All about the Big East: Best of the bench?
In a few weeks, when the time comes to hand out postseason honors, one of the toughest tasks will be choosing the Big East Coach of the Year.
Notre Dame is surprisingly in line for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament thanks to Mike Brey, but his experienced-laden team returned quite a few players from last season. Jim Calhoun has done an excellent job with a Connecticut squad picked to finish 10th in the league. The Huskies, though, are floundering a bit down the stretch.
Mike Rice has made Rutgers competitive again, but coaches with losing conference records are rarely given postseason awards. Fair or not, the same thing goes for coaches who live up to lofty preseason expectations, which describes Jamie Dixon and likely Big East champion Pittsburgh.
Worthy as all of the aforementioned names may be, my early choice for Big East Coach of the Year is Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
All season long, I’ve waited for the Cardinals to hit the wall. When they started out 12-2, I said it was only because they played their first 14 games in their home state. When they won six of their first eight Big East games, I figured it was because they’d faced some of the conference’s weaker teams.
Eventually, my guess that was Louisville’s lack of star power – is there one NBA-caliber player on the roster? – would cause Pitino’s squad to get exposed once the schedule became tougher. Yet here the Cardinals are, still standing tall after going 3-2 in a five-game stretch that included games against four ranked opponents.
It’s time to stop questioning the Cardinals – and their talent – and give them their due.
Preston Knowles leads Louisville in scoring with 15.1 points per game. He’s also making an average of 3.2 shots from beyond the arc, which ranks among the country’s top 10. Point guard Peyton Siva has come up huge in close games, and Kyle Kuric is as improved as any player in the conference.
The biggest factor, though, has been Pitino, who has reminded everyone why he’s long been regarded as one of the nation’s best at his profession. Pitino certainly must feel a sense of satisfaction when he steps back and absorbs just how far this team has come despite the surprising departure of Samardo Samuels to the NBA, the graduation of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith and injuries to key players such as Rakeem Buckles and Jared Swopshire.
Through it all, Louisville has persevered.
Louisville leads the league in steals, ranks second in assists and fourth in turnover margin. Strong defense, good ball movement and valuing the basketball are signs of a team that is well-coached, and that’s obviously the case with this bunch.
Again, with so many strong competitors, it won’t be a travesty if Pitino isn’t named coach of the year. But no one will be able to argue if he is.
(Last week’s rank in parenthesis)
1. Pittsburgh (23-2, 11-1) – Leading scorer Ashton Gibbs (knee) has missed two straight games. (1)
2. Notre Dame (21-4, 10-3) – The Fighting Irish have won three straight road games by an average of 17.3 points. (3)
3. Georgetown (20-5, 9-4) – The Hoyas have won eight straight. (4)
4. Villanova (20-6, 8-5) – The Wildcats’ seniors had never lost in the Palestra before falling to Pitt there on Saturday. (2)
5. Louisville (19-6, 8-4) – Rakeem Buckles (broken finger) played for the first time in six weeks Saturday. (6)
7. Connecticut (19-5, 7-5) – Kemba Walker is shooting 29.5 percent in his last five games and averaging 15.2 points during that span. (7)
8. St. John’s (16-9, 8-5) – Dwight Hardy is averaging 27.8 points over his last four games. (10)
9. Marquette (15-11, 6-7) – With losses in six of their last eight games, the Golden Eagles’ postseason hopes are fading. (8)
10. West Virginia (16-9, 7-6) – Casey Mitchell’s 23 points against Syracuse were his most since Jan. 8. (9)
11. Cincinnati (19-6, 6-6) – Dion Dixon averages a team-high 11.2 points. (13)
12. Seton Hall (11-15, 5-9) – Jeremy Hazell had 25 points in a losing effort Tuesday against Villanova. (11)
13. Rutgers (13-12, 4-9) – Jonathan Mitchell averages a team-high 14.9 points and 5.9 rebounds. (14)
15. South Florida (8-18, 2-11) – The Bulls blew a 16-point lead in a 59-58 loss to Marquette. (15)
16. DePaul (6-18, 0-12) – The Blue Demons’ last three losses have come by an average of six points. (16)
Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Connecticut – The 6-foot-7 sophomore had career highs of 25 points and eight rebounds in the Huskies’ 75-57 victory over Providence on Saturday. All season people have been saying that Kemba Walker had to take 20-25 shots each game for his team to have a chance to win because Walker didn’t have any talent surrounding him. Players such as Coombs-McDaniel, Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi are proving that’s not the case.
St. John’s – Tuesday’s road win over Marquette marked the fifth victory in the last six games for the Red Storm, who are probably two wins away from securing a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. St. John’s touts victories over No. 3 Duke, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 9 Georgetown and No. 13 Connecticut.
Jack Cooley, Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish have added another scoring punch to their high-scoring attack. Cooley, a 6-9 sophomore, scored a career-high 18 points against South Florida on Saturday. Days earlier he had 11 points in overtime against Louisville. Prior to the Louisville game, Cooley had scored a combined 22 points in 11 Big East contests.
Cincinnati’s schedule – The Bearcats have lost three of their last four and may not win another game. Mick Cronin’s squad travels to No. 16 Louisville to play its first of four remaining games against Top 25 teams. Also remaining on Cincinnati’s slate are tough road games at Marquette and Providence.
Kevin Jones, West Virginia – The 6-foot-8 junior received a lot of preseason hype that, apparently, was unwarranted. Jones is averaging a respectable 12.7 points, but he hasn’t been enough of a difference-maker for a Mountaineers squad that was desperately counting on him following the loss of Devin Ebanks and Da’Sean Butler. In his last nine games Jones is averaging just 10.1 points. West Virginia is 4-5 during that span.
Villanova – The last three games haven’t been all that impressive for the Wildcats. Villanova lost to Rutgers on a four-point play with 1 second remaining on Wednesday before falling at home against Pitt on Saturday. Then, on Tuesday, they needed a career-high 21 points from reserve James Bell to eke out a 70-67 victory at Seton Hall. For the second straight year, Villanova looks shaky as the regular season nears its end.
THREE TO WATCH
Georgetown at Connecticut, Wednesday – Four of the Hoyas’ eight straight wins have come on the road.
Notre Dame at West Virginia, Saturday – The Mountaineers have lost three of their last four games.
Syracuse at Villanova, Monday – The Wildcats won at Syracuse on Jan. 22.