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Big East Notebook

February 17, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Big East Notebook

by Thomas Hart

Conference Play Heads Towards Finish Line

It is hard to believe that teams are into the second week of February already and soon after that will be heading into their conference tournaments and NCAA March Madness. As January drew to a close and February began, Pittsburgh and Connecticut continued to distance themselves from the rest of the Big East pack. Pittsburgh took on all comers with success until losing at Connecticut and Seton Hall. In that game, UConn eked out a three-point victory. The Huskies continue to play consistently good basketball even though stumbling twice in losses to Providence and Notre Dame. Despite the two recent losses, Coach Jim Calhoun is certain to have his squad primed once again for a run deep into the NCAA tournament. After playing great basketball for several weeks, Providence came down to earth with back-to-back losses before bouncing back with a win against Syracuse. Speaking of the Orangemen, they continued to experience problems dropping four of five games and dropping out of the top 25 national rankings.

Players of the Week

Emeka Okafor, Connecticut
Bryant Matthews, Virginia Tech

Okafor averaged 24.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.0 blocks in a 2-0 week. Both players had 23 points and 10 rebounds in a league win. Okafor had his in an 88-58 win over West Virginia and Matthews did it in the Hokies’ only game of the week, a 69-57 victory over Providence. Okafor also posted 25 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in an 84-56 triumph over Syracuse. For the season, Okafor is averaging 19.3 points. He leads the BIG EAST with an 11.1 rebounding mark and a 4.9 blocked shot average. Matthews is the top scorer in the league at 23.6 points per game and is second in rebounding at 9.7.

Rookie of the Week

Coleman Collins, Virginia Tech

In Virginia Tech’s only game of the week, a 69-57 victory over Providence, Collins had 21 points, nine rebounds and a pair of blocks. The 6-8 forward is averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds for the season.

Team Notes

Boston College (16-7 Overall / 5-5 Big East)

Boston College continues to have an up and down conference season, which is not unexpected as they are relying heavily on three freshman players. Although forward Jared Dudley, shooting guard Sean Marshall, and point guard Steve Hailey have made significant contributions to the team as expected, they have also had their growing pains. History has shown that in close games, experience wins out, and in losses to West Virginia, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh, the young Eagles struggled. Marshall, BC’s only legitimate outside shooting threat, suffered through a horrendous shooting slump in the past few games, and some ball handling mistakes and missed scoring opportunities by the freshman cost them as well. The Eagles, with a 16-7 record, have clearly had more ups than downs, but finished off the month of January by losing three in a row before opening up February with three straight wins. BC had a good win at home vs. Notre Dame fueled by a great game from Junior guard Jermaine Watson who scored a career-high 22 points and made key baskets and free throws down the stretch to secure the win. BC then throttled an outmanned St. Johns team by 28 points before earning a big road overtime win vs. Miami. In that game, freshman forward Jared Dudley scored a career high 24 points, including 9 of 10 BC points in overtime to cement a big win which got the Eagles to .500 in the conference. Boston College will have to finish the season strongly to have a shot at the NCAA tournament.

Connecticut (19-4 Overall / 7-2 Big East)

Connecticut continues to play well, earning impressive victories over Syracuse and Pittsburgh, while at the same time losing to a good Providence team and a fired-up Notre Dame team on the road. Emeka Okafor continues to play consistently outstanding basketball night in and night out, scoring and rebounding in double figures and blocking several shots per game. Depth is clearly a strength of UConn’s and will stand them in good stead for the NCAA tournament. They have six players who can score in double figures on any given night. They have senior leadership at the point in Taliek Brown, two junior stars in Okafor and Ben Gordon, and a host of up and coming talented younger players who get better game by game. UConn deserves to be a #1 seed in the tournament, and are a legitimate threat to win it all this year.

Georgetown (13-7 Overall / 4-6 Big East)

Georgetown has lost 4 out of their last 6 games and fallen to 4-6 in the Big East, but in all fairness to the Hoyas, they have had a tough schedule recently. They suffered back-to-back losses to #1 Duke, and #23 Providence, and also lost to Villanova and Virginia Tech, two teams who have been playing pretty good basketball of late. On the bright side, the Hoyas beat Miami twice behind Gerald Riley’s two scoring outbursts. The Hurricanes had no answer for Riley has he poured in 35 points in the first win, and 37 points in the second win. Brandon Bowman ably supported him. Georgetown will have to step it up to have any shot at an NCAA berth this year.

