Lessons learned from a banner weekend in the loaded Big East
Villanova's Scottie Reynolds has become a far more efficient player as a senior
Syracuse is the most complete team in the Big East -- and still has room to grow
The Mountaineers' offense has problems, but they own the offensive boards
PHILADELPHIA -- College basketball is in a state of severe coastal imbalance. West of Austin, Texas, quality teams are scarce: The Pac-10 is barren, and Gonzaga is the lone Pacific Ocean-state school in The Associated Press Top 25. The largest concentration of power is in the Big East, which had four top-11 schools meeting in a pair of games this weekend -- and none of them was Pittsburgh, the league's surprise co-leader at 5-0. To get a sense of life in the nation's deepest conference, I spent Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va., for No. 5 Syracuse's 72-71 win over then-No. 10 West Virginia -- an impressive road effort that the Orange would follow up with a victory at Notre Dame two days later. On Sunday, I was in Philly for No. 4 Villanova's 82-77 win over No 11 Georgetown. Here's what I discovered on the road:
Scottie Reynolds has evolved. Villanova's star senior guard has always been clutch, as he was on Saturday, scoring six points in the final 3:14, and he's always been near-impossible to contain off the dribble, but for the first time in his career, he's being efficient, too. Reynolds' moments of recklessness are so few and far between now that he can laugh about them -- in particular the 1-on-3 fast break he forced just under the 10-minute mark in the second half, with the Wildcats up 64-58. It ended badly, with him clanging a heavily contested layup attempt off the underside of the front rim. "It was crazy," coach Jay Wright remarked of the play, shaking his head. Reynolds, sitting next to him in the press conference, smiled and said, "One a game, coach. You said one a game."
In 2006-07, as a rookie on an undermanned 'Nova team that had just lost Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray to the NBA, Reynolds would often force shots like that 6-7 times per game, with Wright's blessing. "We needed him to score then," the coach said, "and the only way he could do it was if he was wild." That missed layup against the Hoyas stood out because it was so unlike anything Reynolds did the rest of the afternoon -- he otherwise stayed within the flow of the offense, and finished with 27 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Wright's message to Reynolds this offseason was that he needed to become a more efficient scoring guard, and he's responded: After posting shooting percentages of 38.7, 41.2 and 40.0 in his first three seasons on the Main Line, Reynolds is shooting 50.5 percent as a senior, with a career-high offensive rating of 122.1. "I could always get off shots," he said, "but [now I'm] taking good shots that I can make, and not just prayers all the time."
If 'Nova is going to make it back to the Final Four, it needs freshman power forward Mouphtaou Yarou to be much more of a defensive presence than he was on Sunday. Hoyas center Greg Monroe played brilliantly, but part of the reason he put up 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds was because the Wildcats only had one player who tried to match him physically. That was senior forward Antonio Pena, who eventually was DQ'd with five fouls. Yarou, the Big Beninois (6-foot-10, 250 pounds) whom Wright called the team's X-factor in the preseason, returned to the rotation on Jan. 6 after overcoming a bout with Hepatitis B, and looked strong guarding Louisville's Samardo Samuels in a road win on Jan. 11. But Yarou seemed overmatched by Monroe, getting out of defensive position in the post and struggling to move his feet against the Georgetown big man on the perimeter. While Wright praised his other freshmen, especially backup point guard Maalik Wayns, who was unflappable late in the game, he didn't have an instant explanation for Yarou's issues. "The only guy I thought wasn't himself tonight was Mouph," Wright said. "I've gotta talk to him. He's very bright, he thinks things through; he just didn't go out there and play aggressively."
Syracuse is the Big East's most complete team, and right now, its best Final Four candidate. Morgantown's WVU Coliseum is an unfriendly place for visitors. The unruly student section there launched into its first a-hole chant in the first two minutes of the game, and threw cups and bottles on the floor late in the second half. But the Orange kept their composure in their toughest road test of the year, overcame early foul trouble to their two key perimeter players, Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins, and were tougher than a Mountaineers team that prides itself on smashmouth basketball, holding them to 39.3 percent shooting from the field. A year after losing his potent backcourt of Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has a team that's better-constructed for March than the '08-09 version was. "We're much better on defense than we've been, we trap better, and we're much better balanced," Boeheim said, but he was also adamant that the Orange still have plenty of room to grow -- a scary thought given that they're ranked eighth nationally in offensive efficiency, and 16th in defensive efficiency.
His reasoning is that his personnel has yet to truly gel, since his rotation includes two point guards that didn't play last season (freshman Brandon Triche and sophomore Scoop Jardine), a sixth man who didn't play last season, either (Kris Joseph), a transfer star (Johnson), and a two-guard who spent '08-09 as a small forward (Rautins). "This is the first time this group's been together," Boeheim said. "It's a whole new dynamic."
Pitt, the only team to beat Syracuse this season, doesn't have as many newcomers, but like Boeheim, coach Jamie Dixon has successfully found a new dynamic. Guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker have grown from role-playing reserves into the Panthers' two biggest shot-takers, and Nasir Robinson, Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor have combined to help pick up DeJuan Blair's rebounding slack (although equalling it is an impossible task). In the Big East this year, overhaul projects have worked.
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