College Basketball Nation: Ryan Boatright

Why Connecticut will win

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There is a place for logic and common sense in the world. Sports isn’t always one of those places.

Logically Connecticut shouldn’t be able to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats are bigger, stronger and, man for man, have more options than the Huskies.

But if you’ve watched UConn in the past three weeks -- heck if you’ve watched basketball the past three weeks -- you know that strange things happen in March. No one expected Connecticut to beat Saint Joseph’s, let alone the four teams that came after. On paper there were very good, sane reasons to think UConn wouldn’t be able to beat Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida.

Paper, though, can tell you only so much. Teams win in this NCAA tournament with attitude as much as aptitude.

Both Connecticut and Kentucky were essentially counted out as recently as a month ago and not without merit. The Huskies lost by 33 to Louisville; the Wildcats were a train wreck in the SEC.

And then suddenly the magic of March reared its head. They won and winning is a dangerous aphrodisiac. It breeds maybe the most valuable tool in NCAA play -- confidence.

Both Connecticut and Kentucky are riding that confidence train into Monday’s national championship game, but the Huskies’ ride has been decidedly smoother.

Unlike the Wildcats, who are making defibrillators with champagne chasers in Kentucky, the Huskies -- save the overtime win against Saint Joseph’s -- have won with relative ease.

Which isn’t logical, either. With all of the talent, Kentucky ought to be winning more easily than UConn.

Which is why I’ll go with the unlikely, illogical, borderline nonsensical pick and say Connecticut cuts down the nets Monday.

As to the more practical hows and whys, well, there’s some of that, too.

The path to victory

Connecticut will win this game the way the Huskies have won every game in this NCAA tournament -- with their defense. The Huskies are limiting teams to 39 percent shooting from the floor in the postseason and just 65.8 points, plus forcing 13.2 turnovers per game.

Michigan State and Florida couldn’t even get out of the 50s against the Huskies.

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Elsa/Getty ImagesFor all they do on offense, it's what Shabazz Napier (13) and Ryan Boatright are doing on the defensive end that has been the key to UConn's title run.
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, with a little help from Terrence Samuel, have guarded the perimeter like it’s an electric shock collar zone. No one is allowed entry. Michigan State’s Keith Appling and Travis Trice were frustrated into near absenteeism in the Elite Eight game; Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin had more turnovers against the Huskies (three) than he had in the Gators’ previous four NCAA tournament games combined (two).

As good as the Harrison twins have been for Kentucky in this postseason, the Wildcats are still averaging 10.5 turnovers and aside from Louisville, haven’t met anyone with a backcourt quite like Connecticut’s. The Huskies’ ability to disrupt things in the backcourt almost serves as a defensive blockade. There’s a reason Michigan State had only six measly paint points against UConn. The Spartans couldn’t get the ball inside.

If the Huskies can do the same against Kentucky, it will negate the Wildcats’ obvious advantage -- the big men.

Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan will have their hands full with Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. There’s no getting around that. The more lithe Huskies are an OK rebounding team for one that’s so small, but OK doesn’t work against Kentucky. The Wildcats are absolute beasts on the boards and use the backboard as an assist maker, the setup to easy shots or trips to the free throw line.

One-on-one, UConn will be at a disadvantage, but if the Huskies’ guards can make it difficult to get the ball inside that makes life a lot easier on the blocks.

That, of course, takes care of only one half of the floor. Eventually the Huskies will have to score.

That task used to fall solely into Napier’s hands. That’s no longer the case. Aside from the vastly improved defense, the single most critical thing to happen to UConn in this postseason is that more Huskies are scoring more frequently.

Both Boatright’s and DeAndre Daniels’ numbers are up in the tournament, which has taken the heat off of Napier. Daniels’ emergence has been especially critical.

Prior to the NCAA tournament, Daniels was averaging 12.5 points per game and shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Since then, he’s scoring 17.6 and hitting 46.4. It was Daniels, not Napier, who got the Huskies going when they trailed Florida by 12, and Daniels who is keeping teams honest when they want to worry about guarding only the Huskies’ guards.

The truth is, UConn will be a big underdog in this game. No matter what the stats say, no matter how their confidence appears, the Huskies don’t have what Kentucky has in terms of sheer talent.

But that’s just being logical.

And sports isn’t always a good place for that.

Why Kentucky will win

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky’s ridiculous run to Monday’s national championship game against UConn seemed probable and even likely last summer. Then, John Calipari had an unprecedented number of McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects in the same freshman class. Add them to returning sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein and a lengthy stay in the Big Dance seemed possible.

But the Wildcats took five months to finally achieve this lofty potential. They knocked off Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to secure a slot in the national title game. Now the same Wildcats who lost to Arkansas and South Carolina toward the end of the SEC season have found a rhythm at the most crucial juncture of the season.

“I just knew that we had the talent and it was just a couple of things missing,” Aaron Harrison said Sunday. “We trusted Coach [Calipari] and he just put it all together for us. We just went out there and just started fighting and playing harder and playing for each other. I think that was the biggest thing.”

The Huskies are a team full of solid defenders who can create chaos for opposing players. Shabazz Napier will be the best player on the floor, too. But the Wildcats have the length, overall talent and depth to win their second national title in three seasons and ninth overall.

The path to victory

For months, Florida had been the best team in America. Until it met UConn Saturday for the second time this season. Napier didn’t score a point for the first 10 minutes of the game. And the Gators had a 16-4 lead early.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lee
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Lee, who averaged only 6.3 minutes per game in 2013-14, could play more for the Wildcats next season.
But then the Huskies ruined the Gators. Napier and Ryan Boatright harassed Scottie Wilbekin (2-of-9 shooting, three turnovers). They were physical inside and DeAndre Daniels (20 points, 10 rebounds) was a monster.

