Friday, January 04, 2008


January 6, 2008

Although Sunday afternoon is a match-up of a pair of current Top 20 teams in Pittsburgh and Villanova, it is also a match-up of two teams with numerous questions surrounding them both.

The obvious questions at Pittsburgh is how are they going to navigate the Big East conference schedule with a depleted roster. Heading into practice in mid-October, the Panthers were expecting a full allotment of 13 scholarship players available. The news of Darnell Dodson not being cleared by the NCAA hardly caused a stir as he was expected to be redshirted because of depth on the wing. The news of Austin Wallace being injured in practice and lost for the season also hardly made waves since his contributions were expected to be minimal this season. Pitt pressed on, winning their first 10 games and met Duke at Madison Square Garden on ESPN. The Panthers pulled off the upset when Levance Fields hit a clutch three pointer with 4.7 seconds left in the contest, just moments after his best friend on the team Mike Cook went down with a serious knee injury.

Cook's injury raised a question on the Panthers, but they were still regarded as a Top 10 team and a Final Four contender once another of the pieces of the puzzle (Gilbert Brown) was plugged into the mix. Afterall, that is what Pittsburgh does, they plug in good players in place of good players each and every season. Brown even brought a little extra promise as the exciting redhsirt freshman has loads of potential in his 6'5 frame. However, things got worse, during a 25-point drubbing at Dayton, the Panthers saw their most irreplacable player go down with an injury, Levance Fields suffered a broken foot and initial reports had him sidelined for 8-12 weeks, if not the season. He could be back sooner, but now the Panthers enter Big East play with five new starters from a year ago.

for Villanova, the out of conference schedule was a solid success for Jay Wright's young squad. They won 10 of 11 contests, only a controversial last second foul against North Carolina State prevented them from being unbeaten. They did not overly push themselves (no games against Top 25 teams) and the only true road game took place at Temple, but they were working the kinks out as they looked to replace seniors Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi and Will Sheridan from last year's team.

Sometimes, winning masks problems, and Jay Wright raised concerns about his team's defense on several occassions, but the young Wildcats were scoring a lot of points and winning. However, that ended on Thursday night in Chicago when a 4-7 DePaul squad rose up and defeated the 17th-ranked Wildcats, 84-76. Now, the Wildcats return home to face cross state rival Pittsburgh in a key game.

Pittsburgh does have one game under their belt since Fields was injured, a 96-75 home win over Lafayette. The Panthers will move Ronald Ramon, a senior, into the starting point guard spot and senior Keith Benjamin will start at shooting guard. In their debut without Fields, Ramon had 11 pts, 10 assists and no turnovers and Benjamin had a career-high 20 pts. However, Lafayette maybe a school in Pennsylvania, but that is all they have in common with Villanova. The Wildcats will likely come out with a little more fire defensively, especially on the perimeter and will likely challenge the ball-handling abilities of Ramon and Benjamin. Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher will likely be after the Panther gaurds from start to finish, trying to force them to set-up their offense out of their comfort zone and make it difficult for them to get the ball inside to Dejuan Blair or to Sam Young on the baseline for then to work against Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham.

The Panther defense will also be challenged by the Wildcats as they will try to attack off the dribble and draw fouls. Pitt is down to jusy nine scholarship players, but Gary McGhee is also hobbled and likely headed for a redshirt and Cassin Diggs is a likely match-up dilemma that the Panthers will be unwilling to use, leaving them with a 7-man rotation. Villanova on the other hand can go with Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena, Malcolm Grant and Dwayne Anderson off the bench as options, so despite missing Casseim Drummond due to injury, the Wildcats are the deeper team.

One thing we do know about Pittsburgh is they will not quit. Jamie Dixon will have them playing hard, but the pressure opposing guards will apply against Pittsburgh is going to make it awful tough for them to run their offense effectively and take advantage of a pair of very good forwards in Blair and Young. it will be a tough game, but Villanova rebounds at home to win this one.

NBE Blogger: Villanova 67 Pittsburgh 62



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