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January 26, 2007
Best matchup: Notre Dame at Syracuse (Tuesday) ? A win here would help either of these teams gain some valuable distance from the middle of the pack in the Big East. Only two games separate the three teams tied for third place (Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville) and 13th-place Connecticut. The Orange and Irish are also in need of a morale boost. They are each coming off tough defeats to St. John's. The Irish will be counting on another big game from guard Russell Carter, who averages 18.7 points per game. The same goes for the Orange and forward Demetris Nichols, who also averages 18.7 ppg.
Worst matchup: Marquette's Dominic James vs. South Florida's defense (Sunday) ? James is one of the toughest players to guard in the nation. When the sophomore with the amazing first step is shooting the ball well from the outside he's almost impossible to cover. The Golden Eagles' road trip to Tampa should provide the latest evidence. James heated up recently, hitting 12 of his last 24 attempts from beyond the arc, and he should have little trouble getting open. The struggling Bulls are built around their frontcourt and lack a guard with the quickness to defend someone like James in the open court.
The pressure is on: Pittsburgh ? How could the first-place team fall in this spot? The Panthers face the two hottest teams in the league, St. John's and Villanova. The Red Storm are coming off gutsy wins over Syracuse and Notre Dame, while the Wildcats have won four of their last five games. A loss to either squad would drop the Panthers into second-place and open up the title race.
Upset alert: St. John's at Pitt (Saturday) ? The Red Storm hit a number of clutch shots down the stretch to pull off upsets of Syracuse and Notre Dame. Beating the fundamentally sound Panthers will require a lot more patience and discipline, but having a center like Lamont Hamilton (6-10, 240 pounds) with enough size to match up with Aaron Gray (7-foot, 270 pounds) will help.
Who's hot: Villanova freshman guard Scottie Reynolds ? A month ago, Reynolds was a non-candidate in the battle for the Big East's Rookie of the Year award. Reynolds now finds himself right in thick of it, thanks to a stellar three-week stretch. Reynolds is averaging 21.6 points over the Wildcats' last six games, scoring 20 or more points in four contests ?. Georgetown center Roy Hibbert is shooting a remarkable 79 percent from the field in Big East play ? Louisville has only averaged 9.8 turnovers in its last four games.
Who's not: DePaul guard Sammy Mejia is stuck in a shooting slump, making just 26 of his last 71 field-goal attempts (36 percent). Mejia has also been held to eight or fewer points in four of his last seven games ? Rutgers is shooting 31 percent from the field (68 of 214) over its last four games.
Must see TV: Villanova at Notre Dame (Saturday, ESPN, 4 pm. EST) ? The fireworks produced by guards Russell Carter and Scottie Reynolds should be worth watching in this clash. Carter (20.1 ppg) and Reynolds (18.2 ppg) rank first and third among scorers in Big East games.
Pittsburgh at Villanova (Monday, ESPN, 7 p.m. EST) ? Everything points to a big-time performance from Pitt's Aaron Gray here. The Wildcats lack size and good post defenders. Keep an eye on Villanova small forward Curtis Sumpter as well. The Wildcats' star didn't play against Texas last week due to a leg bruise and was limited to just 16 minutes versus Providence on Tuesday.
Key stat: Connecticut fans can find hope in the Big East's team stats. The 13th-place Huskies lead the league in five categories: field goal percentage defense (35 percent), rebounding offense (43.4 rpg), rebounding margin (+10.0), blocked shots (8.7 bpg) and offensive rebounds (16.6 per game).
Bench bonus: The X-factor in the Syracuse-Notre Dame matchup may be Orange guard Eric Devendorf. Since being taken out of the starting lineup 14 games ago, Devendorf is averaging 14 points a contest. He hit 5-of-8 3-pointers and scored a season-high 23 points in a loss to St. John's on Sunday.
They said it: "Our older guys know how difficult it is to play here. Our younger guys have no idea. As much film as we watched and as much as we talked about it, they got it right before the game." ? Villanova coach Jay Wright after the Wildcats pulled out an 82-73 win over Providence on the road. The Friars were riding a 12-game home winning streak.
"Connecticut is pretty much like us minus David Padgett. We have a very experienced ballplayer, and they don't." ? Louisville coach Rick Pitino after his Cardinals beat UConn 68-54 on Monday.
Injury update: Seton Hall lost one of its top reserves for the rest of the season when center Grant Billmeier tore his ACL last week against Providence. Billmeier was averaging 3.4 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
Worth noting: Providence has two of the top five assist men in the league. Geoff McDermott ranks first with an average of 5.3 a game and Sharaud Curry is fourth at 5.0 a game. McDermott and Curry are also first and second in minutes played, each averaging 36 a game.
Freshman to watch: Besides the obvious choices like Seton Hall's Eugene Harvey and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, keep an eye on Cincinnati's Deonta Vaughn, Louisville's Edgar Sosa and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody. Vaughn, a trigger-happy point guard, is averaging a team-high 13.6 points a game. Sosa can play both guard positions and ranks second on the Cardinals at 11.0 ppg. Harangody, a big-bodied center, might be the most impressive of the bunch. He's averaging 11.0 ppg off the bench.
Something you may have missed: Notre Dame recently dismissed guard Kyle McAlarney for the rest of the semester due to an arrest for marijuana possession. McAlarney, who was averaging 10.3 points and 5.4 assists a game, had already been suspended for seven games. He has two years of eligibility remaining and it is unclear if he will return to the Irish or seek a transfer.
RPI watch: Marquette, who was No. 39 at this time last week, moved up to No. 24. Three of the wins in its current five-game winning streak came on the road. ? Pitt remains in strong contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers are ranked fifth in the RPI and have the fifth-toughest schedule ? Louisville is 4-2 in the Big East, but they are ranked No. 75 in the RPI - creating plenty of concern about the Cardinals' NCAA Tournament hopes.