obviously need more seasoning. (Sims had three fouls in 14 minutes! And how about dunking that ball down low instead of trying to lay it in? If I were 6-10 I'd dunk EVERY SINGLE TIME.) But it's important that they know somebody can come off the bench and actually play the game, rather than suck up minutes and hope they don't get too far behind. Today, when Summers went out with his fourth foul, they actually extended their lead. That's a good sign.

Still just 11 offensive boards, but they did outrebound the Friars for the game, and it's about baby steps right now with the rebounding. What we saw today in the second half was toughness and desire, and they're going to need that in bushels next Wednesday and Saturday.

Quick points:

-Absolutely loving Greg Monroe. Complete package. Can't remember a freshman big man who could (or would) pass like this.

-Marshawn Brooks is going to be a problem. The guy can do a lot of things.

-In fact, I think the Providence team could give some of the top teams problems if they're not careful. They have a lot of good players. Brooks and Efejuku are hyper-athletic. If they hit their shots, they might take down a Big East frontrunner or two by the time it's all over.

-The kid that sat in on the ESPNU broadcast -- a Georgetown senior named Matt Rabinowitz -- was clearly nervous and quiet in the early going, but he hit his stride nicely when it was his turn to do the play-by-play and did a better job than I could have. Man, if they'd only had a program like that in 1994...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pondering Providence

Providence is on my mind because they are of great concern to me right now. As the next team on the Hoyas' schedule, they must play the role of easy victim tomorrow afternoon, lest this two-game Georgetown losing streak risk becoming a five-game losing streak in a hurry.

But Providence worries me a little. They're 3-0. They have seniors. They have a stud guard who can score from anywhere and whose name (Weyinmi Efejuku) looks like what I'd get if I tried to type "Whichever Eagles tune" into my iPhone and wasn't paying attention.

Of all the teams in the conference's supposed "bottom tier" who may have a chance to sneak in and compete for a ninth or tenth NCAA bid by the end of the year, Providence may be the most likely. Their schedule is probably the easiest in the conference -- Cincinnati and Rutgers twice each, home games with Notre Dame, Marquette, Pitt and Syracuse. And like I said, seniors. With talent.

I fear Geoff McDermott and his 8.3 RPG average against a Hoya team that's averaging only 9.8 offensive rebounds a game (worst in the conference). I fear Sharaud Curry and Jeff Xavier will handle the pressure and hit miracle shots, the way Tennessee did.

But maybe I'm worried about nothing. Maybe Providence is 3-0 because they've only played St. John's, DePaul and Cincinnati (the first two at home). The JT3 Hoyas aren't the kind of team that loses focus and lets down just because the last two games were brutal and the next two games are Syracuse and Duke. They should be fine, right?

I draw hope from the guys at Hoya Prospectus, who break down the Friars with stats in which I'm not yet conversant and conclude that Georgetown is the superior team, at home and should have no problem...unless they get the crap kicked out of them on the boards.

That's a big "unless," and it's one I fear will factor into every game this year...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Livin' on the Outside -- The Marquette Guards

I am out of touch. My beliefs and opinions do not line up with the mainstream. This was already clear to me before I found myself watching the People's Choice Awards, but they really brought it home.

Rascal Flatts. I just don't get it. I find nothing about them appealing or redeeming. They're not good-looking. Their clothes are ridiculous. Their hair makes their clothes look good. Their sound is not unique or original in any way, and they can't sing. And yet...they sell millions and millions of records. I can't make it make sense in my head.

And this is nothing against country music. I like country music just fine. George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks and George Strait are as likely to pop up on my iPod during a run as Springsteen and Tom Petty are. But this isn't real country, what these guys are doing. It's soulless crap. Kind of like Carrie Underwood, but at least I can figure out what happened there. She's an American Idol creation -- a product of our current culture's obsession with mediocrity and seeing itself on TV. People like her because Paula Abdul and Ryan Seacrest told them to like her. That doesn't make her any good, but at least it lets me figure out how she happened.

Rascal Flatts, I just don't get it. How did they get discovered? Who saw/heard them and said, "Yeah. That's going to sell?" I mean, whoever did was obviously a genius, because it does sell, but what about them would have made somebody think it?