That trio is the key to the national title game.

Kentucky has to corral Napier. That’s the first step. He has done a great job of getting to the free throw line, creating shots inside of the arc and hitting 3-pointers. Florida did a good job of containing Napier early. But the Gators failed to protect the rim.

The Wildcats won’t have that problem. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are big guards who have the agility and athleticism to stick Napier and disrupt UConn’s offense. And Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Poythress will contest every shot at the rim. The Wildcats won’t let Boatright and Napier penetrate the way they did against the Gators on Saturday.

And their length will frustrate Daniels, too. If Kentucky can limit the effectiveness of those three players, beginning with Napier, it will be in a good position to win in the end.

But the Wildcats are also a matchup nightmare for a UConn team that will struggle with their size and brawn. Johnson and Randle will just keep attacking until they get to the rim and/or foul line.

Louisville defeated Connecticut three times by a combined 55 points this season. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell had a double-double in each game.

Plus the Harrison twins and James Young are potent in transition. When the Wildcats run, they can score in impressive flurries.

“First of all, we want to get back in transition,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday. “That’s our No. 1 key every game, especially [with] them. They got a lot of great athletes. They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability to get inside the paint. So we want to locate, want to get back, want to keep them in front of us, and then play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top.”

Monday’s title game will be played above the rim on both ends of the floor. Kentucky will penetrate and get easy buckets inside, while denying UConn similar opportunities with its defense.

The Wildcats have been in battles for the past three weeks. But they’ve survived them all. The Huskies can pressure backcourts and stop offenses from flowing. They can get hot from the 3-point line. Plus, Napier has been a master at getting to the free throw line, and he rarely misses when he gets there (86.9 percent this season).

The Wildcats, however, continue to overwhelm veteran, balanced units. They’ve faced adversity in every game they’ve played in the NCAA tournament. Yet they’ve prevailed in every situation.

Randle can get a bucket when he wants. Johnson cleans up behind him. Lee is the perfect energy guy who can give Calipari 10-15 solid minutes. Young is a playmaker. The Harrisons are the anchors now.

They’re difficult to defend in zone defense because they’re so athletic, quick and big inside. They’re difficult to guard man-to-man for the same reasons.

The Huskies have been impressive throughout this magical run to the national title game.

The Wildcats, however, are just on a different level. That’s why they’ll win.

NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

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Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

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Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.

Video: UConn's Ryan Boatright

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

Andy Katz interviews Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright on the Huskies' deep tournament run and their Elite Eight matchup against Michigan State.

NEW YORK -- Less than a month ago, Connecticut lost by 33 points against Louisville in a game that exposed every sort of liability and shortcoming the Huskies had.

And now, here we are.

If you don’t believe in the power of believing, well, then you don’t know March.

The Huskies are exactly what the NCAA tournament is about -- a good team that finds itself at just the right time, feeding off a newfound confidence to surprising results. No way anyone outside of the state of Connecticut saw this coming.

Yet here we are.

Seventh-seeded UConn survived a late rally from Iowa State to win 81-76 and advance to the Elite Eight.

Here are five observations from the game:

If DeAndre Daniels plays like this, watch out, Virginia or Michigan State. The Huskies have been waiting 37 games for someone not named Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to offer up some steady offense. In this NCAA tournament, Daniels has raised his hand.

Daniels scored a team-high 27 points against Iowa State, 19 of which came in the second half. Add that to the 18 he had against Saint Joseph's in the second round and 11 against Villanova, and you’ve got a guy who’s becoming a viable threat at just the right time.

Long and lean, Daniels is tough to guard. He can spot up and hit a 3 -- he hit two against the Cyclones -- but he can also work on the inside. He’s exactly what UConn has needed -- and been missing -- all season.

Not that you can forget Napier. Look, this will be Napier’s team until the season ends, whenever it ends. He’s still the engine and the motor. If not scoring the points, then he's setting up his teammates for them.

Even though he got a lot more help in this game -- along with Daniels, Napier’s wingmate, Boatright, continued his impressive tourney with 16 points -- Napier is still the engine and the motor. And while the Kemba Walker analogies might be growing tiresome, they aren’t going anywhere.

No Georges Niang hurt Iowa State on both sides. Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Thursday that he essentially goes into each game with two cards -- one filled with plays that start with DeAndre Kane, the other that run through Niang. So Iowa State essentially played this game with half of its offense sitting on the bench in a warm-up suit.

The Cyclones got by against North Carolina -- a better matchup -- but with no Niang inside, the Huskies were able to attack everything inside. UConn was cited for only four blocked shots in the official box score, but it altered plenty more. Kane and Melvin Ejim tried more circus shots than smart shots, which totally took Iowa State out of its offensive rhythm.

The two finished a combined 9-of-31.

On the other end of the floor, Niang's absence meant the Huskies were able to get in the lane with ease, either to score on pull-ups or kick out to easy 3-pointers.

It was almost an unfair fight.

This is now, and officially, Kevin Ollie’s team. It’s not easy to coach under the shadow of a legend, especially when said legend keeps lurking around behind the bench. Ollie has handled his inheritance of the UConn program with grace and dignity, never complaining about Jim Calhoun’s presence, never failing to compliment Calhoun’s legacy and welcome his insight.

But the page is turned once and for all now. The Huskies, caught in a dangerous season as they try to reassert themselves under Ollie and in a less-established league, have not missed a beat. Ollie has remade the team in his image, clapping and defensive crouching them from the sidelines into a team with more of an NBA style, but with equal success.

