Thursday Recap: Can Pittsburgh or Villanova Turn Things Around?

January 6th, 2012

To understand the funk that Pittsburgh and Villanova are currently mired in, it may take this fact about the two teams they lost to on Thursday night. This is the first time as members of the Big East (since 2005-06 for both) that DePaul and USF have won conference games on the same night. Yes, allowing that to sink in underlines the gravity of the situation for both the Panthers and Wildcats, as both teams are in need of some answers at this point in time. 

Pittsburgh, once again playing without point guard Tray Woodall, had their biggest issues show up on the defensive end in their 84-81 loss to the Blue Demons. DePaul scored 53 points and shot 59.4% from the floor in the second half to make their comeback, and point guard Brandon Young was near unstoppable with 26 points, six assists, five steals and four rebounds with just one turnover. Pittsburgh held a 50-32 edge on the boards, but when a team makes 10 of 22 from beyond the arc as DePaul did, winning on the road becomes that much tougher. 

Even with all five starters scoring in double figures (Talib Zanna led the way with 16), the Panthers were in trouble for much of the night due to the issues defensively to go along with some bad decisions late. Ashton Gibbs' decision to give the foul on Young as the sophomore was attempting what would be the game-winning layup with 17.2 seconds remaining may be the most glaring mistake, but there were issues in terms of shot selection and some costly turnovers as well. 

As for Villanova the situation may be even worse, as Jay Wright's team is extremely young in key areas. And youth doesn't always have to be measured by years; lack of familiarity with a new role can be just as damning for a team and that could be the case for Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek.

Cheek now has to be a feature option for the Wildcats offensively, and while he had a key role last season Wayns is being entrusted with the task of running the show without a Corey Fisher alongside him. Other than these two and Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova is relying a lot on their youngsters, and the 74-57 loss to USF further exposed the fact that they're not ready for the Big East yet. 

While Villanova was expected to be a bubble team this season, the expectations were much higher for Pittsburgh. If anything the impact of the loss of players such as Fisher and Corey Stokes (Villanova), and Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee and Gilbert Brown (Pittsburgh) was underestimated by those outside of the respective programs.

While many are quick to point out the fact that leagues can eat their young in conference play, it can also expose older players as well. There's still time for both teams to turn things around, but Pittsburgh and Villanova both understand that they need to do so quickly.  

Other Notable Happenings

1. Indiana hangs on to beat Michigan and remain undefeated at home.
The battle between the Hoosiers and Wolverines lived up to the pregame expectations, but at the end of the contest Indiana's starting frontcourt and Victor Oladipo's defense made the difference in the 73-71 win. Christian Watford was a matchup nightmare for Michigan, scoring 25 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists, and Cody Zeller added 18, four rebounds and two blocks. By comparison, the Michigan starting frontcourt of Jordan Morgan (12 points, nine rebounds) and Evan Smotrycz (eight points) was solid but didn't have a similar impact.

As a team the Hoosiers shot 55.1% from the field and finished with an effective field goal percentage of 62.2%, well above what Michigan allowed entering the game (47.1%). Another area in which Indiana held their own was three-point shooting. Michigan did make ten, with Stu Douglass making three, but they needed twenty-four attempts to do so while Indiana made seven of their eleven attempts.

But back to Oladipo, who was given the responsibility of defending Tim Hardaway Jr. for much of the night. Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 19 points, but he needed 19 shot attempts to do so (0-for-7 3PT). Oladipo didn't shoot well himself (2-for-10, five points) but that didn't stop him from taking care of business on the other end. There's also the matter of what Indiana's backcourt was able to do with Michigan freshman Trey Burke, who scored ten points on 4-for-15 shooting. Indiana's offense will get the headlines in many circles, but don't ignore their effort defensively.  

2. Good luck making any sense of the Pac-12 this season.
Two happenings on Thursday sum up the conference: Utah won, and so did Arizona State with just six scholarship players after having to suspend three. Yeah, it's going to be a wacky year in the Pac-12, and that's not a good thing for a league that put together a 1-24 record against RPI Top 50 teams in non-conference play. My question on Twitter was a simple one, but one without a clear answer at this point in time. With so many meager non-conference resumes it may take at least 12 league wins to be a seriously discussed at-large candidate, but who can accomplish that in this conference?

