Cincinnati: About three weeks ago, Coach Mick Cronin decided to go with a three-guard lineup instead of a two-guard/three forward alignment. Marvin Gentry, Jamual Warren, and Deonta Vaughn now start in the backcourt, and lone senior, Cedric McGowan, is now coming off the bench. The primary beneficiary of this change has been junior John Williamson who is now playing his natural 4 position instead of the 3. The results have been impressive as the 6’6” juco transfer has averaged 17.0 ppg in his last five games, more than double the 7.7 ppg he averaged in the seven conference games in January.
No one can accuse freshman point guard of being shy about shooting. Vaughn has taken at least 17 shots in five of 12 conference games with highs of 22 against South Florida and 21 against Notre Dame. Even a shooting percentage of 35.1% (59 of 168) has not dissuaded the former prep school standout from firing away.
Connecticut: Apparently A. J. Price is not the second coming of Marcus Williams, last year’s point guard, after all, despite Coach Jim Calhoun’s glowing praise for the sophomore guard prior to the season. Price is averaging only 15.8 mpg in the past five conference games. In those games he has seven assists and 11 turnovers. For the conference season he has scored in double digits in only four of 12 games and is shooting only 32% from the field (31 of 97). Fellow sophomore Craig Austrie and freshman Jerome Dyson are getting the overwhelming majority of minutes in the backcourt.
DePaul: It could be that senior Sammy Mejia may finally be snapping out of a prolonged scoring slump. The pre-season all-conference choice has scored 18 points in consecutive victories over Marquette and South Florida and has shot 14 of 26 (53.8%) from the field in those two games. In the previous nine conference games, the 6’6” wing had averaged only 8.2 ppg.
Georgetown: 7’2” center Roy Hibbert continues to struggle against Villanova. As poor as his four-point, three-rebound performance in 18 minutes against the Wildcats was last Saturday, it was better than his two-point (both free throws), three-rebound performance in 24 minutes earlier in the year. Hibbert had averaged 21.0 ppg and 9.3 rpg in his three games prior to the latest Nova contest.
Meanwhile Jeff Green is finally looking like the POY candidate he should have been all along. He’s averaging 19.1 ppg in his last seven conference games, and he’s also hitting the boards and dishing out assists to teammates. Against Nova, he almost had an unusual triple-double as he scored 19 points, had nine rebounds, and blocked eight shots. If he keeps this up, he should be the league’s POY.
Louisville: Coach Rick Pitino’s team is streaking, and peaking, at the right time. The Cardinals destroyed Pitt’s Panthers at Pitt and then pulled out a last-second win at Marquette as freshman guard Jerry Smith broke the hearts of his hometown MU fans with a 24-foot buzzer beater.
Derrick Caracter is showing what all the fuss was about now that he’s back in Pitino’s good graces. He averaged 12.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg in only 19.3 mpg in Louisville’s last three games. His strong interior offense has added another dimension to Pitino’s arsenal.
Marquette: Coach Tom Crean’s team played like warriors against Louisville but lost its third game in a row. However, it managed to right the ship against Villanova. Sophomore point guard Dominic James has struggled in February with four single-digit scoring games (out of six). He definitely doesn’t look like the same player who won conference ROY a year ago. One thing is certain: Marquette needs James to play well if its to have any chance of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. In MU’s five league losses James averaged a relatively meager 10.0 ppg and shot only 27.0% from the field (17 of 63), including an unbelievable 7.4% (two of 27) from behind the arc. The bottom line is simple: when James plays/shoots well, Marquette almost always wins.
Notre Dame: The Irish continue to be impressive, despite their loss at South Florida. Not only have they survived the dismissal from school of starting point guard Kyle McAlarney, but now they are also winning games in spite of senior star Russell Carter being hampered by injury. The tandem of Luke Harangody and Rob Kurz up front has been solid. Coach Mike Brey’s team could be a tough out in both the conference tournament and the NCAA.
Pittsburgh: All teams have ups and downs during the season, but the Panthers definitely do not look like the best team in the conference right now. Louisville absolutely dismantled them on both ends of the court, and Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad was fortunate to pull out a four-point win against Pac 10 opponent, Washington. The Panthers will still get a first-round bye in the conference tournament, but with games at Georgetown and Marquette, it’s not impossible the Panthers could end up with four losses in conference play.