The Garden ought to be an NCAA tournament host every season. Feel free to call it East Coast bias, but when you’ve got an arena with as much hoops tradition as Madison Square Garden, a city that loves basketball and a place worth visiting, multiple return visits aren’t a bad thing.

The ticket gouging might have been criminal -- and the wheeling and dealing outside the building before tipoff would make Wall Streeters blush -- but the atmosphere in the building was electric.

There aren’t a whole lot of places left that mean anything to people from the ages of 65 to 25 to 15, but the Garden is one of them. Good choice, NCAA. Now come back.

NEW YORK -- They call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance, and the Connecticut Huskies danced their way onto the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday.

It was a brand-new floor -- the NCAA installs its own court at each tournament site -- but everything else looked familiar to the Huskies, who played here twice earlier this season and 13 times in the past four years.

No wonder No. 7 seed UConn looked so comfortable as it prepared for its noon 50-minute open practice, with several players shimmying on the sidelines before the team was introduced.

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Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier and the Huskies believe they will have a home-court advantage Friday versus Iowa State.
“I told the guys, this came full circle,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time, and our guys not able to play in the last Big East tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.”

It’s UConn’s 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but this one is extra special. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic performance and ruled ineligible for the Big East tournament as well.

It’s also extra special because these will be the first NCAA tournament games at Madison Square Garden since 1961.

Star guard Shabazz Napier, one of several Huskies who elected to stay at UConn despite the postseason ban, admitted Thursday he couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game of the 2013 tourney.

A huge fishing fan, Napier consoled himself by watching shows such as "River Monsters" on Animal Planet instead. “I didn’t want to watch [the tournament] because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed,” he said.

Napier has been one of the best shows in college basketball this season. A likely first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 senior leads Connecticut in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (5.9 RPG), assists (4.9 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG), and he has a penchant for making plays when it counts.

He hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Florida in early December, scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in UConn’s win over No. 10 seed St. Joseph’s to open this tournament, and followed that up with 25 points in a victory over second-seeded Villanova two days later.

Napier also scored 20 and 27 points in the Huskies' 2K Classic wins over Boston College and Indiana here back in November, and he believes his team has a definite advantage Friday night against No. 3 seed Iowa State, despite being the lower seed.

“The thing that would help us is our great fan base coming down and supporting us, like they always do,” Napier said. “When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward.”

Teammate Ryan Boatright believes UConn’s familiarity with the Garden will be a big plus, too.

“It just feels like a second home to us,” Boatright said. “If you’ve never played here before, it’s definitely a different feeling -- the background, the rims ... the whole crowd is dark, just the court is lit up. Everything is different than playing in a regular college stadium.”

It is expected to be a heavily pro-Huskies crowd, with the Connecticut campus just 135 miles away. UConn has always drawn well at the Garden, making this historic ticket even hotter than it already would have been.

The Metro-North commuter railroad is adding an extra express train from New Haven, Conn., to Grand Central Terminal on Friday afternoon, and extra cars to other trains departing New Haven for New York as well (and vice versa at the end of the night).

As of late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest single ticket available on StubHub for Friday’s regional semifinal doubleheader (also featuring Virginia versus Michigan State) was $594.05 -- for a bar-stool seat no less.

Ollie and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, good friends and former teammates with the Chicago Bulls, have both played at the Garden many times.

“It’s special. I can’t say it’s not,” said Ollie, who later called it “the greatest arena alive for basketball.”

The Garden was the first thing Hoiberg brought up in his pregame news conference.

“I’ll start out just by saying how excited our team is to be out here in New York City,” he said. “Our guys get the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget my first time here when the announcer comes on and says, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.’”

Iowa State is used to playing in front of large crowds -- the Cyclones were ranked No. 22 in Division I home attendance this season, averaging 13,393 fans per game. But Ames, Iowa, is more than 1,000 miles away, and the Cyclones have played at the Garden only three times in school history, the last being an 84-81 loss to Rutgers in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT.

Heck, Iowa State forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, N.Y., had never even set foot in the Garden before Thursday’s open practice.

Hoiberg admitted some concern. “To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys,” he said. “[But] you try to get the ‘wow’ factor out of the way as quickly as possible, so they can focus on the task at hand.”

The Cyclones did look a little more like tourists than the Huskies did when they walked on the floor two hours later. Hogue asked someone to take a picture of him at center court. Reserve forward Daniel Edozie pointed up at the giant overhead scoreboard in apparent glee.

But Hoiberg sounded confident that come Friday night, his team will be good to go.

“That’s been my message to them -- enjoy this day, in a very casual setting to go out there and get used to the shooting background and the rims,” he said. “Then tomorrow it’s all about business.

“Once that thing goes up tomorrow at 7:27, our guys will be ready to play.”

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- He started on the left side of the court, right in front of his own bench, and then dribbled toward the hoop, dragging his recently Biofreeze-soothed shin with him.

One step, another and then Shabazz Napier scored on a scooped circus shot of a layup that made the crowd audibly oooh and aah.

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AP Photo/Bill WippertShabazz Napier had 21 of his 25 points in the second half.
Willis Reed meet Kemba Walker? Yes, probably a touch hyperbolic, but we are now directly in the intersection of Napier and March Madness, where even the boldest of overstatements seem insignificant.

Seriously, what else are we supposed to say at this point? Is it time we look for cats in trees to be rescued or old ladies to be helped across the street?

Or maybe we should save the hyperbole for next weekend, when Napier and UConn roll into New York City.

Thanks to Napier’s 25 points, the Huskies, roadkill in conference realignment and banished to the American Athletic Conference and a postseason league tournament in Memphis, Tenn., are going to Madison Square Garden on Friday night for a regional semifinal.