Which brings me, of course, to Marquette, which won at Rutgers on Wednesday to improve to 3-0 in the conference. (And no, we're not going to mention that some teams get to 3-0 by playing Villanova/Cincinnati/at Rutgers while some other teams have to suck on 1-2 because their conference schedule started at UConn/Pitt/at Notre Dame. 3-0 is 3-0, and it all evens out in the end.) The final score of this game was 81-76, which is closer than you'd think it should have been, especially considering Marquette had a 21-point lead. But it's a Big East road win, which is a good win no matter what.

How'd they do it? The way Marquette alwas does it -- with guard play. Wes Matthews was 10-for-10 from the field and had 23 points. Dominic James was 7-for-13 and had 15 points. Jerel McNeal was 4-for-9 and scored 16 points. That's 66 percent field goal shooting from the starting guards, which is transcendent and can win you games even in a league where everybody else has redwoods inside. Marquette's backcourt is its whole game, and if they're to contend for the conference title, they're going to need these guys to shoot like this a lot.

Now, this seems to run counter to the theory I have so far been putting forth here -- that reliance on the outside game is cheesy and that teams running real, complex, patient, creative offenses that incorporate frontcourt and backcourt play are the real contenders in this year's Big East. That it's not going to be enough to fire away from behind the arc and miracle your way back into tough games when you fall behind.

But here's the thing. Matthews didn't shoot a single three-pointer. James and McNeal shot four apiece (and each hit one). The Marquette guards don't just set up camp on the perimeter and bomb away. They slash. They create. They look for the extra pass. They're quick.

Can they win like this all year in this Big East? As always, we'll see. They'll need to be real quick to get in and around the Pitt frontcourt, real patient to handle the Georgetown pressure, real tough to absorb the pounding they'll get from trying to cut to the basket against Hasheem Thabeet and Samardo Samuels. They'll need Lazar Hayward (6-6) and Dwight Burke (6-8) to play bigger than they are to keep some of the offensive pressure off the guards. They'll need to play better defense than they did in the second half against Rutgers.

But they're good, like so much else about this conference this year. And there's no reason not to rank them with the other real contenders a this very early point in the season. Four of their next five opponents are West Virginia, Providence, Georgetown and Notre Dame. And their regular-season closing stretch is an at Georgetown/UConn/at Louisville/at Pitt/Syracuse wheat thresher. So if they do win it, you'll know for sure they earned it.

Even if the way they do it is a little bit out of the mainstream. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that at all...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gottlieb's "Wonderings"

In a blog post at, Doug Gottlieb goes through a "What we think, What we know and What we wonder" about the "big six" college basketball conferences. (You may need to be a subscriber to read it, in which case I'm sorry -- e-mail me and I'll think about giving you my password).

I'll dispense with the "think" and "know" parts, because they're not as interesting as the "wonder," which is the unanswered questions that serve as the basis for debate. I wanted to go through the "wonder" part as it pertains to the Big East, and try to answer or at least wonder along with him:

Can Pitt win the league shooting as poorly from the 3-point line as it has lately?

I think so. I mean, they won it last year without shooting especially well, and they're so strong up front that you'd think they'll have an edge head-to-head against everybody except maybe UConn. Plus, three-point shooting is a lame way to win anyway. The great thing about this league right now is that the teams are playing basketball -- not just driving the lane and kicking it out to long-range gunners. The reason they moved the three-point line back this year was to discourage that practice and force teams to run their offenses and work for shots. The top teams in this league do that, and Pitt does it well enough that it can win the league, sure.

Will UConn play as well with Jim Calhoun on the sidelines as it did against Rutgers with him sick in the locker room?

Guess he wrote this yesterday. UConn played fine last night, especially once they figured out that they had a huge size and strength advantage down low and let Adrien and Thugbeet take over the game. As for Calhoun, who reamed out his team after the Georgetown loss, I think he's got a handle on this team.

Is West Virginia as good as it has played since Alex Ruoff returned? And will the Mountaineers bring back Joe Mazzulla or try to get him a medical redshirt?

I think West Virginia has enough good players that they'll be fine except in games where they're totally outmanned in the paint, as they were last night. And even last night, they were in the game. No clue on Mazzulla.

Will the real Georgetown please come forward?

