The College Basketball Notebook

December 27, 2010 6:41 AM

UConn-Pitt Kicks Off Big East Tonight

AshtonGibbs.jpgBig East basketball kicks into high gear starting tonight. UConn visits Pitt (8:30 ET, ESPN2) in the first of four nationally televised conference games this week, plus three more significant non-conference dates, including Kentucky-Louisville on New Year's Eve afternoon. Tonight's game is the kind of debut the conference and television execs would have wanted, as UConn comes to town ranked fourth in the nation, while Pitt is sitting at #6. So today's an ideal time to get a handle on how the Big East looks heading into conference play.

UConn is unbeaten, but I have serious doubts about whether this team is really championship-caliber. Their signature December wins--Michigan State and Kentucky--sound a lot better then they really are, as neither program is having a big year. Huskie guard Kemba Walker is as good as any player in the country at any position, and he combines with Alex Oriakhi to form a potent inside-out combo that make UConn a threat to win any game. But unless they get more support, they aren't going to be an elite team and that's what it takes to win the Big East. Now if you look at Pitt, you see a much more balanced team. The backcourt combo of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker is solid both scoring and reserve Travon Woodall helps with ballhandling duties. Gilbert Brown is a quality swingman and Dante Taylor hits the boards. But what really sets the Panthers apart is the rebounding help that comes off the bench in the persons of Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee. Few teams--if any--have this kind of depth in the frontcourt and it's why I believe Pitt to be the best team in the Big East.

Syracuse is also undefeated against a respectable December schedule, but Jim Boeheim's team really needs some help in the backcourt. They score and rebound down low, with Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson. Point guard Scoop Jardine is good enough to make sure things function smoothly enough to stay in the league's top five or six, but they need a lot more to get higher than that. Notre Dame is an example of a team that does have more than that. The Irish are very well-balanced, with several players who can chip in with both points and rebounds, led up by Tim Abromaitis. ND is also loaded with seniors and while I think they're a step behind Pitt due to the superiority of the Panther backcourt, this Irish team is good enough to win its first Big East championship. They'll get a chance to prove it to a national audience on Wednesday against Georgetown (7, ESPN2). The Hoyas look NCAA Tournament-caliber, with a nice three-guard attack led by Austin Freeman, but power forward Julian Vaughn can't do it alone all year down low. This was a formula Villanova tried last year--a great three-pronged backcourt, with a power forward, Antonio Pena, carrying the interior load. 'Nova wore down in the latter part of February and I expect the same from Georgetown, particularly given their backcourt isn't quite to the level Villanova's was last year. And moving on to Villanova's 2010-11 edition, they're a little more balanced, with Pena possibly getting some help from Mouphatou Yaro. But the one piece of the backcourt they did lose--Scottie Reynolds--was also the best and 'Nova is another team that is NCAA-caliber, but not championship-level.

These six teams are the best in the Big East, and the likeliest candidates to break into that group are West Virgina (went to the Final Four last year), Louisville (the most consistent winner beyond the top six), Cincinnati (strong returning cast this year) and Marquette (more borderline, but a consistent NCAA team). West Virginia hasn't really put it together yet, with losses to Minnesota and Miami. They get some good play at forward, and Bob Huggins will have to find some guard help and some depth. Rick Pitino's problem is the reverse--he needs more contributors up front and is working with a young group. Cincinnati has a well-balanced lineup, with Yancy Gates leading a starting lineup where all five starters are averaging double-digits. I like the Bearcats to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Marquette's big strength is forward Jimmy Butler and shooting guard Darius Johnson-Odom. The Golden Eagles seem to be getting as conference play approaches and viewers can watch them twice this week, first against Vanderbilt on Wednesday (9 ET, ESPN2) and again on New Year's Day against West Virginia (11 ET, ESPN2), the perfect way for the folks in Milwaukee to start off Saturday before watching the Wisconsin football team in the Rose Bowl.

That rounds the list of teams with a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers is the best of the rest and a legitimate NIT team. St. John's is interesting now under the direction of Steve Lavin, but is still woefully short of the frontline personnel needed to compete in this league. Seton Hall might have made some noise before Jeremy Hazell got hurt in November. Providence has Marshon Brooks, who's pouring in 23 ppg, and Vincent Council, who can both score and distribute. They'll at least make the Friars entertaining in individual games, even if the depth isn't enough to win games with any consistency. DePaul and South Florida are hopeless.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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