Seventh-seeded UConn got there, by the way, by beating Villanova, a Big East team, 77-65.

There is the sweet taste of revenge, and then there is a Sweet 16 to savor.

"It’s crazy how life works out sometimes," Napier said. "My mother always told me there’s a light at the end of every tunnel. Coach [Kevin] Ollie preaches the same thing. You just have to keep pushing toward that light."

And now, the lights are calling, shining from Broadway and Times Square. One year removed from an academic progress rate postseason ban, one day after the school’s old coach borrowed the spotlight by suggesting he might like to coach somewhere nearby down the road, Ollie and the Huskies got their star turn.

Maybe the hyperbole is a bit much for Napier, but the meaning for UConn can’t be undersold. This was a critical season for the Huskies and Ollie to ensure the program stays relevant.

New unproven coach, new unknown league, same UConn results.

"Going through what we went through last year, it was hurtful and painful to watch," junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "We didn’t have nothing to do with the sanctions. It just feels good to move on."

The Huskies moved on as they’ve moved for most of the season, riding the moving sidewalk that is Napier.

Twenty-one of his 25 points came in a second half when UConn dumped 52 on Villanova. He added five rebounds and three assists. Six of those points and one each of the rebounds and assists came after he hobbled to the bench -- the held breath of the entire state of Connecticut with him -- with what was later termed a deep bruise to his right shin.

Napier and Darrun Hilliard collided with about 4:45 left in the game, with Hilliard’s knee catching Napier’s shin. He finished UConn’s offensive possession, but when the Huskies went back on defense, he crumbled to the ground, crawling for a few seconds on his hands and knees.

Tended to by his athletic trainer, Napier remained on the bench during one timeout before finally joining the huddle at a second. He returned to the game 37 game seconds later and scored on the crazy layup 1:05 after that.

"It’s just adrenaline at that point," he said. "I don’t think I was really feeling anything right then."

[+] EnlargeRyan Boatright
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesRyan Boatright, right, picked up the slack for UConn when Napier picked up two fouls in the first half.
That’s sort of in keeping with how the senior played the entire second half -- unconscious. At one point, he hit back-to-back 3s, one from deep, the other from deeper.

Napier going off? Yeah, that was bound to happen, but where this game went south for Villanova was a full half earlier. Napier was tagged with his second foul with 12:09 in the first half and the Wildcats up 19-9.

There were the Huskies, laid out on a platter.

Instead, there went the Huskies, on an improbable 16-5 run to close the half and lead 25-24 at the break.

It wasn’t officially the end of Villanova’s unexpected successful season, but it might as well have been. The Wildcats, who opened the season with little in the way of expectation, finished 29-5, but it is the end -- fair or not -- that’s not what they will be remembered for.

Villanova slinked out of the postseason twice, really, upset by Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, and done in here by their old league foe, UConn.

"That was probably the second-most important part of the game, him not going on the floor and them making up the difference there," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We had a lead. That was disappointing. In a game like that, you got to take advantage of that, which we didn’t."

UConn’s team effort -- the defensive effort by Terrence Samuel, the 11 stopgap points from Boatright -- those are what Ollie wanted to talk about after the game.

"Everybody talks about we’re not deep, we’re not this, we’re not that," he said. "But we’ve got heart."

The coach has a point. There is a take-a-punch-but-don’t-fall-down resilience among this bunch.

But the Huskies don’t come by that attitude accidentally. It starts at the top of the roster, with Napier. Before he could make his way across the court for a postgame TV interview, his shin was already wrapped in ice. Then, he gimped off into the hallway and into the locker room.

A few minutes later, he walked up and down, trying to figure out where he had to go for the postgame interviews, and after those ended, he finally took a seat in a near corner of the locker room.

"It will hurt tomorrow," he said. "But I don’t care. I’m not thinking about the pain. I’m thinking about just doing what I have to do to keep this season going."

And that’s no exaggeration.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was time to celebrate, to high-five and chest bump with his teammates. The game was over, the end a mere formality of nine more ticks on the clock.

But instead of his celebrating his moment, the 89-81 overtime win, UConn guard Shabazz Napier walked over to the Saint Joseph’s bench and hugged seniors Langston Galloway and Ron Roberts as they exited for the final time in their college careers.

He didn’t know them before Thursday night, before the Huskies and the Hawks faced one another in an NCAA tournament second-round game.

But 45 minutes later, they had Napier’s respect and he wanted them to know it.

"I’m passionate for the game, and I seen it in their eyes," he said. "I would have loved for them to do the same thing for me. When you work so hard for something and it goes down the drain, it saddens you."

On Wednesday night, Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli described his job as "this is what I do. It is not who I am." For Napier, the line is a little blurrier. Basketball is what he does, but it also is so much of who he is.

When he talks about the game, he speaks with almost a reverence.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Napier goes to the hoop in UConn's victory on Thursday.
He loves the game. Not just the winning of it -- though he’s certainly a big fan of that, too -- but just playing it, the sweat and the battles, the grit and the grind. He talks about basketball almost with a reverence, and plays with only one gear -- all out.

And so imagine then how he felt last year. The NCAA tournament went on without UConn. Chastised for poor academic performance, it was banned from competition.

It was like taking air out of Napier’s lungs.

"I forgot what it was like and then I stepped on the court and I thought, 'Oh man, this is what we’ve been working for,'" he said. "I didn’t want to let it slip away."

And so he didn’t. Napier scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half and OT, creating ways to score even though his jump shot wasn’t -- and by his own admission, hasn’t been -- falling.

