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January 12, 2007

Big East Breakdown: Battle of the big men

Weekly Big East Update
Team Conf. Overall
Pittsburgh 3-0 15-2
Providence 2-0 12-3
West Virginia 3-1 13-2
Notre Dame 2-1 14-2
Syracuse 2-1 13-4
Georgetown 1-1 11-4
Louisville 1-1 11-5
Seton Hall 2-1 10-5
St. John's 1-2 10-6
Marquette 1-2 14-4
Connecticut 1-2 14-4
DePaul 1-2 10-7
Villanova 1-2 11-4
Rutgers 1-2 8-8
Cincinnati 0-1 9-6
South Florida 0-3 9-8
Standings as of 1/11

Best matchup: The argument over who is the best big man in the Big East could be decided when No. 7-ranked Pittsburgh (15-2, 3-0 Big East) hosts Georgetown (11-4, 1-1) in Rivals.com's Game of the Week on Saturday night. Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray (7-0, 270) and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert (7-2, 275) are clearly the two best post players in the league. Gray holds the edge in nearly every statistical category. The senior is averaging a double-double (14.9 points and 10.2 rebounds) for the second consecutive season. Gray rarely faces someone with similar size like Hibbert, whose stats are nearly identical to last season (11.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game). Hibbert does hold an edge on defense, where he swats 2.7 shots a game to Gray's 1.7.

Worst matchup: Cincinnati's road trip to South Florida (9-8, 0-3) on Sunday leaves no other competition for this spot. The struggling programs have already combined for a handful of ugly losses against the likes of Ohio, Richmond, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Wofford. The Bulls, who finished 1-15 in Big East play last season, lost their first three league games by 19 points or more. The Bearcats (9-6, 0-1) have lost three in a row, including a double-digit defeat at home to a .500 Rutgers team.

The pressure is on: Connecticut. Jim Calhoun may regret putting together such a weak non-conference schedule. After an 11-0 start loaded with easy wins over cupcakes, the Huskies (12-3, 1-2) have lost three of their last four games. They can't afford to overlook a road trip to St. John's (10-5, 1-1) on Saturday. They will face Pittsburgh, which is 10-0 at home, on Tuesday.

Upset alert: If Villanova doesn't need star Curtis Sumpter to knock off Georgetown, it may be capable of more than we thought. How about grabbing a "W" in the Carrier Dome. The Wildcats (12-4, 1-2) travel to the Orange (13-4, 2-1) on Saturday. Sumpter fouled out and scored a season-low five points in 16 minutes last week against the Hoyas. It's very likely the senior will bounce back with a strong performance. He has scored 13 or more points in every other game and has broken the 20-point barrier six times. Freshman guard Scottie Reynolds is also rapidly improving, scoring a total of 41 points in his last two games.

Who's hot: The recent play of Providence center Herbert Hill may be more surprising than the Friars' 2-0 start in league play. The senior, who has never averaged double figures in scoring, has been exceeding most expectations. He has averaged 21.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.7 blocks in the Frairs' last three games West Virginia's Franklin Young is shooting 52 percent (34-for-65) from 3-point range in his last eight games West Virginia's defense has also been superb. The Mountaineers are giving up a league-low 51 points a game and have allowed 61 or more points twice.

Who's not: Defenders have been sagging off Marquette's Dominic James all season, and that won't change until he gets out of his latest shooting slump. James has hit just two of 20 (10 percent) attempts from beyond the arc in the Golden Eagles' last three games. He is shooting 27 percent from 3-point range on the season Notre Dame (14-2, 2-1) misses 3-point shooter Kyle McAlarney, who was suspended indefinitely four games ago for an arrest on marijuana possession. The Irish combined to hit just nine of 37 3-pointers (24 percent) in their last two games.

Must see TV: Georgetown at Pittsburgh (ESPN). There are a lot of intriguing storylines here, outside of the head-to-head battle between Gray and Hibbert. For starters, the outcome should play a large role in deciding the Big East champion. The Panthers and Hoyas were picked first and second in the preseason Big East poll. The Peterson Events Center ("The Pete") might be the toughest place to play in the league thanks to a raucous student section nicknamed the "Oakland Zoo." Plus, last time the two teams played it turned out to be a thrilling contest. The Hoyas bounced back from a seven-point deficit to win 61-58 at home last season.

Key stat: West Virginia point guard Darris Nichols has racked up 70 assists while making just 19 turnovers for a 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. It's nearly a full assist more than the league's next best ratio (Pittsburgh's Levance Fields at 2.8-to1 Providence's Geoff McDermott - a 6-7, 240-pound forward - leads the league in assists per game with 5.8. Five of the top six scorers in the league are seniors: Syracuse's Demetris Nichols (18.6 ppg), Villanova's Curtis Sumpter (18.5 pgg), Notre Dame's Russell Carter (17.6 ppg), Providence's Herbert Hill (16.7 ppg) and South Florida's Melvin Buckley (16.4 ppg).

Bench bonus: Notre Dame freshman Luke Harangody has been the league's best sixth man, averaging 12 points and 5.7 rebounds while providing an interior presence with his hefty 6-8, 255-pound build. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim doesn't have to worry about which reserve will provide his team an offensive spark. Boehiem took second-leading scorer Eric Devendorf (13.1 ppg) out of the starting lineup eight games ago and the guard has averaged 13.8 points a game since the move.

They said it: "I was surprised I got that many dunks. There for a second, I thought I was Shaq." Notre Dame's Russell Carter after dunking the ball six times in the Irish's 61-58 win over visiting West Virginia on Wednesday.

"I think the bottom (of the league) has moved towards the middle and the top has moved towards the middle. It makes for outstanding balance." Providence coach Tim Welsh.

Injury update: Amazingly, no team is dealing with a major injury. However, a handful of players have missed time due to off-the-court issues Providence point guard Sharaud Curry will return against Louisville on Saturday after missing four consecutive games due to breaking a team rule McAlarney has missed four games since his arrest and it remains unclear when he will return There is also talk of Louisville power forward Derrick Caracter being kicked off the team permanently. Caracter started the season on a suspension from the NCAA and missed five other games when coach Rick Pitino gave him an indefinite leave of absence. He returned to play in a loss to Notre Dame last week, but did not travel to the Cards' 81-55 triumph at South Florida on Wednesday.

Worth noting: If Providence can beat Louisville on Saturday it will move to 3-0 in the conference for the first time since 1988-89. Marquette's win at Connecticut on Wednesday snapped the Huskies' 31-game home winning streak. ... The Huskies, who have led the nation in blocks for the last five seasons, rank No. 1 in that category again with 9.4 blocks per game.

Freshman to watch: Seton Hall point guard Eugene Harvey is the only player in the league who ranks in the top 10 in scoring (seventh), assists (eighth) and steals (10th). Harvey is averaging 16.3 points, 4.9 assists and 1.9 steals a game. Harvey and the Pirates travel to Notre Dame on Sunday and play host to Providence on Wednesday.

Something you may have missed: Georgetown lost one of its top role players when forward Marc Egerson left the team for personal reasons two games ago. The sophomore started the team's first three games and was averaging 24 minutes, 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. Syracuse freshman Mike Holmes left the team because he was homesick in late December. Holmes, who is from Hopkins, S.C., played limited minutes in 11 of the first 14 games.

RPI watch: Don't be surprised if Big East coaches start denouncing the importance of the RPI soon. The conference is ranked seventh, behind the Missouri Valley (fourth) and the five other major leagues. Only five Big East teams have RPIs of 50 or better. Pittsburgh leading the way at No. 4, followed by Villanova at No. 23. The Wildcats and Panthers also rank seventh and ninth in strength of schedule. Notre Dame comes in at No. 37 in overall RPI, followed by West Virginia (13-2, 3-1) at No. 42 and Providence at No. 48.

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