Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wisconsin Gets Well; Will Pittsburgh?

It has been a very interesting start to the conference season in college basketball, and nothing over the first couple of weeks of 2012 has been more surprising than the horrific starts of two perennial power-conference powers: Wisconsin of the Big Ten, and Pittsburgh of the Big East. The Badgers dropped three straight after opening conference play with a win at Nebraska, including losses to Iowa (yuck) and Michigan State on their usually impenetrable home floor. The Panthers have dropped their first four conference games (and five overall), including two defeats at the Petersen Events Center, where they were practically unbeatable before this season (they also dropped non-conference games at home to Long Beach State and Wagner).

Both of these teams are accustomed to being at or near the top of their respective leagues, and both were expected to more or less maintain the status quo this season. So is there any hope for either of them?

Even before Thursday night, the answer to that question with regards to Wisconsin would almost certainly have been "yes." The Badgers are healthy and only the loss to Iowa was truly horrific. Wisconsin then went out and solidified that opinion, re-instilling some of their fans' shaken confidence with a win over Purdue in Mackey Arena, another hellacious place for visiting teams to play.

The Panthers are a different story entirely. Their four conference losses were all winnable games, and the losses have gotten progressively worse: at Notre Dame, vs. Cincy (nothing too wrong with these first two), at DePaul (on the road, but ew), and then to Rutgers, at home ... by a score of 62-39.

Moreover, Pittsburgh isn't healthy. Point guard Tray Woodall suffered an abdominal injury last semester and has only played in one of the team's last ten games; he's been cleared to play but hasn't felt comfortable yet. And highly-touted freshman Khem Birch opted in December to transfer to UNLV. There's also some evidence that Pitt wasn't as actually as good as they were expected to be to begin with. They have Woodall and All-Big East candidate Ashton Gibbs in the backcourt, but their best inside player (Nasir Robinson is only 6'4" or 6'5" and there isn't a lot of depth. Losing to Long Beach State isn't really a big deal, but there wasn't a lot else in their non-conference schedule to get excited about.

It gets worse, too. Pittsburgh's next three games are at Marquette, at Syracuse, and at home against Louisville. Woodall seems to be taking his time coming back from his injury, but muscle strains tend to linger and even if he is completely healthy, he won't be at full strength after such a long layoff. Moreover, there's no evidence that the Panthers are good enough to beat any of these teams even with Woodall in the lineup.

At the start of the season, I planned on writing a preview for all 31 Division I conferences. I was going to publish them on the eve of the start of the meat of each league's conference schedule; they would contain a composite of pre-season predictions from a variety of sources, a recap of each team's season to date, and my picks for how the final conference standings would turn out.

The Big East was the first conference I was going to do, and I only got halfway through before I realized that the task I had laid out for myself was impossibly time-consuming, given my schedule (maybe next year, when I'm not studying for a bar exam or looking for a job).

But before I gave up, I was contemplating just how far to drop Pittsburgh, the consensus Big East number three behind Connecticut and Syracuse in the preseason (one publication had them first). I was low on Pitt, in part due to being underwhelmed by what I saw on the court against LBSU, and in part because of Woodall's injury -- with so many tough games in the first part of the schedule, the absence or limitation of their point guard could lead to a big losing stretch that would shake the team's confidence and doom the rest of the regular season (something college teams are prone to). I hadn't decided how low I was going to pick them, though I knew it was going to be no higher than fifth. I probably wasn't going to stick them in the bottom half, probably because I underestimated Cincinnati's ability to bounce back from the Xavier debacle, underestimated West Virginia and Georgetown in general, and -- like everyone else -- was completely unprepared for how well the Jersey schools (Rutgers and esepcially Seton Hall) would start conference play.

I certainly did not expect them to open their league slate 0-7, which seems likely now. And at this point, I'd be surprised if they made the NCAA Tournament, which would probably make them the most disappointing team in the country this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment