by Cub Buenning

Winter is upon on us and Cub Scouts is back with a randomly Pennsylvania-heavy look at the week of action in college basketball. Two Top 10 ranked teams suffered minor setbacks in the past seven days, while the bulk of teams prep for holiday tournaments and the jump-start of conference play. Despite the ire I have for rankings in general, I want to say ‘Good morning’ to those “experts” that finally decided to include the Baylor Bears in their little poll. Like I said in my Big 12 preview, this dangerously balanced team from Waco will be a fashionable pick to advance far come March.

1. Pittsburgh and the Big East need to look at their pre-conference scheduling.
The Panthers of Western PA have started with 10 straight wins for the sixth year in a row and for some reason, I am suspicious. How can a team start off so strongly for such an extended period of time, but have little actual postseason success to show? Yes, Pitt did take home the Big East Tournament crown last year, but that type of hardware should be saved for a totally different trophy case. In those six seasons (five under current head coach Jamie Dixon) Pittsburgh has never advanced past the Sweet 16 and in two of the last three years, they failed to make it out of the second round.

I would also put a collective “your bad” onus on the teams’ league-wide scheduling. While preparing the Big East preview, it was more than apparent than only a few teams (I.e. Notre Dame and Syracuse) decided to challenge themselves before the brutal run that will be “conference play” this year. This desire to play the dregs of Division-I play raises the obvious question.

What has the Big East done in NCAA Tournament play since Syracuse and Connecticut went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004? I know that teams from this league currently account for seven of the AP Top 15 (why have polls right now?!?) but check the records, it’s not good. In the last four years, only one team from the Big East has made a Final Four with Georgetown losing in the national semifinals in 2007.

2. Despite being a relatively quiet week, there were a few upsets to mention.
Two of the season’s early favorites to compete for a national title went down in out-of-conference action. Gonzaga suffered their first loss of the year in a thriller on Sunday night against Arizona. Although not a big upset in my mind (remember, Cub Scouts loves us some Arizona, too) the outcome might be a better win for the Wildcats than a killer loss for the Zags. The game was knotted with just under a minute to go and surprisingly, it was erratic late-game play by senior guard Jeremy Pargo that allowed the unranked Wildcats to steal the win in Phoenix. To their credit, Arizona played a tremendous defensive game, employing a new trapping-style of attack which didn’t stymie Gonzaga as much as it simply changed the pace of things. Everyone thinks of Chase Budinger when Arizona is mentioned, but it was his sidekick tandem of Jordan Hill and Nic Wise that were the difference. Both of the juniors went over the 20-point plateau (while Air Bud got his requisite 16 and7) and the Hill and Wise combined to hit six straight free-throws in the game’s final minute to secure the 69-64 win.

Tennessee and Bruce Pearl were not welcomed nor treated with much brotherly love as they got pounded by Temple in Philadelphia (Hey Ryan, maybe that wasn’t that bad of a loss for Penn St. after all?) The Volunteers received some early coal in their stockings, getting “scrooged” by Temple guard Dionte Christmas who exploded for 35 points in the Owls’ impressive 16-point win.

3. Speaking of Philly, who does Cub Scouts need to talk to about getting the “Big Five” back in order?
I’ve mentioned in this space before that the city of Philadelphia boasts the best college basketball in America; it is not even close. However, what has happened to the prestige and tradition of games The Palestraplayed between the city’s hoop brethren in Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, LaSalle, Pennsylvania and Temple? In the teams’ long respective histories, all of the games played between these five were contested inside the hallowed halls of the Palestra, which the Quakers of Pennsylvania have called home since…the day James Naismith invented our fair game. Personally, I was able to play in some of the nation’s greatest facilities for college basketball, but I always looked forward to our annual trip down to Philly for a game at the Palestra.

This weekend I dug up the LaSalle vs. Villanova game on the tube but was immediately turned off when I noticed that the game was being played at that corny dump on Nova’s campus.

Khalid and Aggrey, I need some help with this issue.

And guys, why don’t they just change the name, include Drexel, and call it the Big Six?

4. Player Alert—Continued Philly Love
St. Joe’s Ahmad Nivins is this week’s player, not based on future upside as a professional, rather on sheer appreciation of a very fruitful four-year career. His averages dipped a bit last year after a stellar sophomore season, but he is back to his old self and is proving to be one of the real inside forces in the Atlantic-10.

The bruising power forward has been a rock for Phil Martelli since coming down the turnpike from Jersey City four years ago. This year, the 6-9 245-pound Nivins is enjoying his finest hour in West Ahmad Nivins smallerPhilly getting 19 and 11 a night (he hasn’t produced less than 14 points or 8 rebounds yet, either.) A brutally tough early season schedule, though, has the Hawks a little roughed up as they prepare for the A-10 run.

(Side note: I hate the drafting crap that abounds about “If a senior was good enough to play in the pros he would have left early.” This is not always the case (as humans we all develop differently) and this method of player selection often puts too large of an emphasis on “combine” statistics, as apposed to being able to actually play the game. On the (American) football side of things, the Denver Broncos have a rookie (Wesley Woodyard) playing linebacker and safety that was undrafted out of Kentucky despite leading the SEC in tackles last year. At 5-11, the dude was told he was too small, now he is a starter on a divisional leader.)

5. Games This Week
Like last week, the sheer amount of games is a bit thin, but if you can devote just one day (or a few hours of time) to college basketball, this Saturday might be one of the season’s best!

There is Saturday. For starters, not all of these games will be available to everyone, so checking your local listings will be integral in determining which ones you can actually watch.

CBS has a two-game, double-header starting at 2 p.m. with Xavier at Duke (both Top 10) while others will see Michigan State face the Texas Longhorns. Immediately following at about 4 p.m., fans can catch either Connecticut traveling to Seattle to play Gonzaga or Steph Curry and Davidson heading north to meet the Purdue Boilermakers.

On the cable tip, Fox Sports Net has a double-header in Phoenix beginning at the exact same time. In the first game (also starting at 2 p.m. ET) Louisville will face the surprisingly undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers, fronted by former Kentucky boss, Tubby Smith. That game is followed at around 4, by James Harden and the hometown Sun Devils of Arizona State hosting Brigham Young, which is led by 6-7 forward Lee Cummard, an assassin from distance (think Kyle Korver) that is getting 20 and 7 while shooting an amazing 63 percent from the field and 48 percent from long-range.

The night is capped off with a 6 p.m. dinner tip with Syracuse in the mid-South taking on the Memphis Tigers, who look to bounce back after their tough loss to Georgetown this past weekend.

Check Cub Buenning’s scouting website for weekly player reports. Many players highlighted in Cub Scouts are thoroughly covered on the site.