Providence: The Friars are the only team in the league with four legitimate candidates to earn all-conference honors at the end of the season. Center Herbert Hill, point guard Sharaud Curry, off guard Weyinmi Efejuku, and small forward Geoff McDermott are all among the top three players at their position in the league. Yet Coach Tim Welch’s team is only 6-6 in conference play. Still, the Friars could easily win their four remaining games as they play at home against Syracuse, which has been inconsistent, and West Virginia and at St. John’s and South Florida, all very winnable contests. The Friars could still make the NCAA Tournament if they win even three of those four games.
Rutgers: Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Coach Fred Hill’s program at this point is that the season is rapidly drawing to a close. Maybe the second best thing is to thank Cincinnati's President Nancy Zimpfer for the Bearcats' present plight or Rutgers might be in last place with only one win. Sophomore JR Inman has been playing reasonably well, but as a team the Knights are so inept offensively that at times they look like their strategy is to try to lose by 20 instead of 30, rather than to try to win the game.
Seton Hall: The Pirates are in serious trouble as they could easily be one of the four teams to miss out on the conference tournament. The Pirates’ lack of size has obviously hurt them, and Coach Bobby Gonzalez simply doesn’t have enough talent to offset the team’s front-court problems. Brian Laing is having a terrific season, but he’s forced to play the 4 at 6’5”. Still, the future is bright as freshmen Eugene Harvey and Larry Davis have proven to be solid Big East players with Harvey being a legitimate candidate for conference ROY.
South Florida: The Bulls are better than last year due to the mid-season additions of Kentrell Gransberry, Jesus Verdejo, and point guard Chris Howard. McHugh Mattis has improved his game tremendously, but even with these four players, plus senior sharpshooter Melvin Buckley and freshman guard Solomon Bozeman, this team will be on the outside looking in during the conference tournament. For awhile it looked like the Bulls could sneak in, after a narrow miss against Marquette and a victory over Notre Dame, but since then they lost four games by an average of 13.5 ppg. Right now, a win in any of their last three games would make for a respectable season.
St. John’s: The Red Storm was viewed as a possible first-division team in the pre-season, but they have fallen short of expectations. The loss of senior Daryll Hill to injury once again hasn’t helped, but, overall, this is a squad that just hasn’t jelled. Senior Lamont Hamilton has played like an all-conference player at times – 23 points and 12 rebounds against Notre Dame, 20 points and seven rebounds against South Florida, and 20 points and nine rebounds against Providence – but he’s also had too many games (6) when he scored 10 points or fewer. For the Storm to have a shot at even the NIT, it will have to win a couple of more regular season games and then pull off a couple of upsets in the conference tournament. But I wouldn’t bet on that happening.
Syracuse: From one game to the next, you never know which Syracuse team is going to show up. Will it be the one that was embarrassed at home by Notre Dame, or the one that beat both Villanova and Marquette by double digits? Which Demetris Nichols will show up? Will it be the one that scored 37 points against St. John’s or the one that scored eight against South Florida? Which Eric Devendorf will show up? Will it be the one who scored 20 or more points three times, or the one who scored four points in two different games and none in another? The Orange could steal one of the four byes in the conference tournament, but they have three tough games left: at Providence, at Villanova, and at home against Georgetown. Two out of three gets them a decent seed in the NCAA.
Villanova: The Wildcats won four in a row before a close loss to Georgetown at home and a road loss to Marquette. They are playing solid basketball and have an RPI that should lead to a ticket to the Big Dance as long as they can get to 8-8 in league play. Freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds has been on fire recently. He is probably the leading contender for conference ROY. This is a team with a nice blend of experience and youth, a team no one will want to face in the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia: Coach John Beilein deserves to be the conference’s Coach of the Year for the job he’s done with the Mountaineers. There were skeptics, and rightfully so, following WVU’s weak non-conference schedule, but here it is, the end of February, and guys like Joe Alexander, Alex Ruoff, Frank Young, and Darrin Nichols are still getting the job done. It may be a different combination of players each game, but West Virginia’s unique offensive system and its 1-3-1 zone defense have led to more wins than losses and a very likely NCAA Tournament berth. Freshman reserve Da’Sean Butler has been a spark off the bench and is probably the best sixth man in the league right now.