Big Time Big East Matchup
By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
January 19, 2012 03:42 PM
|Kevin Jones is looking to become just the third player in Big East history to lead the conference in scoring and rebounding in all games.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
The marquee game in the Big East Conference this Saturday was supposed to be Louisville at Pitt. ESPN has its College Basketball Game Day crew there this weekend to cover what was thought to be a prime-time battle of two top-ranked teams.
But the two have combined to win just two of 10 league games so far this year and the Panthers are in the unusual position of being at the bottom of the Big East standings with an 0-6 record.
Syracuse-Notre Dame was another red-letter game for the Family of Networks, ESPN carrying the contest at 6 p.m. as a lead-in to the Louisville-Pitt game.
And then CBS opted to make Connecticut-Tennessee its choice for the 4 p.m. time slot. The Huskies are coming off a loss on Wednesday night to Cincinnati while the Volunteers are still walking in the fog a year after Bruce Pearl’s departure.
The game Saturday that has kind of crept up on everybody is Cincinnati at West Virginia, which will tip at 3 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPNU. The winner of that tilt will likely be in next week’s top 25 when it is released on Monday.
The Bearcats have made a complete 180 following the embarrassing brawl with cross-town rival Xavier that resulted in the six-game suspension of 6-foot-9 center Yancy Gates.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin compensated for the loss of Gates by employing a small lineup and it has paid off in a big way, the Bearcats going 10-1 since the fight, including big conference road victories at Pitt, 10th-ranked Georgetown and, most recently, at 13th-ranked UConn. In fact, Cincinnati is one of the best road teams in the country winning its last seven in a row in conference play dating back to last year.
“It’s risk-reward,” said Cronin of his decision to go small. “You’re not going to rebound the ball the way we have in the past. Nine turnovers is our high for the Big East, and if you go back to our game prior to that against Oklahoma, we only had nine, so you don’t turn the ball over and theoretically you should be a better offensive team because you have more weapons on the floor that can shoot the ball and spread the floor. If you’re scoring, it’s worth it.”
Six of the Bearcats’ last seven games have been decided by two possessions or less, including Wednesday night’s 70-67 win at Connecticut on Sean Kilpatrick’s 3-pointer with two seconds left.
“Any time you win at UConn it’s a great win for your program,” said Cronin. “We tried to give the game away at the end by missing two front ends of the one-and-one and only getting two out of a possible eight points at the foul line - and then giving up three 3-point shots in the last minute thirty - so we had to escape with some heroics by Sean Kilpatrick with a big made shot for us at the end. It was a great effort by our team, and if you’re going to try and compete for a league title, you’ve got to win those kinds of games.”
Cincinnati is 5-1 in conference play (15-4 overall) and has solidified its spot as the league’s No. 2 team behind top-ranked Syracuse.
Meanwhile, West Virginia (tied for fourth in the Big East with Marquette and USF at 4-2) picked up a nice non-conference victory against Conference USA’s top team, Marshall, Wednesday night on a neutral floor to bring a 14-5 overall record into Saturday’s game.
The Mountaineers have faced one of the toughest schedules in the country and they boast player of the year candidate Kevin Jones, who continues to lead the Big East in scoring (20.4 ppg.) and rebounding (11.4 rpg.). Jones is looking to become just the third player in league history to lead the Big East in scoring and rebounding in all games.
Walter Berry did it for St. John’s in 1986 with averages of 23 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and Notre Dame's Troy Murphy duplicated the feat in 2000 with averages of 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
“Kevin is obviously probably the player of the year in our conference right now,” said Cronin.
An interesting Jones-Yancy Gates matchup inside will be complimented by a backcourt battle featuring Kilpatrick and West Virginia’s Truck Bryant. Kilpatrick is averaging 16.2 points per game and has made a team-best 54 3s as one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league.
“I thought last year he had a chance to be one of the best players in our league, or at least like Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones – Kevin is a guy he grew up with – of being one of the most productive players in our league because he gets the ball in the basket,” said Cronin of his sophomore guard. “He’s got to stay healthy and the more he’s able to expand his game and the more he’s able to create off the dribble, the better player he’s going to be going forward.”
Bryant is averaging 18.1 points per game and has hit 45 3s so far. Gates is Cincinnati’s best inside player showing averages of 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
“It’s a huge challenge presented to us to try and go in there and get a win in a place where it’s as tough a place to play as there is in our conference,” said Cronin. “We have to try to get some rest and then get back on the plane, but the plane has been good to us over the last couple of years. We’ll see how it goes on Saturday.”
It’s a game certainly worth keeping an eye on.
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