January 17, 2008

In college basketball, depth is the great unknown. Coaches don't know if they'll need it and fans don't really know if their teams have it -- until a player or two gets injured and everybody finds out.

Florida didn't need it during the Gators' first-ever championship season. In 2005-2006, Billy Donovan used an eight-man rotation, but relied on his five starters for the bulk of his team's production. Every starter averaged double-figures while each reserve contributed fewer than six points per contest. Donovan's five starters missed one game -- total -- in the regular season and none during the NCAA tournament.

Jamie Dixon, on the other hand, is in finding out what his Pitt squad is made of. December injuries to starters Mike Cook (torn ACL) and Levance Fields (broken foot) seemed to decimate the Panthers, who struggled in a subsequent loss to Villanova. National pundits piled on, all but banishing Pittsburgh from March Madness months before Selection Sunday. But then a funny thing happened. Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin -- Dixon's replacements at point guard and small forward, respectively -- each scored 18 points in Monday's upset of No. 5 Georgetown. Happy days were back again.

Not so at Arizona, however, where the absence of Jarryd Bayless (sprained knee) exposed the 'Cats as one-hit wonders. Without Bayless, Arizona lost three of four conference games. The jury is still out on Dayton, but Brian Gregory's club has avoided similar misfortune after the team's freshman star Chris Wright -- nicknamed "Christ" -- went down with a sprained ankle. Despite a loss to UMass on Wednesday, the Flyers' record stands at an impressive 14-2. Elsewhere, Stanford foreshadowed another solid season by going 8-1 without leading scorer and rebounder Brook Lopez (academically ineligible). Louisville, conversely, fell from preseason grace thanks to the short-term disappearing acts of David Padgett (fractured kneecap) and Juan Palacios (right knee). Finally, unbeaten North Carolina didn't miss a beat after Bobby Frasor (torn ACL) was lost for the season, snapping North Carolina State's seven game winning streak in convincing fashion, 93-62.

Over the years, much has been made been of Bruce Weber's recruiting failures. This year, the chickens have finally come home to roost as Weber's Illini are still fighting, but no longer winning. Despite playing multiple ranked opponents close, Illinois is 0-4 in the Big Ten and 8-9 overall. After a home loss to Penn State, Shaun Pruitt and Weber should be realistic and set their sights on the NIT.

Because misery loves company, Weber should also give Al Skinner a call. All Skinner has done at Boston College is win, directing the Eagles to six NCAA tournaments and one NIT appearance in the past seven seasons. But if you trust the recruiting analysts and services that evaluate high school talent, it has never been entirely clear how the team has been so successful. According to Scout.com, Skinner hasn't signed a single Top 75 recruit in the past six seasons. Not one. This year, he may finally be learning that less isn't more. In January, the undermanned Eagles followed a 25-point home loss to Kansas with a six-point defeat at the hands of Robert Morris, though they did then take their frustrations out on Wake Forest several nights later, 112-73.

Bob Huggins was often called "Huggy Bear" when he coached at Cincinnati. This year, he and his former assistants are operating in a bull market. Andy Kennedy'sOle Miss squad set a mark for the best start in school history (13-0) and now stand14-1 with a Top 20 ranking in both the AP and RPI polls. Here's looking forward to Jan. 30, when Vanderbilt comes calling.

Without Mike Williams (ruptured Achilles' tendon), Mick Cronin is 8-9 at Cincinnati. This month, the Bearcats have beaten Villanova, Louisville, and Syracuse behind Deonta Vaughn. As for Huggins, he, too, is having surprising success. In his first year at West Virginia, the Mountaineers are 12-4, with wins over Marquette, Syracuse and Auburn.

Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley is averaging fewer points and assists than last season while shooting significantly worse from the floor and free throw line. He struggled mightily in all three Razorbacks losses, going 3 for 11 against Providence, 3 for 14 against Oklahoma and 2 for 7 at Appalachian State.

Oregon's Tajuan Porter has made just two of his last 20 three-pointers. In the Ducks' loss to Arizona State earlier this month, he missed all seven attempts. For the season, the 5-foot-6 guard is connecting on 29.5 percent of three-pointers, a far cry from last year's 43.7-percent clip.

Clemson snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a 90-88 loss to North Carolina. If the Tigers suffer another late season collapse, K.C. Rivers will look back and wonder what might have been had he and Trevor Booker not allowed the Tar Heels to erase a seven-point second half deficit with less than three minutes left.

Florida is 15-3, which is impressive until you consider that the Gators' schedule. According to kenpom.com, Florida's non-conference strength of schedule is only 222. Before Wednesday's two-point loss to Ole Miss, UFhad lost by double digits to the only team they've faced with an RPI in the top 50 -- Ohio State (Florida State, which beat the Gators by 14 points on Nov. 23, has an RPI of 51).

Yoni Cohen writes about college basketball on his blog, Yoco Hoops.

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