Miami (13-11 Overall / 3-7 Big East)

The Hurricanes are in a major league slump having lost six conference games in a row, the most recent a heartbreaking overtime loss to Boston College at home. The Hurricanes have now lost four overtime games this season, a feat never before accomplished in the Big East Conference. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to determine why the Canes are struggling. They have a balanced scoring attack and often have four or five players in double figures. They rebound well, often out-rebounding the opposition. They’ve lost a couple of games where they’ve had twenty or more turnovers, but have also lost games where they’ve had less than ten turnovers. Perhaps the answer lies in the assist column. Typically, Miami does not produce many assists which may explain the recent drought. In their six losses they’ve averaged only 11.3 assists, while their opponents have averaged 17 per game. Miami continues to get balanced scoring from Darius Rice, Guillermo Dias, and Robert Hite, but may need to pass the “rock” more to win close games. The Hurricanes are likely NIT-bound this year.

Notre Dame (11-9 Overall / 5-5 Big East)

The Irish are coming off their biggest win of the season an 80-74 victory over #5 Connecticut. In that game Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas led the Irish with 31 points to lead them to the upset. The win evened the fighting Irish’s conference record to 5-5, however, things are looking bleak for a post-season birth in the NCAA tournament for Notre Dame, and their upcoming schedule will challenge them with home games against UCLA, Seton Hall and Providence, and road games vs. Connecticut and Syracuse. The Fighting Irish will have to pull off several more upsets to have any chance at an NCAA birth, however, if Chris Thomas continues to rise to the occasion, they may have an outside chance. In addition to Thomas, Torin Francis, and Torien Jones will need to continue to come up big for the Irish. Francis has missed time with back spasms and missed much of the win over Connecticut making the victory that much more impressive.

Pittsburgh (22-2 Overall / 8-2 Big East)

The Panthers continue to lead the Big East conference by a half-game over Connecticut despite losing their last game in double overtime to Seton Hall 68-67. Prior to that the Panthers had won four in a row. Pittsburgh continues to be highly ranked in national polls rising to as high as #4. Freshman power forward Chris Taft also continues to put up great numbers, scoring 16 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the loss to Seton Hall. The Panthers’ balanced scoring attack features four players averaging in double figures, and another averaging 9 points per game. Pittsburgh is in great shape coming down the stretch run and will face three big guns in its final six games in Connecticut, Syracuse, and Providence. If they can knock off those three and win the Big East tournament, it will be hard for the NCAA selection committee to deny them a #1 seed in the Big Dance. But before that happens, the Panthers have a lot of work ahead of them.

Providence (16-5 Overall / 7-3 Big East)

After finishing the month of January with six straight wins, the Friars have gone 4-2 in the conference. Providence logged two big conference wins, on the road vs. Connecticut and at home against Syracuse. They also beat Georgetown and crushed Villanova. Their two losses came vs. Seton Hall and at Virginia Tech. Providence is nationally ranked, and has shown they deserve that acclaim with their play in big games. While Ryan Gomes is their go-to-guy, and he is ably supported by several cast members. Donnie McGrath broke out of his shooting slump scoring twenty-three against Villanova and he was aided by Sheiku Kabba with twenty. Marcus Douthit continues to provide a presence in the middle. Providence could potentially wind up winning the conference, but in order to do that must get contributions from all its supporting cast members.

Rutgers (13-8 Overall / 5-6 Big East)

Despite their unimpressive record in conference play, Rutgers continues to be a major player in the conference. They won four in a row before losing their last two on the road at Seton Hall and Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights have been in several close games this season including their last loss, a 2 pointer to Syracuse. Herve Lamizana, Ricky Shields, and two freshmen, Quincy Douby and Marquise Webb continue to lead Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have a shot at the NCAA tournament if they can run the table the rest of the way and have a good showing in the Big East tournament. This is a distinct possibility as they have a favorable schedule with no big guns in the way.

