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Big East Notebook

February 15, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

Big East Conference Notebook

by Pat DiSalvo and Zach Smart

The Big East has been a vicious league so far, with teams from top to bottom beating up on each other. This week Zach Smart takes a look at some of the conference big men who are integral parts of some of the league’s elite teams. He’ll also offer some analysis on UConn’s big win over Syracuse and a resilient Pitt team. Pat DiSalvo will give updates and analysis of the other Big East teams still with a chance to make a run into the NCAA tournament.

Look Who’s Laughing Now

Roy Hibbert and Hasheem Thabeet. Two super-sized bigs, pegged as offensively inept and work-in-progress players. Hibbert arrived at Georgetown as a stringbean who could barely do a push-up. The criticism sprayed on UConn’s (19-5, 8-3 Big East) Thabeet was relentless last season, as the Tanzania native was getting a taste of top-notch competition in just his fourth year of organized ball.

Even before these two behemoths penned with their respective NBA factory schools, you thought they were big stiffs who wouldn’t pan out. You thought they were callow. You thought they were soft. Even members of Hibbert’s AAU team, the DC Blue Devils (led by Walter Ray, the founder of E.G.O.S., Education, Goals Opportunities in Sports), clowned on the big fella. One in particular, and you know who you are, said this cat couldn’t run up and down the floor and chew bubble gum at the same time. He couldn’t carry your jock strap in a suitcase, could he?

Now Hibbert is re-writing the script, laughing his way to the Big East’s upper-echelon and maybe the Big East’s Player of the Year polls.

The perma-smile sporting Thabeet, whose inability to execute an honest arsenal of post moves allowed the frustration of you Husky fans to balloon, is cheesin’ his way to the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. The 7-foot-3 Thabeet pummels as many shots as he alters, manipulates, and changes the trajectory of. He has rapidly ascended into a menace to the game. This is why guards audacious enough to enter the driving lanes want nothing to do with the man.

The Player of the Year award will likely come down to Hibbert and Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody. Harangody has taken the world by storm this season, averaging a Big East-leading 20 points (on 50 percent shooting) to go with 10 boards.

He went eyeball-to-eyeball with Thabeet Wednesday night, and the 6-foot-8, Indiana-bred tight end/forward clearly got the better of his counterpart. Harangody erupted for 32 points (13-24 FG) and 16 caroms, but the Huskies gutted out their eighth straight victory as they stamped an 84-78 triumph on the Irish.


Adversity. We all know it’s an inevitable aspect of life that none of us can eschew. Pitt (19-5, 7-4 Big East) has certainly dealt with some adversity this season, losing Levance Fields and Mike Cook to injuries. The Panthers have run off two straight since falling to UConn back on Feb. 2.

The backyard brawl seemed to have a flair for the dramatic, as Ramon’s buzzer-beating three dipped the big yellow-clad Morgantown Heart down south. An 82-63 win against Providence should inject some confidence as they head to Milwaukee for a hotly-contested date with Marquette Feb. 15.

A Look Inside: UConn/Syracuse, Rivalry Week

If Super Bowl XLII warranted the “Pros vs. Joe’s” title, then call this grindhouse showing “how the other half lives” double-feature. The 7 PM game pitted no.19 UConn at Syracuse. These are ballers from the block, with ill tats and permanent pockmarks that come with the nature of hooping on some of the city’s roughest courts. The 9 PM showing of Duke vs. UNC paled in comparison, featuring the do-it-by-the-book, fundamental-fiend bookworms. These Catholic school-bred cats are fundamentally sound in all aspects of their game. Though these dudes are unique threats in their own right, they won’t execute the freelance, laissez-faire, mano y mano moves that Big East stallions can based on shear, otherworldly athleticism.

In the end, Jonny Flynn’s parking lot prayer fell short at the buzzer. The Huskies gutted out another big one, extending their win-streak to six games in a 63-61 thrill-ride.