Not sure what he means here. Does he mean the Georgetown that used to play patsies in December and get ripped for it? Or the Georgetown that beat UConn on the road and played tough at Notre Dame on Monday night? This is a young, talented Hoya team in the midst of one of the most brutal schedule stretches of all time (next week is Syracuse and Duke, for god's sake!). I think they're allowed a little bit of leeway. Except for the Pitt game, where they were beaten physically and fell apart in the final 12 minutes, they've looked pretty much like the same team every night -- steady, composed and capable of beating anybody if they hit their shots.

Does Syracuse have a killer instinct in games it should win by 25 points?

Hope not. I freaking hate Syracuse.

Can Louisville ever play well before mid-February?

Yeah, I mean, for me this gets to the heart of the Louisville question. I watched their game against Kentucky on Sunday, and at about 11 different points during the game they appeared to be in total game and yet you looked up at the end and they needed a silly long-range three to win. I see a team that lacks on-court leadership and focus. Maybe if Edgar Sosa is going to go on a hot streak, performance-wise, he can be a leader. But they need somebody to glue it all together. Louisville is loaded with talent -- probably right there with Pitt and a notch below UConn in terms of quality of athletes -- but they don't play a very tight game, and they'll lose some because of it.

Will one of the top nine teams dare the committee to leave it out of the NCAA field? Will it be Villanova, which played its weakest nonconference schedule to date and might not have the interior girth to contend with players such as Samardo Samuels and DeJuan Blair?

Could be, but for me Scottie Reynolds keeps Villanova in every game because of his shooting ability. Same as Jonny Flynn on Syracuse. I think Notre Dame (which already has a bad St. John's loss on his resume) could be such a team if it's not careful. Their defense is terribly soft, and that could cost them some games they're supposed to win. Louisville, for reasons noted above, could pick up a bad loss or two. And yeah, Villanova, if they don't make it a slam-dunk and the committee looks at the cupcakes they played before the conference season started.

For me, the more fun question is which of the other seven teams could sneak in the back and force its way into the discussion by March. Providence is experienced. South Florida gave the Cuse a tough time last week. Best guess is the big guys beat up on the bottom-feeders all year, but you never know. There might be a hero ready to emerge and help somebody exceed expectations.

Will Notre Dame guard anyone away from the Joyce Center in South Bend?

Been over this and over this. The Irish just don't look like a team that's very interested in playing defense. Their should-be blowout games will be closer than they're supposed to be for this reason, and that puts them at risk, especially on the road.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

UConn 61, West Virginia 55

First of all, good for Connecticut for holding it together and pulling out a win in the midst of that disastrous West Virginia color scheme. I mean, what's with all the yellow? Looked they were playing in the middle of a lemon orchard...

AJ Price didn't hit a shot in the game -- was 0-for-9 from the field. Limped home with one measly point thanks to a free throw. And yet, UConn wins the game.

It is my contention that this is a very good thing for the Huskies.

Look, I love the Connecticut guards. Price is dazzling when he's on, and Dyson is great. I even like what Kemba Walker brings coming in off the bench. UConn is loaded, and they don't have guard problems.

But I contend that they're a lot better off if they don't need their guards to be scorers.

Look what happened Tuesday night. Stanley Robinson being back with Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet in the frontcourt -- that's something for which West Virginia just didn't have an answer. And it's something for which nobody in the Big East is going to have an answer. Nobody will be able to bang around with these guys down low. UConn needs to feed the ball in there and put up high-percentage shots that result in (a) points, (b) fouls or (c) offensive rebounds.

Thabeet is a monster just because of his size. I don't love the way he plays, and I think he's a bit of a thug for no good reason, but the man is 7-foot-3. He's going to have an impact. Robinson is feeling his way in, but he's obviously a major factor on the boards. And Adrien scares me more than any player they have. Have you seen him? He's no kid. He's built like a linebacker and just as fierce. It's no coincidence that 13 of his 17 came in the second half Tuesday. He's stronger than anybody on the court. A guy like that is always going to dominate while everybody else around him wears down and he doesn't.