The quick responses would likely yield Arizona, California and maybe Washington, but all three went on the road and lost on Thursday. Stanford? They fell at Oregon, who owns one of the two wins for road teams in the first week-plus of conference play (at Washington State last week). Oregon State, who went 0-2 against the Washington schools last week, could also be an option given their talent. But the fact that there are so many question marks is a bad thing for the Pac-12 in terms of their prospects come Selection Sunday.

Just one team remains undefeated in conference play: Colorado, who whipped the Huskies 87-69 in Boulder. But given the way things have played out thus far, the Buffaloes will likely fall against Washington State. One-bid league? Never thought it would be a serious possibility, but that could very well be the reality if a couple of teams don't rise above the rest of the conference.  

3. Penn State hands Purdue a 20-point loss for their first Big Ten win of the season.
Patrick Chambers' Nittany Lions have taken their lumps, which was expected to happen given the major personnel losses from last season's NCAA Tournament team. But they gave a serious lump to Purdue on Thursday night, leading from start to finish in a 65-45 romp in Happy Valley. As a team the Boilermakers shot just 31.9% for the game, and outside of Robbie Hummel (14 points, five rebounds) Purdue starters shot 5-for-22 on the night. Tim Frazier played well for Penn State, finishing with 15 points, nine assists and five rebounds, but he wasn't the star as Billy Oliver knocked down seven of eleven three-pointers to score a game-high 21 points.

The 6'8" forward shoots 37% from beyond the arc, but this was quite the explosion for a player who had made three or more from deep in just three games this season. Purdue entered the contest with every opportunity to take care of business as a team hoping to contend for a conference title would, and they came out flat. Sometimes it takes getting drilled to remember that you can't get away with such starts. 

Quick Hitters

1. No sequence summed up the night better than Louisiana-Lafayette playing the final seconds of overtime against Western Kentucky with six players on the floor. Yes, six. After nearly turning the ball over Elfrid Payton scored a layup that gave the Ragin' Cajuns a 72-70 win. According to the rules there was no way for the officials, who missed the error coming out of the timeout, to review the play and assess a technical foul (which should have been the call to begin with). There's also no way for the Sun Belt to go back and replay the final seconds, meaning that the Hilltoppers are out of luck.  

2. Also in the Sun Belt, keep an eye on North Texas especially with Tony Mitchell now in the fold. Mitchell led the Mean Green to a 78-73 overtime win at South Alabama with 34 points and 16 rebounds, and if this is a harbinger of things to come this is a team that can contend to win the conference. 

3. Manhattan was just seconds away from their third MAAC win, but a Dylon Cormier three from the corner gave Loyola (MD) the 61-60 win in Baltimore. Cormier was one of three Greyhounds to score 11 points while Erik Etherly added eight points, seven assists and six rebounds. George Beamon led the Jaspers with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. 

4. Glen Braica's St. Francis (NY) Terriers moved to 2-1 in NEC play, beating Quinnipiac 73-72 in Brooklyn. The Terriers, who were led by Stefan Perunicic (21 points), likely won't be a contender for the league title but games like this make the difference between hosting and going on the road in the quarterfinals of the NEC Tournament. Good win for the Terriers. 

5. Congratulations are in order for the Hartford Hawks, who picked up their first win of the season. Andres Torres scored 27 points and grabbed six rebounds as the Hawks beat New Hampshire 56-49 in West Hartford.

6. Wofford may not be one of the teams discussed as a contender in the SoCon, but the defending champs aren't in the business of conceding anything. Karl Cochran led four starters in double figures with 21 points as the Terriers beat College of Charleston 75-58 to move to 2-1 in league play. The Cougars made just 34.4% of their two-point shots on the night as Wofford did a good job of limiting their quality looks.  

7. In the Big West, UCSB sent a message to Cal-State Fullerton in the form of a 77-64 win in their first home game since November 30th. Orlando Johnson scored 23 points and James Nunnally 18 as the Gauchos remained undefeated in league play while handing the Titans their first Big West loss. Fullerton will still be a factor in the race, but until further notice it's safe to say that UCSB and Long Beach State are the best bets to win the league.

Three Notable Performances

1. F Tony Mitchell (North Texas)
34 points and 16 rebounds in the Mean Green's 78-73 overtime win at South Alabama.

2. F Jamal Olasewere (Long Island)
29 points and 12 rebounds in the Blackbirds' 87-81 win at Sacred Heart.

3. F Rob Jones (Saint Mary's)
31 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in the Gaels' 78-72 win at San Diego.