Syracuse/UConn began in the up-tempo, go-go fashion one would anticipate. Paul Harris and Flynn, both products of Niagara Falls High, poured in 24 and 20, respectively, staking the Orange to an early 23-18 edge. The Huskies came roaring back, however, dead-locking it at 26 on a banger by Stanley Robinson, a 6-foot-9 wing the UConn fan-base knows simply as “Sticks.”

Harris, a 6-foot-4 wunderkind, and Flynn, his running mate, were a veritable Batman and Robin throughout the evening. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the disappearance of Donte Greene. After instigating a Donnell Beverly turnover, Harris unleashed an extravagant, two-handed highlight-reel jam at the 11:22 mark of the first half. The flush wowed a partisan Orange-clad 23,721 that flooded the Carrier Dome. The teams retreated to the locker rooms with ‘Cuse holding a 34-31 bulge following a Flynn layup.

Syracuse faded mid-way through the second-half as the UConn shot-blockers made their presence felt. Operating a two-man gang offense, Flynn and Harris amassed all but four of Syracuse’s second-half points. Greene, whose youth became apparent, shot a dreadful 2-for-15 and finished with just eight points, 10 below his team-leading average. After an off-night like this, in a game of this magnitude, some of the skeptics, detractors, and flat-out haters alike might pop out of their chat rooms, forums or what have they and claim he’s not EL-ready. Only time will tell, but the versatile 6-10 Baltimore product’s name has been littered all over the mock drafts.

The Orange had no chance going inside. The Huskies’ formidable frontline altered shots from angle-to-angle, forcing Syracuse clear out of the driving lanes. The Syracuse, or should we say, the Flynn-Harris Transit’s response? Launch an arsenal of threes. The three-ball would eventually give Jim Calhoun and company a scare.

Hasheem Thabeet, the 7-3 behemoth who continues to mount his pro stock, finished with a game-high seven swats. An A.J. Price (14 points, six dimes) jumper with 11 minutes remaining triggered an 11-4 surge, as the Husky lead swelled to nine after a trifecta from Craig Austrie. Harris thwarted the run with a layup at 3:48, and that’s when things got interesting.

Flynn splashed a three to cut the deficit to six with 2:21 left. Sandwiched in between Flynn’s trey and another from Harris was a Thabeet freebie. Following a rare miss at the free throw line from Austrie, Flynn connected from downtown with 45 seconds remaining. This made it 63-61 as Jim Boeheim immediately signaled for a 30-second talk-over.

In a wild UConn possession that gave the ball back to the Orange, Syracuse had their final chance with a mere three seconds left. But Flynn pulled up from around Niagara Falls and didn’t scrape net as Connecticut prevailed.

The Best of The Rest

Teams outside of Pitt and UConn with postseason chances ranging from locks to stretches.

Georgetown Hoyas (20-3, 10-2 Big East)
The Hoyas have proved to be a bit mortal in the past week after losing to a rebounding Louisville squad and needing an absurd foul call with .1 second left against Villanova to beat the Wildcats.

Prior to the past week, Georgetown had found a way to eke out games late: Roy Hibbert hitting a three-pointer with seconds left to beat UConn, beating Syracuse by two in overtime and surviving a buzzer beating in-and-out shot, a last-second block against WVU to seal a victory.

Against Louisville no late-game magic was to be found. But it resurfaced against ‘Nova once again. Although it is an indication of the will and experience of his team, the John Thompson III-led Hoyas could easily have four or five conference losses. Georgetown continues to use a its grind-it-out style, shooting a Big East best 49 percent from the field (by taking time to get good shots) and maintaining one of the nation’s top field goal defenses in holding opponents under 41 percent.

G’Town is still in good shape, ranked eighth in the country and atop the Big East. The rest of the schedule is moderate, with road games at Syracuse (2/16) and at Marquette (3/1) and a home game against Marquette.