St. Johns (5-16 Overall / 0-10 Big East)

St. John’s season went from bad to worse with the recent suspensions of six scholarship players for breaking curfew and engaging in sexual relations with a prostitute after visiting a local area strip club following their recent game at Pittsburgh. This left the Red Storm with only four scholarship players and four walk-ons for their game against Boston College. Can things get much worse for St. John’s? After going 2-7 in January, they lost their first three games in February. This came on the heels of the firing of coach Mike Jarvis. Without a full squad and no hope of achieving a winning season, the Red Storm has only their pride and the pride of the program to represent. The only recent bright spot was a pre-suspension win over UCLA on January 31st. St. John’s, once a proud and highly regarded program, must now rebuild from the ground up. The first order of business is to hire a reputable coach who can re-establish recruiting ties to name pl ayers in the New York area. Earlier this week a rumor was floating around that Rick Pitino was leaving Louisville to take the St. John’s job, but Pitino has denied any such talk, and it doesn’t make sense for him to leave at this point with a great recruiting class coming in next season. Pitino has endorsed Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez for the job, which would make sense as he has ties to the New York area. Stay tuned for the next segment of “As St. John’s Turns.”

Seton Hall (16-5 Overall / 6-3 Big East)

The Pirates are on a roll having won five of their last six games, including a one-point victory over Pittsburgh in double overtime the last time out. Seton Hall will be a team to be reckoned with down the stretch as they are healthy and finally have their full complement of players back from early season suspensions. The timing couldn’t be better as Seton Hall poises itself for the end of season schedule. The pirates will need to be at their best as their last seven games are all against quality opponents. Senior point guard Andre Barrett – the heart and soul of the Pirates – and talented sophomore big man Kelly Whitney will need to be at their best to help the Pirates forge a coveted postseason slot in the NCAA tournament.

Syracuse (15-5 Overall / 5-4 Big East)

The Orangemen have cooled off considerably dropping four out of their last six games after a hot start. Despite their recent woes, Syracuse is still in the thick of things in the Big East but will need to regain their winning ways in order to qualify for the Big Dance. For the time being, they will have to accomplish that task without the services of sophomore guard Billy Edelin, who has been suspended for personal reasons. Edelin, who is the Orangemen’s third-leading scorer, will be sorely missed. In the meantime, freshman guard Demetrius Nichols has picked up some of the scoring slack. Hakim Warrick continues to put up good numbers, but super sophomore guard Gerry McNamara has been hampered by an ankle injury. The Orangemen will be tested down the stretch run against quality teams including rematches vs. Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

Villanova (13-9 Overall /5-4 Big East)

The Wildcats have lost two out of their last three games – granted against quality opponents St. Joseph’s and Providence – otherwise they have been competitive throughout the season. The Wildcats started the season off behind the eight ball with several players serving suspensions, and also dealing with injuries. In addition, Villanova is a young team whose players are learning on-the-job. Given these obstacles, it is amazing that the Wildcats have done as well as they have which leads one to believe they may be major players in determining who will be Big East champion this year. The Wildcats are a balance team with four players averaging in double players: Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, and Randy Foye. Along with Jason Fraser, those players are all sophomores or freshman. Certainly a bright future awaits this club, but for coach Jay Wright, the future is now. Soon Wright will know whether his club is a pretender or a contender. Amongst opponents down the stretch are conference leaders Connecticut, and Pittsburgh. At the very least, Villanova may play the spoiler, but don’t be surprised if they pull a couple upsets along the way.

Virginia Tech (10-10 Overall / 3-6 Big East)

The Hokies are 3-6 in Big East conference play after winning their last two including an upset over Pittsburgh. Prior to that the Hokies had lost six of seven in the month of January. Senior Bryant Matthews continues to lead the Big East in scoring averaging 24.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while three freshman average double figures in scoring: forward Coleman Collins and guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon. The Hokies have a very young team with a combined twelve freshmen and sophomores on the roster, so the future appears bright. However, like most teams, they are looking to win today and will pull off a few more wins before this year is out. They also have a favorable schedule with no games vs. ranked teams.

West Virginia (13-8 Overall / 5-5 Big East)

The Mountaineers have won five out of their last seven games including a nice win over Seton Hall at home, and a thumping of shorthanded St. John’s in their last two conquests. Despite the fact they are playing without the services of leading scorer Drew Schifino, who was dismissed from the team on January 12th for violating team rules, the Mountaineers continue to hold their own. They are still in the middle of the pack, with a chance to move up with an upset or two. Like a few other teams in the Big East, West Virginia is a young team with only one senior on the squad. The young players bring energy and enthusiasm, but make mistakes based on their inexperience, so it is a mixed bag. Kevin Pittsnogle, D’or Fischer, Joe Beilein, and Joe Herber are doing yeomen’s work picking up for the loss of Schifino’s scoring.


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