College basketball back with a bang
After a football-induced delay, the college basketball topics have returned, and it couldn't have come on a better Saturday. Twenty-three of the 26 teams (there was a two-way tie for 25th) in this week's AP poll are in action, with three games involving a pair of ranked teams - Pittsburgh (22) at Syracuse (2), Oklahoma State (9) at Kansas (15), and Oklahoma (T25) at Baylor (12). Top-ranked Arizona (18-0) is off, but the nation's other two unbeaten Division I teams are in action - Syracuse (17-0) and Wichita State (18-0), which hosts Indiana State.
The conference shuffle
Teams from the old Big East Conference have the highest RPI in their new leagues: Syracuse (ACC) is seventh, Connecticut (American Athletic) is 18th, and Villanova (new Big East) is fourth. But when you look at the latest figures, the Atlantic Ten has just as many teams in the RPI Top 50 - five - as the AAC, which is boosted by former Big East teams Cincinnati and Louisville as well as UConn, and one more than the new Big East. Massachusetts is fifth, George Washington tied for 25th, St. Louis 30th, Virginia Commonwealth 44th, and Dayton 45th. Trailing Villanova in the Big East are Creighton 14th, Xavier 33d, and Georgetown 49th.
Give 'em a minute
How about UMass, which in its most recent game rallied from five points down with 45 seconds to play to win at George Mason? The No. 16 Minutemen are led by 5-foot-9 senior Chaz Williams, who leads the A-10 in assists at 7.6 per game to go with a 16.1-point average. He was slowed a bit against George Mason with a bone bruise of the left ankle but still managed 26 points and eight assists in the win. "I didn't want to sit out," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Coach asked me, and I told him 'No.' After that, I told the team: 'I'm here, and let's play.' "
Success in the dome
Pittsburgh hopes its good run at the Carrier Dome continues in its ACC showdown against No. 2 Syracuse. Pitt is 5-1 in the dome since Jamie Dixon took over as head coach. Although they are 16-1, the Panthers, ranked 22d, haven't been getting much love because of their rather weak nonconference schedule. The Orange are only the second team ranked in the RPI top 50 that they'll be playing this season, and they lost to their only other top-50 opponent - Cincinnati. Pitt is playing typical Dixon-intense defense, allowing opponents only 60 points per game and 39.6 percent shooting from the field.
Not missing a beat
Wichita State reached the NCAA Final Four last season, defeating La Salle in a Sweet 16 matchup along the way, and has kept right on going as one of the nation's three unbeaten teams. Like any coach, the Shockers' Gregg Marshall rarely feels at ease in the routine of practices and games, but he wants himself and his players to appreciate what they've achieved. "I want to appreciate it now," Marshall told Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian. "Is that asking too much?" And last year's experience has the Shockers dreaming big. "We know we can win the whole doggone thing," Marshall said.
Bo and the Badgers
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, the pride of Chester High, doesn't go for the philosophy that an unbeaten team is helped by its first loss because it eases pressure that has built up. When asked about it after Tuesday night's loss at Indiana, he asked a reporter: "Did you go to dances when you were in high school? Did you ever ask somebody to dance and they said no? That's disappointment, but did you end up dancing later? We've got to come back. We've got another game coming up. It's disappointing but . . . you've got to ask somebody else [to dance], meaning you've got another game on the schedule. We have to prepare for our next opponent."
The best freshman?
The debate continues on the identity of the nation's best freshman, usually considered from a list of three - Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke, and Julius Randle of Kentucky. An interesting statistic comes from ESPN.com's Ryan Feldman, who compares the players' numbers against ranked opponents. Wiggins averages 20.2 points per game and 0.98 points per play, according to Feldman, compared with 20.3 and 0.91 for Parker, and 17.8 and 0.96 for Randle. Villanova was not yet a ranked team when it defeated the Jayhawks and hounded Wiggins into a 10-point, 3-rebound, 4-turnover night in the Battle for Atlantis on Nov. 27.
Expat of the week
Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas, a Philadelphia native who starred at the Academy of the New Church, has started all 17 games for the Orange and averages 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior is shooting 71.4 percent from the field. He has posted season highs of 15 points against Eastern Michigan and eight rebounds vs. North Carolina.
Games to Watch
Pittsburgh at Syracuse, Saturday at 4 p.m., ESPN
Only one team will be left standing unbeaten in the Atlantic Coast Conference after these two Big East expatriates meet at the Carrier Dome. Watch particularly for the Orange's Tyler Ennis, one of the best freshmen in the country, and Lancaster's Lamar Patterson, the Panthers' top scorer.
Oklahoma State at Kansas, Saturday at 4 p.m., CBS3
The Jayhawks appear to have gotten into a rhythm since the start of the Big 12 schedule, but the Cowboys and all-American Marcus Smart will be difficult.
Indiana St. at Wichita St., Saturday at 4 p.m., ESPN2
The fifth-ranked Shockers are sure to be tough at home in this meeting of the last two unbeaten teams in the Missouri Valley Conference
Indiana at Michigan State, Tuesday at 7 p.m., ESPN
The Hoosiers knocked off one of the Big Ten's giants in Wisconsin, but this time they're on the road against another conference Goliath.
UMass at Richmond, Wednesday at 7 p.m., ESPN3
As the Minutemen slowly creep up the national rankings, they must be wary of going on the road against a team like the Spiders.
Colorado at Arizona, Thursday at 9 p.m., ESPN2
Two problems for the Buffaloes - they're without top scorer Spencer Dinwiddie for rest of the season, and the host Wildcats are clicking on all cylinders.
- Joe Juliano