Up 75-73, he drove to the rim and was fouled. One possession later, he drove for an and-1 dagger on a gassed Hawks team that really goes no deeper than its starting five.

Sitting in the stands, Jim Calhoun nodded.

"My son tapped me and said, 'We should probably get a timeout here,'" and I told him, 'No, Bazz is gonna take it to the hole,'" Calhoun said. "And that’s exactly what he did. That’s a four-year player, that’s a great player with a basketball IQ."

Napier has always had the basketball IQ, and maybe being so darned smart was almost a curse. He knew so much, cared so deeply, he had little patience or even tolerance for those who didn’t behave like he did, who didn’t offer the game its rightful deference.

It hurt the Huskies back when Napier was a sophomore. Pressed to replace Kemba Walker as both player and leader, he didn’t do a very good job and UConn struggled.

And then last year came the postseason ban, a devastating and shameful blow for a proud program, a tough load for first-year coach Kevin Ollie to inherit.

"Those players right there, that’s what kept this university alive," he said. "They could have transferred. They could have did anything. … We were banned from playing in the NCAA tournament, but we weren’t banned from loving each other. That’s what got us through."

Napier was one of the guys who toyed with leaving, stung by the APR ban and Calhoun’s retirement. But in the end, he stuck around because it was the right thing to do for a guy who believes strongly in doing the right thing.

And now having come through the rigors, the Huskies appear to be the better for it.

Napier doesn’t have to be Kemba Walker Light anymore. He can be if he needs to be, but that’s just it. He doesn’t have to be.

Against Saint Joe’s, he got plenty of help: 17 points from Ryan Boatright, 18 more from DeAndre Daniels. Napier might have scored the big buckets at the end, but they got him to that point.

"I was fortunate to make a lot of shots in the second half, but it wasn’t what I did in that second half," Napier said. "It’s what everybody who stepped on the court did. They never gave up. We were down. We had all the excuses to give up, but the guys were just willing each other, the resiliency we have is tremendous."

And that’s what Napier saw in the Saint Joe’s players. That’s what he wanted to acknowledge. Saint Joe’s rode the back of five seniors to get to this point, not just to the NCAA tourney but also to where the program is back on the right path.

Their magical ride looked like it might continue in the first half. The Hawks played almost flawlessly -- shooting 56 percent, fouling little, turning it over less.

But they couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and UConn, and when the Huskies came back, Saint Joe’s got tight. Suddenly a four-point lead turned into a tie and almost a loss, when Napier nearly pulled off a perfect hook and ladder at the end of regulation.

And then in OT, Napier and the Huskies just pushed it away and out of reach.

Martelli didn’t see Napier come over and acknowledge his players. But when he was told about it, he immediately understood.

"To me, a lot of our societal ways, we’ve lost our way because we no longer pay each other respect," he said. "I tried to build this program on respect, respect for the game, and I think that’s what he did."

It is exactly what he did.

In his time to celebrate, Shabazz Napier instead chose to celebrate something bigger than himself -- the game.

Five things: Connecticut-Boston College

November, 21, 2013

Here are five quick thoughts from No. 18 Connecticut’s 72-70 win over Boston College on Thursday evening at Madison Square Garden:

X factor: When people talk about UConn, they usually start with the talented backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. But DeAndre Daniels is the player who can turn this team from good into great.

The 6-foot-9, 195-pound junior scored just 19 points in the Huskies’ first three games, including a goose egg against Yale. But in the team’s past two games, he’s exploded for 24 against Boston University and 23 versus Boston College.

Daniels is a matchup nightmare -- he can shoot the 3 or take it to the rim and has some crafty moves in the paint. If he turns into a reliable offensive threat, watch out.

The other end: Napier and Boatright didn’t have great games offensively. Napier did score 20 but shot just 6-for-17 from the field with only two assists; Boatright scored nine. But they did an excellent job on defense, blanketing Boston College star guard Olivier Hanlan.

Hanlan, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, came in averaging 24.5 points per game and went off for 38 in BC’s last game, a win over Florida Atlantic. But Napier and Boatright shadowed Hanlan everywhere he went Thursday night.

Hanlan still managed to score 19 points, but he had to work awfully hard to get them.

Contenders: We’re only five games into the season, but we’ve seen enough to say this Connecticut team is capable of making a run to the Final Four.

Four different players are capable of scoring 20-plus on any given night -- sophomore guard Omar Calhoun has that potential, too. They have capable, if somewhat raw, bigs. And they have experience, despite being ineligible for the postseason last year.

Speaking of Hanlan: Yes, he finished under his scoring average. But he was impressive nonetheless.

The best part about Hanlan’s night was he didn’t force the issue. Most big-time scorers would feel the need to hoist up shots regardless of the defense. Hanlan played under control (5-for-14 from the field, 7-for-8 from the foul line), scoring when he could and trying to create for teammates when he couldn’t.

Many teams BC will face this season won’t have guards as quick as Napier and Boatright. Hanlan will have plenty of big games.

Eagles forecast: Boston College did a very nice job hanging around against a more talented opponent. The Eagles could have wilted twice -- when they fell behind by 11 in the first half and when they again fell behind by 11 in the second half. But they bounced back both times to remain within striking distance.

They even had a 3-point shot attempt from near midcourt at the final buzzer that would have won the game, but Boatright blocked Lonnie Jackson’s attempt.