Georgetown beat UConn by taking the inside guys (especially Thugbeet) out of their game early. They played a rope-a-dope, like Rocky fighting Apollo right-handed until Mickey said, "Anyway, switch over to southpaw now" right before the last round. They had Greg Monroe play outside on the perimeter in the first half, so Thugbeet had to come out and play him there. Thugbeet got lost and out of his game, and Adrien alone wasn't enough to bring the Huskies back from the big early deficit.

Georgetown actually outworked UConn on the boards in that game, which is inexcusable. Georgetown is a lousy rebounding team, and UConn should have owned them there. This game Tuesday, in which the Huskies pressed their size advantage and beat down the Mountaineers in the second half, is the way they're going to win games.

AJ Price? Jerome Dyson? Love you, guys, but a bit of advice if you want to go deep into March this year -- keep feeding the big guys down low, and get back on defense.

Thoughts on Georgetown-Notre Dame

I wonder if this year's Hoya team is going to have to settle for a lot of these "Fought-hard-played-well-but-came-up-short" games this year. The Tennessee loss qualifies. The Pitt loss does not. And this latest absolutely does.

The fact that they were still within a couple of three-pointers in the final minute Monday night is a testament to (a) a soft Notre Dame defense that's going to let a lot of teams that aren't as good as Georgetown hang around longer than they should and (b) that poise and composure we've talked about before -- the calm that has become the trademark of the JTIII teams.

Georgetown didn't play badly in this game -- they just didn't hit enough shots. Chris Wright and Jessie Sapp are in brutal shooting slumps right now, Summers got in early foul trouble and there's nobody coming off the bench who can make up for that lack of production. Add that to the schedule, which is a bone saw, and you're going to lose some games. I just hope they can take out their frustrations on Providence before next week, which is Syracuse and Duke.

Scattered notes from Big Monday:

-I see no reason to believe Luke Harangody isn't still the best player in the league. The show he put on in the first half, before his own foul trouble, was simply astounding. He's a beast under the basket, as we all know, but the incredible thing about him is he can score from almost anywhere. He has the hook, the fadeaway. He has that look in his eye like he wants to take over the game and knows he can. He hits every free throw. He reminds me of Christian Laettner, only stronger and physically tougher. If his guys on the perimeter are hitting their threes, it's going to be impossible for anybody to stop this guy. St. John's beat Notre Dame on Saturday, but they didn't stop Harangody. They let him do his thing and stopped everybody else. Sounds like a decent game plan.

-Neither one of these teams can rebound, but it's a particularly glaring problem right now for the Hoyas. Their defense is consistently excellent, in transition and in the half court. They hassle every shot, every pass. They're a nightmare to play against. But getting a stop on defense doesn't help if the other team just gets the rebound and puts the ball right back up and in. I don't know where the rebounding is going to come from. Monroe has tons of game on both ends of the court, but he's not strong enough right now to bang around with the Harangodys and DeJuan Blairs of the world. Chris Wright may be the second-best rebounder on the team right now, and he's a guard. Summers is obviously an offensive player. I have a feeling this is going to be a weakness that just doesn't get solved.

-The issue of Georgetown's depth is a real one, and it's a problem of rhythm. The Hoyas' offense is based entirely on pace, rhythm and patience. The starting five runs it beautifully. Omar Wattad can look very good in it too. But beyond that, everybody who comes off the bench looks a tick tentative, and that's death for an offense that relies on pace and rhythm. You can see the difference when the starting five is on the floor, moving the ball around, running the cuts and screens, and when Vaughn or Clark or Sims is in there and it just moves a notch or two slower. Of course, it might all look better if some of those outside shots were falling.

-Jay Bilas has developed the thing I hated most about Billy Packer -- an obsession with talking about the officials, and in particular calls that are not made. You can sit there through any basketball game and talk about missed calls. The pace of the game makes that a fact of life. But it's not good TV. At the end of the day, missed calls DON'T MATTER. And if you keep talking about them all game, it's going to take away from the action on the court, of which there is plenty and for which people are actually tuning in. Bilas is outstanding when he talks basketball. He should stick to that.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sunday recap -- Louisville, Marquette

The real action was in the ACC, of course, but while BC's dreams of a poll-rattling upset were still in their infancy there was a pretty good game going on between Kentucky and Louisville.

Edgar Sosa's game-winning three-pointer after Kentucky had worked so hard to tie the score was an incredible shot, no doubt. But it drives me crazy when something like this happens. Louisville had time to bring the ball up the court and run a play -- work for a good shot to win the game with the knowledge that the worst-case scenario was overtime.