For the rest of the way, the Hoyas should look to get Hibbert more involved. The senior center is averaging only 13 points and 7 rebounds per game. The good news is that Jonathan Wallace hit three 3-pointers against Villanova after not hitting one since January.

Louisville Cardinals (19-6, 9-3 Big East)
If you were blinded by Rick Pitino’s suit during Saturday’s “whiteout” against Georgetown, you missed Louisville propel itself to the top of the conference. The bruised and battered Cardinals are just now getting healthy, with David Padgett and Juan Palacios now contributing. Louisville has rattled off six of seven, with the biggest victory being a 59-51 home win against the Hoyas. The win provided a statement that the Cards were back on level with pre-season predictions that had them as one of the conference’s top teams.

In three of their past four games, the Cards have kept opponents under 60 points. On the offensive side, Louisville is receiving contributions from just about everyone. Sophomore guard Jerry Smith has made his presence felt in the Cards’ backcourt, notching 11.2 ppg. There are three other Cardinal players averaging double-figures, and eight players averaging more than six points per game. Such balance is making matching up with Louisville a headache for any opposing defense.

On the stretch run, Louisville sits only one game behind Georgetown, who they will meet again on March 8. The Cards also have games against Pitt (5th place), Syracuse (7th), and Notre Dame (2nd). Such contests should give Louisville the opportunity to continue its run to the top of the standings.

Notre Dame (18-5, 8-3 Big East)
In a bit of a surprise, Notre Dame sits just a game and a half back of Georgetown in the Big East standings. The Fighting Irish had won five in a row before dropping a tough game to UConn. The schedule beefs up as the Irish still have to play UConn, Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville. But ND has been unstoppable at home, running off 34 straight games at South Bend.

The Irish haven’t had the hardest in or out-of-conference schedule (their non-conference SOS is 282). But the Irish have won the games they should have, and have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament birth and a possibly high seed.

So how did ND surprisingly find its way to the top of the conference? Two words: Luke Harangody. The sophomore center averages more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and has dominated other conference big men (he dropped 32 and 16 on UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet). Forward Rob Kurz (13 ppg, 8 rpg) added into the mix makes the Irish a tough team to handle in the paint. But any team with successful big men needs guards to keep the pressure off. That’s where Kyle McAlarney comes in. The junior guard averages over 15 ppg, and has already hit 74 three pointers at a clip of nearly 45 percent.

This three-headed beast, along with the Irish’s home cooking have boosted Notre Dame to the conference’s elite. While the Irish may drop a few in the finishing stretch, Notre Dame has established itself as a team not many opponents want to see in the Big East or NCAA Tournament.

Marquette (17-6, 7-5 Big East)
It’s been a tumultuous season for Tom Crean and his Golden Eagles. Expectations were very high for this bunch, and while showing signs of that potential, the output has not been consistent. Marquette has dropped two straight and four of its last seven contests. Granted, the losses have come against some of the conference’s top teams, but the Golden Eagles were expected to win some of those games.

The talent is still there though, with the trio of guards (Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews) all averaging more than 11 points each. The surprise has been the emergence of forward Lazar Hayward, who leads the team with 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The team needs better production out of the guards, as while they have been decent, they have been less than stellar. Thankfully for the Eagles, their schedule softens up a little now, and they should be able to rattle off at least three more conference wins.

The Golden Eagles are still in decent shape, but they have dropped from the top tier in both the nation’s and conference’s eyes. If Crean can get James fully healthy (his sprained right wrist has been bothering him) and the rest of the backcourt to play to its potential, Marquette could be a dangerous streaking team. But right now, the Golden Eagles have taken a few steps backward and need to make some forward progress to secure its postseason aspirations.

Syracuse Orange (16-9, 6-6 Big East)
The Orange is battling, and considering the adversity the team has faced this season, just battling is impressive. But the Orange isn’t looking for moral victories. And there was absolutely no victory Wednesday night as the Orange dropped one to the lowly South Florida Bulls. The team was at No. 7 in the Big East standings, and a few bounces away from an 8-3 conference record (a last second game-winning shot against Georgetown rimmed out, and they lost a two-point heart-breaker to UConn).

