PHILADELPHIA -- College basketball is in a state of severe coastal imbalance. West of Austin, Texas, quality teams are scarce: The Pac-10 is barren, and Gonzaga is the lone Pacific Ocean-state school in The Associated Press Top 25. The largest concentration of power is in the Big East, which had four top-11 schools meeting in a pair of games this weekend -- and none of them was Pittsburgh, the league's surprise co-leader at 5-0. To get a sense of life in the nation's deepest conference, I spent Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va., for No. 5 Syracuse's 72-71 win over then-No. 10 West Virginia -- an impressive road effort that the Orange would follow up with a victory at Notre Dame two days later. On Sunday, I was in Philly for No. 4 Villanova's 82-77 win over No 11 Georgetown. Here's what I discovered on the road:
• Scottie Reynolds has evolved. Villanova's star senior guard has always been clutch, as he was on Saturday, scoring six points in the final 3:14, and he's always been near-impossible to contain off the dribble, but for the first time in his career, he's being efficient, too. Reynolds' moments of recklessness are so few and far between now that he can laugh about them -- in particular the 1-on-3 fast break he forced just under the 10-minute mark in the second half, with the Wildcats up 64-58. It ended badly, with him clanging a heavily contested layup attempt off the underside of the front rim. "It was crazy," coach Jay Wright remarked of the play, shaking his head. Reynolds, sitting next to him in the press conference, smiled and said, "One a game, coach. You said one a game."
In 2006-07, as a rookie on an undermanned 'Nova team that had just lost Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray to the NBA, Reynolds would often force shots like that 6-7 times per game, with Wright's blessing. "We needed him to score then," the coach said, "and the only way he could do it was if he was wild." That missed layup against the Hoyas stood out because it was so unlike anything Reynolds did the rest of the afternoon -- he otherwise stayed within the flow of the offense, and finished with 27 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Wright's message to Reynolds this offseason was that he needed to become a more efficient scoring guard, and he's responded: After posting shooting percentages of 38.7, 41.2 and 40.0 in his first three seasons on the Main Line, Reynolds is shooting 50.5 percent as a senior, with a career-high offensive rating of 122.1. "I could always get off shots," he said, "but [now I'm] taking good shots that I can make, and not just prayers all the time."
• If 'Nova is going to make it back to the Final Four, it needs freshman power forward Mouphtaou Yarou to be much more of a defensive presence than he was on Sunday. Hoyas center Greg Monroe played brilliantly, but part of the reason he put up 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds was because the Wildcats only had one player who tried to match him physically. That was senior forward Antonio Pena, who eventually was DQ'd with five fouls. Yarou, the Big Beninois (6-foot-10, 250 pounds) whom Wright called the team's X-factor in the preseason, returned to the rotation on Jan. 6 after overcoming a bout with Hepatitis B, and looked strong guarding Louisville's Samardo Samuels in a road win on Jan. 11. But Yarou seemed overmatched by Monroe, getting out of defensive position in the post and struggling to move his feet against the Georgetown big man on the perimeter. While Wright praised his other freshmen, especially backup point guard Maalik Wayns, who was unflappable late in the game, he didn't have an instant explanation for Yarou's issues. "The only guy I thought wasn't himself tonight was Mouph," Wright said. "I've gotta talk to him. He's very bright, he thinks things through; he just didn't go out there and play aggressively."
• Syracuse is the Big East's most complete team, and right now, its best Final Four candidate. Morgantown's WVU Coliseum is an unfriendly place for visitors. The unruly student section there launched into its first a-hole chant in the first two minutes of the game, and threw cups and bottles on the floor late in the second half. But the Orange kept their composure in their toughest road test of the year, overcame early foul trouble to their two key perimeter players, Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins, and were tougher than a Mountaineers team that prides itself on smashmouth basketball, holding them to 39.3 percent shooting from the field. A year after losing his potent backcourt of Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has a team that's better-constructed for March than the '08-09 version was. "We're much better on defense than we've been, we trap better, and we're much better balanced," Boeheim said, but he was also adamant that the Orange still have plenty of room to grow -- a scary thought given that they're ranked eighth nationally in offensive efficiency, and 16th in defensive efficiency.
His reasoning is that his personnel has yet to truly gel, since his rotation includes two point guards that didn't play last season (freshman Brandon Triche and sophomore Scoop Jardine), a sixth man who didn't play last season, either (Kris Joseph), a transfer star (Johnson), and a two-guard who spent '08-09 as a small forward (Rautins). "This is the first time this group's been together," Boeheim said. "It's a whole new dynamic."
Pitt, the only team to beat Syracuse this season, doesn't have as many newcomers, but like Boeheim, coach Jamie Dixon has successfully found a new dynamic. Guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker have grown from role-playing reserves into the Panthers' two biggest shot-takers, and Nasir Robinson, Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor have combined to help pick up DeJuanBlair's rebounding slack (although equalling it is an impossible task). In the Big East this year, overhaul projects have worked.
• Triche was huge recruiting steal. How many other teams can find a three-star point guard who's capable of starting -- and playing well -- in the Big East as a freshman? With Johnson being hawked defensively by Da'Sean Butler and held to just 13 points, Triche stepped up to play the hero in Saturday's win over West Virginia, scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and wowing his elder teammates with his calmness under fire. (Johnson on Triche: "He doesn't play like a freshman." Rautins: "He played like a monster.")
Boeheim says Triche, who barely played in any AAU events and was mis-positioned at shooting guard in the one All-Star camp he attended, the 2008 Reebok U, might be the most underrated recruit he's ever brought into the program. "For a guy that was rated 128th in the country [Triche would finish at No. 142 in Rivals.com's final ranking], I think he might be a little bit better than that," Boeheim said. "I'd like to see the 127 guys ahead of him."
Boeheim didn't have to go far to discover Triche, though: The high school where he won two state titles, Jamesville-Dewitt, is the same one Boeheim's son attends -- and it's just a mile from their house. Triche first attended Syracuse camp when he was eight years old, and his uncle, Howard Triche, was on the Orange's 1987 NCAA runner-up team, immortalized in highlight reels as the guy who runs over (not in time) to cover Keith Smart's historic shot.
(A few Syracuse style notes: Triche's signature shoes are the golden Kobe IV Olympic models, which he first showed me after a blowout of North Carolina at Madison Square Garden in November, when they were in pristine condition. When I saw Triche's kicks on the floor of the locker room in Morgantown on Saturday, the metallic paint on the toes was heavily cracked. Triche said it was from all the jumping he'd been doing, but to me, it seemed like tangible evidence that he'd been battle-tested in the Big East.
Meanwhile, Joseph, who also had a strong showing against the Mountaineers, scoring 13 points off the bench, was debuting an R-rated slogan message scribbled on the orange toe of each of his shoes: "F--kit!" The six-letter word, he said, serves as a reminder "not to worry about what happens on the floor, and just move on to the next play.")
• You can't buy a Kevin Pittsnogle jersey at the Concrete Spaceship that Jerry West Built (otherwise known as WVU coliseum). I was hoping the gift shop there might have something honoring one of the biggest NCAA tournament icons of this decade ... but no dice. The Devin Ebanks jersey they do sell (and many other things) can be seen in the following YouTube experiment, filmed on my FlipCam with an unsteady hand:
• For a team ranked in the top 10 in efficiency, West Virginia's offense is not pretty. The Mountaineers can get hot in spurts -- see the last two minutes of Saturday's game, when they cut a 10-point lead to one and nearly made the thousands of fans who left early regret that decision -- but they have major backcourt issues. Neither of their point guards is a creator at heart; Truck Bryant (who had 18 points against Syracuse) is more of a scorer, and Joe Mazzulla (who took just one shot in 16 minutes) is a defensive specialist. They're an average three-point shooting team that starts a point guard and four forwards, leaving out potential two-guards Casey Mitchell and Dalton Pepper because they can be defensive liabilities. The secret to the Mountaineers still being so efficient is offensive rebounding: They rank second in the nation in that category, grabbing offensive boards on 43.1 percent of possessions. It's a very Hugginsian way to put up points, and it's no coincidence that the only team with better offensive-glass numbers is Kansas State, which is coached by one of Bob Huggins' acolytes, Frank Martin.
• The most ubiquitous accessory on the hoops scene, by far, is Beats headphones. North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II was at the forefront of the Beats movement last season, and now they've almost become required postgame attire. Reynolds and Wayns were both wearing them in Philly on Sunday, and I honestly think I've interviewed more players wearing Beats around their neck (or sitting high up on a stocking cap) this season than I have without. Monster, the company that makes these things, and Dr. Dre, who endorses them, must be making a killing.
• Chris Wright's most lasting impression: As a dancer, or a bellwether? My second YouTube production of the weekend, from the Wachovia Center, includes a clip of Georgetown's floor general using the Villanova Twirlers' practice-routine music as inspiration for a running-man routine:
Wright is gaining a reputation as a bellwether for the Hoyas, who are 12-0 when he scores in double-digits, and 1-3 when he doesn't. In their past two Big East wins, home games against UConn and Seton Hall, he averaged 17.5 points, 5.0 assists and 1.5 turnovers. In their two Big East losses, at Marquette and Villanova, he averaged 7.5 points, 6.0 assists and one turnover. When Austin Freeman, Georgetown's best perimeter scorer, is hot, it's nice to see Wright be deferential -- but not too deferential, given how much his scoring numbers seem to impact their win-loss record. His 1-for-5 shooting start (and foul trouble) in the first half on Sunday was a big reason why the Hoyas fell into a 15-point hole by halftime.
• I can't see the Hoyas collapsing the way they did last year ... but they could be in for a rough two weeks. Their loss to Villanova ominously fell on Jan. 17, the same date their implosion from a 12-3 team into a 13-10 team began in 2009 -- and they could very well lose two, or even three of their next four games, which are at Pittsburgh, at home against Rutgers, at Syracuse, and home against Duke. In the long run, though, Georgetown has a strong enough scoring core in Freeman, Monroe, Wright and Jason Clark to stabilize in February and make the NCAAs as a scary 4-5 seed.
While Georgetown's depth issues (they only have two quality subs, and were outscored 24-5 in bench points by with Wildcats) and sloppiness with the ball (they rank 248th in turnover percentage) will probably keep them from winning the Big East, on nights where Freeman, Monroe and Wright are all clicking, they're capable of beating anyone in the country. They (hopefully) learned from last season that in this league, you can't afford to take days off. As a weary Monroe and coach John Thompson III sat in Saturday's press conference, Thompson was asked if Villanova had been a particularly tough matchup for his team. "It's the Big East," he said. "Every night is going to be just like that, no matter who [you're facing]. That's Big East basketball."