Instead, all that happened was that Sosa dribbled the ball up the court, stood a few feet behind the three-point line at the top of the key, waited for the clock to get down under three seconds and decide, "What the hell. Nobody's guarding me. I'll shoot."

And he shot, and it went in, and Louisville (which at first glance looks a lot like a talented team that can and will turn it on and off during the course of a game) won, and they were all thrilled. Like I said, great shot, but wouldn't it have been better to see them play a little basketball to win the game, instead of just heaving up a 23-footer? The fact that it went in doesn't make it a good play. In fact, it might only serve to encourage such behavior in the future.

And while we're on the topic of Louisville, what's with the mascot? The whole second half, that red bird was sitting there under the basket, feet stretched out in front of it in a recumbent position, looking like it didn't have a care in the world or a single thing to do. Shouldn't a mascot be up and moving? Getting people excited or angry or something? This guy kept making me think he was waiting for somebody to bring him a burger and a beer. What would the St. Joseph's Hawk have to say about a performance like this? Shameful...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

St. John's over Notre Dame?

Where's Lou Carnasecca? Chris Mullin? Digger Phelps?

St. John's isn't supposed to beat Notre Dame. Not in this century, at least. Is this one of those signs we're looking for, either that the top teams in the Big East aren't all they're cracked up to be or that the league is so superdeep that anybody can get knocked off by anybody on any given night if they're not careful?

Maybe. But I don't know. I saw some weaknesses in Notre Dame that portend trouble, if you ask me. (Which you didn't, but you are reading my blog, which is kind of the same thing.)

The easy story here is that St. John's (particularly Paris Horne) was able to defend and limit Notre Dame's three-point shooting. So while Luke Harangody had his usual monster game down low, he was about all they had, scoring-wise.

So it was an off day for the Irish in terms of scoring, which is something I don't, personally, think they can afford. Their strength is their offense. They're scoring more than 82 points per game so far this year, and especially when they are hitting from the outside, they can score with anybody outside of Chapel Hill.

But if they don't score the way they can, there's not much on which they can fall back.

They are not a good defensive team, and that's a shame, because they could be. They have the athletes they need to play good defense -- it's just that they don't seem to pay any attention to it. They don't seem to have any problem with the opposing team taking a shot. They don't harrass or try to force the issue on defense, the way Pitt and Georgetown and Connecticut and the other top teams in the conference do. It seems almost as if they get their shot on offense and, make it or not, head back down the court as if they can't wait to get back on offense. It's not that they're not good enough to play defense -- it's almost as if they just don't care.

If that ain't a major Achilles' heel, then I don't know what it. ND is super-talented and capable of winning any game it plays, but the defensive flaws (combined with some very poor free-throw shooting) probably mean it's capable of losing any game it plays, too. Yesterday's is the prime example.

These top teams in the Big East can't afford losses to the four or five teams at the bottom and expect to win. St. John's is one of those teams, and that should have been a win for the Irish. Instead, it's a mistake loss -- the first of the season for any of the conference's contenders

UConn's loss is to Georgetown. Georgetown's is to Pitt. Villanova's is to Marquette. These aren't mistake losses. These are acceptable losses -- losses to teams that are better, as good or almost as good. Remember, come March, this a conference that's hoping to get 10 teams into the NCAA tournament. If that's going to happen, the resumes are going to have to be fairly spotless across the board.

As of now, Notre Dame's has a spot. And the way they got it makes you wonder if there might be a couple more spots to come.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pitt 70, Georgetown 54

Wow. Looks like there was good reason to worry.

All the fears of what Pitt would do if Georgetown wasn't on its game proved totally justified. They were bigger, stronger and meaner up front, and it showed in the rebounding margin. They were deeper -- a fact exacerbated by the inability of Hoya but Summers to make a shot. Pitt is loaded with players that were already very good college players when Georgetown's best players were in high school, and it showed.