The Orange is basically playing a six-man rotation. Against UConn the team used seven players, with one of them (Scoop Jardine) logging only one minute. While they had been getting by, the lack of depth hurt as the team tried to claw back against USF.

This squad has been through a lot. Scholarship guards and likely starters Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins were both lost for the season to torn ACL’s. Senior point guard Josh Wright left the team, and Jardine has been slowly recovering from a suspension. Factor in that the seven-man rotation consists of four freshmen, two sophomores and a junior college transfer, and it’s pretty astounding that the Orange is still winning ballgames. But the youth and lack of depth showed against the Bulls, as the Orange dropped a game they needed before a brutal finishing stretch.

Although their six wins have been impressive, they have come against six of the weaker conference teams. The next few weeks will show what kind of team the Orange truly is, and it seems improbable that SU will make a run to the NCAA tournament without a great showing in the Big East Tournament. The team only has one win against top-50 RPI teams, but remaining games provide the likes of Georgetown (2/16), at Louisville (2/18), at Notre Dame (2/24), Pitt (3/1) and Marquette (3/8). The Orange is in need of resume-building wins, and the next several weeks offer quite the opportunity.

To get through the stretch, the team will need more consistent play out of freshman Donte Greene, who was 2-15 against UConn, and center Arinze Onuaku, who has shown great promise but has been quiet the past few games. The Niagara Falls duo of Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris has been carrying the Orange, and if Greene and Onuaku can contribute on a more consistent basis, this team could make some noise. Unfortunately for the ‘Cuse, it appears the team has been through too much in a conference that isn’t exactly forgiving.

West Virginia Mountaineers (16-7, 5-5 Big East)
WVU has slipped a bit, losing three of its last four games. The last contest was a heart-breaker as Ronald Ramon nailed a trey as time expired for a one-point Pittsburgh win. The Mountaineers have been through their roughest conference stretch and should be able to grab five more conference wins. That seems attainable for the Mountaineers, unless the team that lost 62-39 to Cincinnati shows up.

The Mountaineers were a buried a bit in preseason rankings, but catapulted toward the upper-echelon of the league with solid perimeter play and a hounding defense. While WVU has struggled recently, the team has four players averaging more than 12 points per game, and coach Bob Huggins won’t let his team relax defensively.

The team has the talent and schedule to make an impact the rest of the way, but it’s going to a better performance from the free throw line than the Pitt game. The Mountaineers were 7 of 17 against the Panthers from the line, costing them the contest. They were also 12 of 23 from the stripe in a one-point loss to Georgetown. For a “shooting” team, that’s got to improve. If it does, the Mountaineers should be able to make a case for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Villanova Wildcats (14-9, 4-7 Big East)
Monday’s last second loss to Georgetown may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The camel, in this case, being ‘Nova’s NCAA tourney hopes.

A bump, 80 feet from the basket, with .1 second left, made all the difference. It doesn’t seem fair.

But the Wildcats had already dug a hole that was going to be hard to climb out of. Villanova dropped five straight games stretching from late January into early February. At this point, it may be too late in the season to overcome such a losing streak, especially when it contains a 22-point loss to St. John’s.

Villanova still has some time to make noise in conference play. If they can make it to the Big East tournament, there’s no telling what the Wildcats could do. The team certainly looked better against Georgetown, playing solid defense (where they had greatly struggled during the skid), and star Scottie Reynolds scored 24 points.

It’s going to be tough for Reynolds to do it all by himself, though. Freshman Corey Fisher has played well, averaging 11 points per game, but the team lacks productive depth. Shane Clark has not been seeing much time, and hyped freshman guard Corey Stokes has not yet developed into a significant impact player. Some of these players are going to have to step up and help Reynolds if this team is going to cash in on the extremely slim chance to make a final surge.


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