BIG EAST: Battle in Hartford part of busy Big East schedule

Nathan McGann



This past week boasted some incredible performances, notably from the big men within the Big East conference. Villanova’s own Dante Cunningham had back-to-back double-doubles in wins over Providence and Syracuse. Against Syracuse, Cunningham matched a career high, scoring 31 points. Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet also managed consecutive double-doubles in victories over Louisville on the road and non-conference opponent Michigan.

However, the most impressive performance came from Pittsburgh sophomore center DeJuan Blair who dissected the basement-dwelling DePaul Blue Demons. In the lopsided victory, Blair scored 32 points on top of 14 rebounds. This came after another solid performance, with 18 points and eight rebounds, against in-state rival Robert Morris.

Against DePaul, Blair’s 32 points were a career high. Recognition has to go to his point guard, Levance Fields, who registered 16 assists. Blair was very efficient during his scoring spree, hitting 14 of 23 shots – his fifteenth double-double of the season.

In the three games leading up to the contest against West Virginia on Monday, Blair has averaged 24.3 points, 14.6 rebounds and a 62 percent shooting percentage. In each of those three games, Blair has helped his team reach the 90-point plateau. Voters for Player of the Year will be hard-pressed to overlook an already stellar season from the sophomore.



Even while facing question after question about the lack of competitiveness in their non-conference matchups, Head Coach Jay Wright understood that all its opponents were important in preparing his Wildcats for the pressures of the Big East. Today, Wright must be smiling.

Although Villanova’s home victory over Pittsburgh was impressive and its first signature win, questions remained about Villanova’s ability to knock on the door of the top four in the conference standings. This past week showed that the Wildcats not only deserve such a high standing, but they also have no intentions of going away.

Villanova’s first challenge came on the road against the Providence Friars, a team that has been known to put up some serious scoring numbers but who has struggled against the Wildcats in the past. Villanova was able to hold off a late surge and leave with the 94-91 victory.

The Wildcats then welcomed the No. 23 Syracuse Orange to the Wachovia Center where Villanova essentially had its way in all facets of the game. The struggling Orange could only watch as Dante Cunningham and the other Wildcats tallied more than 100 points for the second time this season. It was Villanova’s second win over a ranked opponent.

The victory was the team’s fifth-straight win, and it now finds itself right on the cusp of the crucial double-bye in the Big East Tournament.



After opening Big East play with three losses to Marquette, Providence, and Connecticut, the Bearcats have gone on a nice run, winning six of their last eight. In that stretch, Cincinnati upset the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and beat the struggling Georgetown Hoyas twice. Normally those three wins would do wonders for a playoff resume, but the dramatic falls of both Georgetown and Notre Dame still leave Cincinnati in need of an impressive win.

The upcoming week will be critical for the veteran club. Cincinnati travels to Pitt and then welcomes Louisville shortly after. While it currently sits at seventh in the Big East standings and has surprised many on its way to a postseason berth, Cincinnati still needs to prove that it can contend with the upper echelon of the league.

By no means do the Bearcats need to win both, but a victory over either Pitt or Louisville would certainly cement their resume. Until that signature win comes, we can only watch as the Bearcats teeter on the much dreaded bubble.



The week ahead is very interesting in terms of Big East matchups. Villanova takes its streaking ways down to West Virginia to go against a team still looking to seal a bid come March. Some contests, such as the intense rivalry of Syracuse-Georgetown, should be heated. However, this week’s top contest is No. 5 Pittsburgh traveling to Hartford and looking to upset top-ranked Connecticut.

The game has great influence on the Big East standings. The top four teams from the Big East receive two byes in the conference tournament. While Marquette, Louisville, UConn, and Pitt have occupied those spots for the greater part of the season, none can afford any more losses. A Pitt loss could potentially propel Villanova into fourth place after the Wildcats win against Marquette on Tuesday.

Aside from the standings, Big East player-of-the-year candidates will be battling it out in the post. Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet and Pitt’s DeJuan Blair are both double-double machines, and it will be interesting to see if Blair, whose strength shows on the offensive glass, can continue that success when facing the 7-foot-3-inch Thabeet who has certainly come into his own over the past couple of weeks.

Pittsburgh-Connecticut is arguably the best Big East game of the season. Luckily, this is only the first of two battles between these Big East favorites as they will meet again in Pittsburgh on Feb. 16.


UConn is 19-1 all-time when Thabeet records a double-double … ’08-’09 is the first time ever a Jim Boeheim coached Syracuse team has allowed 100 points twice in a season … The win versus Marquette was USF’s first ever against a Top-10 team.