Were the Hoyas off their game? Of course. But Pitt is the truth, and that's a bad matchup for Georgetown even when things are going well. Greg Monroe isn't as good as DeJuan Blair and may never be. Pitt shut down Cris Wright, who's been Georgetown's best and most important player so far this year. Summers kept the Hoyas in the game, and it was tied at 40-40 in the second half, but that was the high point. Pitt went off 30-14 from there, and so Pitt joins Syracuse at 2-0 and atop the conference while Georgetown gears up for the next phase of a brutal early-season schedule -- Monday at Notre Dame.

Couple of game-related thoughts:

-As a Georgetown fan, it was cool to realize Vitale was doing the game. I mean, I don't love listening to Vitale*, but seeing him there, mixing it up with the Hoya fans (when did they all get so young?) was a reminder that the program is back on top. You never saw Vitale at a Hoya game in the late 90s or early 2000s.

(* - Vitale disclaimer: I know he's a popular bash target, but we won't be bashing him here. My thoughts on Vitale are pretty simple. I love and appreciate his enthusiasm. I have interviewed him and found him to be engaging and helpful. I just don't, personally, like listening to games when he's calling them, because he doesn't let the game breathe. I mean, it's not all his fault. This is a problem trend in sports broadcasting and was the main problem I had with Billy Packer too. Sometimes, it's just a good idea to not talk and let people watch the game. For a few seconds. That's all.)

-Pitt as a national title contender? I guess why not. I mean, having watched North Carolina play this year, I've seen no evidence that the Final Four will need three other teams. But assuming it's possible for someone else to win the title, why not Pitt? They're loaded with seniors. They're strong up front. Their guards are good (and more importantly, tough) and Blair is as talented a young player as anybody has. It will be tough for anybody -- even Tyler Hansbrough -- to score on them inside. They have a bench that contributes. If they can survive the Big East season without getting too badly beaten up, there's no reason they can't make it to the tournament as a real threat to win it all.

-As for the Hoyas -- the thing we love as Hoya fans is the composure. The trademark of the JTIII era so far is the complete lack of panic. Blair starts the game with a bucket, a steal and another bucket? Okay, but nobody on the other side got out of their game. They ran the offense. They worked the shot clock. (Is there a team anywhere that is less scared of the shot clock? That operates better in its final 10 seconds?) They got some backdoor cuts. They just didn't hit their shots. It happens. Heck, it happens a lot less than it used to happen at Georgetown. And really, until the final 10 minutes or so, when the game was obviously slipping away and they started jacking up bad, desperate shots, they stuck to the plan. They lost this game, which sucks, but a loss like this doesn't really get you down. This is what the Big East is going to be this year -- good, strong, tough teams going chest-to-chest until one wins out. Today, Pitt had the stronger chest.


I always wanted to write college basketball, and certain recent events have freed up some time. So the fact of all these Big East teams in the top 15, combined with Georgetown's win at Connecticut on Monday to start the conference season, served as inspiration.

I am typing in the minutes before the Hoyas' second Big East game of the year -- home against Pitt and ninth-year senior Sam Young. The UConn result (a road win against the nation's No. 2 team) naturally leads me to think the Hoyas have a good shot today (at home against the nation's No. 3 team), but the Hoyas always make me worry, so...I worry.

I worry that the way they rebounded Monday night was an aberration, and won't hold up against DeJuan Blair and Young and Tyrell Biggs. I worry this is one of those games where the bigger, meaner, more experienced team will expose the young, athletic team coming off a big, emotional victory. I think back to last year's Big East title game, when things had been going so well, and how the last Roy Hibbert/Jonathan Wallace team was manhandled by this same group. And I worry.

But I'll watch. I mean, I've watched pretty much every college bowl game so far, and I plan to blow off today's International Bowl to check out Pitt-Georgetown. I want to see if John Thompson's kid can come up with as ingenious a strategy as he did Monday, when he kept Greg Monroe at the top of the key in the first half and forced Hasheem Thabeet to come out and play him a mile from the basket. (A strategy that clearly flustered Thugbeet and worked even more brilliantly once Monroe started hitting three-pointers!)

I'm enjoying watching the emergence of Monroe and Chris Wright, and even if they get beaten up today, I'm not getting down about it. This is going to be a long, brutal Big East season (see: Syracuse struggling to hold off South Florida last night), providing plenty of material (Hoya-related and otherwise) for this blog, and I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

If you're stopping by, I hope you enjoy it too.