On a hot shooting night, Boston College could beat just about any team in the country. But the Eagles shot just 8-for-25 from beyond the arc Thursday night. That wasn’t quite good enough to take out UConn.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
1. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright should return to UConn next season for two reasons: Neither player is a lock to be in the first round and runs the risk of not landing any sort of guaranteed contract; the two guards also came back when they could have bolted like Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) and Roscoe Smith (UNLV), even though like Smith they probably would have had to sit a year since they had more than one season left of eligibility. Napier and Boatright made the commitment to UConn through the postseason ban year and to stick it out with new coach Kevin Ollie. Why wouldn't they want to come back and challenge to win the whatever named conference next season? The Huskies would be a contender with Louisville and Memphis to win the league next season. The NCAA tournament would likely be a lock with the development of DeAndre Daniels, Phillip Nolan and Omar Calhoun. If they leave then the Huskies will slide back and the rebuilding will begin a year early. Staying to make a run at a conference title and an NCAA berth makes too much sense based on what occurred this season.

2. I'd also like to see Myck Kabongo return for a full season at Texas. His 23-game penalty (originally a full year) was excessive for a workout last May and the expenses incurred. But he wasn't truthful with Texas when asked initially and that cost him dearly. The Texas staff told Kabongo to watch what he did and yet he still went ahead and put himself in a position to be caught or at the very least in a precarious situation. It was unnecessary. He didn't need the pro workout when he was hardly a lock for a first round spot. The draft is not strong but I'll be surprised if NBA teams are lining up to get Kabongo. He should return to see if he can get Texas back to the NCAA tournament after this disappointing and disjointed season. Returning to lead would also prove to NBA teams that he has matured and worked on his all-around game.

3. The new Big East -- and for now that's what I have to call it -- is considering a host of places for its new conference office with Washington D.C. and New York City possibilities. But why not look at Chicago or Indianapolis for the conference office? If the league adds Butler, Xavier and Creighton as expected then that would give half the league in the Midwest (Marquette, DePaul). The league doesn't need to be in the East to satisfy Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence. And if there are more adds to 12 then they'll likely come from the Midwest as well with Dayton and Saint Louis likely additions, possibly over Richmond (and VCU). The decision on a new league office home will probably be made by the conference commissioner, who hasn't been named yet. The two most consistent names mentioned are former Big East associate commissioner Dan Gavitt, whose new job description now deals with helping run the NCAA tournament, and WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich. If I'm Gavitt I take the new commissioner job in a second over the NCAA gig.

1. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have decisions to make in a month. The UConn season will end without a postseason on March 9 after the Providence game due to the Academic Progress Rate penalty. Napier was asked about this following UConn's win against Cincinnati on Thursday. He doesn't have to say anything since he has time to make a decision. But here's the deal: Napier would get drafted, but there's no way to guarantee where, while Boatright has less of a chance, according to NBA personnel. I can't pretend to know their family situations. But there's no guarantee that the money would be beneficial enough to make it worth it, while leaving behind what they sacrificed this season. Napier and Boatright decided to stay put after the sanctions. They could have bolted. Instead, they were committed to UConn and Kevin Ollie. I have no vested interest here but just an observation: Wouldn't they want to return so they could play in the NCAAs in 2014 and challenge for the Big East regular-season title? That's a sure thing. The draft, collecting money and actually contributing in the NBA next season is not.

2. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he received a call from San Diego State coach Steve Fisher about possibly moving back a home-and-home series with the two schools, which was slated to start in Cincinnati. The reason? Fisher loaded up his nonconference schedule with the anticipation that the Aztecs were going to be in the Big West next season. But the Aztecs decided to stay put in the Mountain West and now have an overload of tougher games, so Fisher is trying to pull back a bit. Cronin is cool with moving the series back if he can get a quality home-and-home series to start at home in 2013-14. The problems in scheduling for San Diego State and Cincinnati are occurring at a number of Big East schools since they don't know exactly who will be in the conference in 2013-14 or 2014-15, although there is an assumption everyone will be settled in the fall of 2014.

3. The Big East is preparing to have 18 schools in the conference for 2013-14 -- before the seven Catholic-based schools leave to form their own conference in 2014 and Notre Dame and Louisville leave for the ACC and Rutgers for the Big Ten. Temple, Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU are all coming next season while Syracuse and Pitt leave. The 2014-15 Big East could have 10 schools. Tulane is set to come in to be the ninth member, and, according to a source, there is a chance East Carolina joins as a full member for No. 10. Tulsa and UMass are the two most discussed possibilities of being the 11th full member.

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kevin Ollie was determined to coach this season as if Connecticut had a chance for glory, never giving the postseason ban a second thought when he was given a seven-month contract to replace Jim Calhoun or when he received a multiyear deal in late December.

The only way Ollie knew how to coach the lame-duck Huskies was to ensure the team played as if the national title were still in sight.

The players never blinked. The ones who stayed remained committed and were determined not to play spoiler but to win the Big East regular-season title.

Now they still can.

And if the Huskies’ 66-58 victory over No. 6 Syracuse on Wednesday at the XL Center -- in the final matchup between these charter Big East members before the Orange go to the ACC -- is any indication, UConn isn’t going to be just a spoiler.

The Huskies have larger aspirations. They want to win the title and stick it to the conference that wouldn’t let them play in the league tournament after the NCAA ruled their academic progress rate was too low and banned them from the postseason.

Is it a reach? Possibly. But it’s not out of the question for the Huskies, who have a game to go against Georgetown, two with Cincinnati and none remaining against Syracuse or Louisville.

The win put UConn at 7-4 in the Big East, just a game back of the first-place trio of Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette.

What would it mean to the Huskies to pull off the improbable feat?

“It would mean everything, considering that they tried to take everything from us," said sophomore Ryan Boatright, who led the Huskies with 17 points Wednesday. “It’s realistic because anybody can lose in the Big East. We feel like we’re supposed to be here."

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsKevin Ollie has his Huskies a game out of first in the chase for the Big East regular-season title.
Regardless of Boatright’s confidence, the win is still one of the more surprising of the season. UConn was dealt another blow to its depth when Enosch Wolf, who had been a stable inside presence, was suspended indefinitely; he likely has played his last game. Wolf saw his domestic dispute case continued to March 20 after a Hartford court appearance earlier Wednesday. He was charged with third-degree burglary, criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.

And it didn’t matter one bit against Syracuse’s length in the zone or on the boards. Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Omar Calhoun handily won the perimeter battle with Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche.

Earlier in the day, Huskies assistant coach Karl Hobbs said UConn had to make seven 3s to beat Syracuse. The Huskies made eight, seven of those coming from the aforementioned trio, with one from Niels Giffey.

The Orange were just 4-of-23 from long range.

“They shot 8-of-14 from the 3, which is the best anybody’s shot against us in a long time," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Their guards played extremely well, but I thought all their guys played well."

Boatright didn’t hold back with his postgame comments, saying the Huskies had sent Syracuse to the ACC “with a taste of UConn in their mouth.” The same comment was uttered by Omar Calhoun after the game.

“It was definitely a big game," Calhoun said. “I know the tradition and the rivalry between these two teams. They got to leave with a taste of UConn in their mouth going to the ACC."

It’s no secret the Huskies wanted to go to the ACC, which instead picked Louisville over them and Cincinnati. UConn is left with the Bearcats in the remaining Big East as Syracuse and Pitt head to the ACC next season.

Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach, was courtside for the game and said during the second half that he didn’t want this rivalry to end.

Boeheim said after the game about the UConn series, “It’s been a great series. Connecticut and Syracuse have had so many great games over the years. The league wasn’t able to be kept together. I feel bad about the whole thing."

Syracuse has already signed up for a home-and-home series with St. John’s. The other one that makes the most sense is with Georgetown since the Hoyas are in a recruiting area that is crucial to the Orange. And that series with the Hoyas might take on more importance now that Maryland is heading to the Big Ten.

Jim Calhoun said Georgetown was always Syracuse’s biggest rival but the Orange were the top rivalry for the Huskies. Boeheim said after the game that he would be open to playing anybody.

“Your biggest rivalries are going to be the teams in your league," he said. “That’s just the way it is. Even if you play somebody, it will never be the same. It will never be the same."

To Ollie, this was bittersweet, since he said one of the reasons he went to UConn was to play in the Big East against schools such as Syracuse.

“It’s kind of hard with the rivalry being over with," he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to play somewhere, somehow."

If the Huskies can play with the same passion and purpose, flaws and all, the rest of the season as they did Wednesday, anything is possible in this league.

The role of spoiler fits Boatright.

“It feels great because they came in with their swag, their attitude, and they thought they were going to blow us out of the gym," he said. “We hit them first. In the second half, they thought they were going to make a run and we responded. It was a team effort. It was a great win."

And the credit goes to Ollie, who should be the front-runner for Big East coach of the year.

“We’re just one of the purest teams playing right now," Ollie said. “We’re not playing for the postseason. We’re playing for the love of UConn. We’re playing for the love of each other. We’re playing for the pride of getting better. They can’t ban us from that. They can ban us from the postseason, they can ban us from the Big East tournament, but they can’t ban us from getting better and loving each other. They really love being around each other, and it shows."

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

January, 18, 2013
Coaches love to say that, on any given night, a team can lose. Apparently the Big East would like to make that its motto.

The league has become either strangely unpredictable or woefully unstable, depending on your point of view. What looked like established, solid, top-of-the-conference teams instead went out and lost games they frankly shouldn’t have.

The two constants: Louisville and Syracuse. And they play each other this weekend.

1. Louisville. It’s time for the first Big East showdown of the year -- before the participants become ACC members, that is. The Cards host Syracuse on Saturday, having rolled through their first league games with relative ease.

2. Syracuse. Time to see just how much the loss of James Southerland hurts the Orange. Syracuse got past Villanova without its most accurate outside threat, but it’s a tougher road this week, first at Louisville and then home against Cincinnati.

3. Marquette. The Golden Eagles’ margin of error is miniscule, but they keep coming out on the right side of the edge. That’s more than a lot of their conference brethren can say. Davante Gardner has been very solid for Marquette and should be key this week against Cincinnati.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats righted the ship the easy way, beating up on Rutgers and DePaul. Whether or not Cincinnati is truly back on track, however, remains to be seen in the coming week, when it faces Marquette and Syracuse. The good news: UC should have Cashmere Wright, who sprained his knee against DePaul.

5. Georgetown. The Hoyas could be the all-enigma team of the season. Unable to score one night, solid the next. The big question: What will Georgetown be without Greg Whittington, suspended from the team for academics? There’s a good team here if it just develops consistency.

6. Connecticut. There might have been a silver lining in the Huskies’ loss to Louisville: Omar Calhoun finally returned. After three pedestrian games, the freshman had 20 points and four boards. UConn needs that from him to take the pressure off of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.

7. Notre Dame. Feel free to argue that the Fighting Irish are slotted too low. Then go ahead and explain why a good, veteran team lost to Connecticut at home and then at St. John’s. Notre Dame simply has not played well in the past week.

8. Pittsburgh. Perhaps stubbornly, I still refuse to give up on the Panthers. Their defense is just too good. If only the offense could catch up. Pitt needs to beat Connecticut at home on Saturday to gain some more converts.

9. St. John’s. The Red Storm will rival Georgetown for unpredictability but at least they have a reason -- crazy youth. Steve Lavin has brash talent that isn’t quite sure what to do with itself all the time. But as St. John’s proved against Notre Dame, it will be a threat all season.

10. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are making progress, albeit in baby steps. Eli Carter's shooting struggles doomed them in a could-have-won game against Cincinnati, but Rutgers at least took care of business against South Florida. Tricky week with Notre Dame and St. John’s on the menu.

11. Villanova. The Wildcats lost twice this week but, if it’s possible, looked slightly better doing it. They put up a fight against Syracuse and matched Pitt’s defensive intensity, good signs for a program that needs some positives. Beating Providence on Saturday would help. Facing Louisville on Tuesday won’t.

12. Seton Hall. It’s almost unfair to judge the Pirates this week. Decimated by injuries, Kevin Willard had all of three subs to choose from in the loss to Marquette.

13. DePaul. It’s the same worn-out tune for the Blue Demons, who are limping through their Big East slate. DePaul has lost four of its past five, dating back to its final nonconference game against Loyola-Chicago.

14. Providence. Bryce Cotton has been terrific since returning from injury, averaging 20.8 points in the past five games. That’s the good news. The bad: The Friars are just woefully inconsistent.

15. South Florida. If the Bulls were playing golf, they’d be fantastic, what with their penchant for low scores. Sadly, this is basketball, and hovering in the 50-point range, as USF has done since league play began, isn’t going to win you a lot of games.

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

January, 4, 2013
Conference play always serves as the great revealer, separating the real teams from the pretenders and outing soft nonconference seasons for the record-padding fluff that they are.

We’ve already seen a little separation in just the first week of the Big East. This week there could be even more.

1. Louisville. The Cardinals are 2-0 against Rick Pitino’s former employers, beating both Kentucky and Providence in the same week. The cathartic victory against the Wildcats wasn’t easy, but highlighted just how overwhelming Louisville’s defense can be. The Cards are third in the nation in steals and 22nd in scoring defense.

2. Cincinnati. The Bearcats upped the tempo and the intensity on Pittsburgh in the second half Monday, outscoring the Panthers by 17 in the final 20. That’s the sort of offense UC can and has generated all season. Cincinnati should be able to dictate the tempo against St. John’s on Saturday, but can it against Notre Dame next Monday?

3. Syracuse. Jim Boeheim moved ahead of Bob Knight on the all-time wins list Tuesday and the Orange took their first victory in their last run in the Big East, beating Rutgers. Syracuse now has back-to-back road games, its first dates out of the state of New York since Nov. 30.

4. Georgetown. The Hoyas haven’t played since an easy win against American on Dec. 22. Will the long layoff affect a Georgetown team that has struggled to score when it travels to Marquette?

5. Notre Dame. The Irish play their first game since Dec. 21 when they host Seton Hall on Saturday. A trickier date is on Monday at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats’ speed and aggressiveness could push Notre Dame off its game.

6. Pittsburgh. So the big question now: Was the Panthers' gaudy nonconference record just smoke and mirrors? Pitt was swallowed up by Cincinnati’s defensive pressure in the second half, dropping its first game since Nov. 21. The Panthers have road games at Rutgers and Georgetown in the coming week, which will help answer the big question.

7. Marquette. Without their coach and with misdirected officials, the Golden Eagles won anyway. This, though, is a huge week for Marquette, with Georgetown coming to town to test the Golden Eagles’ 17-game home win streak, and a trip to Pitt to follow.

8. Connecticut. Kevin Ollie got a contract extension; the Huskies and Marquette went the wrong way for a possession, the Huskies were denied two points they should have received and lost in overtime. Otherwise it was a quiet week for UConn. The Huskies’ backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright continues to star, but the Huskies really could use another offensive threat.

9. Villanova. It wasn’t a work of art, but the Wildcats will take the win against St. John’s regardless. Villanova has now won six in a row. The Wildcats, though, remain a show-me team and need to prove they are legit. A game at South Florida is, therefore, crucial and a trip to Syracuse, well, let’s just say that would be monumental.

10. Seton Hall. The Pirates are playing well, but also playing with fire, eking out a win at DePaul to start conference play, a game after skating by Stony Brook. That won’t fly in the coming week, not against Notre Dame and Louisville.

11. South Florida. The only news that really matters -- Anthony Collins is OK. After a scary collision in a game against George Mason, Collins was taken off the court on a stretcher. He was released from the hospital and played against rival Central Florida. As for basketball, the Bulls and their stingy defense ride a four-game win streak into conference play, opening up against Syracuse this weekend with Villanova to follow.

12. DePaul. That thud you heard was the inevitable clap of reality that always seems to hit the Blue Demons. Just when things were looking good, DePaul loses to Loyola (Ill.) and Seton Hall in back-to-back games. Nothing will be easy again this season, especially with road games at Providence and Connecticut in the next week.

13. Providence. Louisville was simply too much for Providence to handle. There’s no crime in that. The Cards are too much for most teams to handle. The good news -- Bryce Cotton, the Big East's second-leading scorer, did play for the Friars. PC has talent to make moves this year but has to show it can do it. A game against DePaul on Saturday is a good opportunity.

14. Rutgers. Mike Rice returned to the sideline just in time for Boeheim to try for win No. 903. That’s not a fair fight. Upcoming games against Pittsburgh and St. John’s? Maybe a little more fair. The Scarlet Knights have to get better defensively, though, if they are going to do anything in the Big East.

15. St. John’s. The wheels aren’t spinning off for the Red Storm, but the bolts are loose. Back-to-back demoralizing losses to UNC-Asheville and in overtime to Villanova could be a tough pill to swallow for a young team, especially with Cincinnati on the horizon.