By Randy Rosetta
Inspin.com/WagerWeb.com Contributing Writer
The Big East’s two winningest programs over the last six years lock horns on Tuesday night – one sitting on top of the league standings and another hungry to rediscover its mojo.
Reeling Connecticut (13-3, 2-2 Big East) is out of the national polls for the first time since 2003 as it heads to Western Pennsylvania to take on sixth-ranked Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-0), which has re-established itself as a Final Four contender with a quick start in league play.
The Huskies and Panthers square off at 7 tonight on ESPN2.
UConn has lost three of the last five games, although the Huskies righted the ship Saturday night by edging St. John’s 68-59 at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies’ defense still ranks among the Big East’s upper echelon, leading the league in field-goal defense (35.2 percent) and blocked shots (9.5 per game) and ranking sixth with 8.9 steals a contest.
Freshman guard Doug Wiggins has emerged as one of the top sixth men in the Big East, notching double-figure scoring totals six times this season, including games of 19 vs. Marquette and 20 against West Virginia.
Wiggins helped Connecticut shoot 50 percent from the floor against St. John’s, anchored by a 6-for-11 team performance from 3-point territory. Freshmen Stanley Robinson and Hasheem Thabeet came up big against the Red Storm – Robinson with 13 points and 12 rebounds and Thabeet with 12 points, 10 boards and 7 blocks.
Pittsburgh has lost three of the last four meetings with UConn, including a rare home loss at the Peterson Center against the Huskies in 2005.
But the Panthers are flying high after a methodical and thorough 74-69 triumph against Georgetown on Saturday. In that win, Pitt weathered the Hoyas’ 60.9 percent shooting performance by hitting 56.9 percent themselves and winning the battle on the glass, 23-18. The Panthers’ rebound total was a season-low, but so were their 7 turnovers.
Pitt junior Mike Cook recorded a season-high 18 points against GU and has quietly put together a solid season with 11.9 points and 3.2 rebounds a game, 55 assists and 54.2 percent shooting (77-of-142) from the floor. In the Panthers’ four Big East wins, Cook is producing 11.3 points a contest, which is big because foes are focused on slowing down 7-footer Aaron Gray.
UConn is averaging 69.3 points a game in Big East play and will likely need to come near that total to have a shot at upsetting Pitt, which is limiting league foes to only 58 a game. The Panthers are -7.5 on WagerWeb.com.
ST. JOHN’S at DePAUL (8:30 p.m. EST Tuesday): These two teams meet for the second time in 13 days with the Red Storm looking for the season sweep after claiming a 64-53 triumph in New York on Jan. 3. The Blue Demons notched one of the more dominant defensive efforts in their recent history – a 60-37 victory against Rutgers on Saturday. DePaul (11-7, 2-2) held the Scarlet Knights to the second-lowest point total by a Big East team in the league’s 26-year history. The Demons have been very solid defensively over the last 12 games, holding foes to 37 percent shooting (251-of-678) and 60.2 points a game. DePaul is 9-3 over the stretch. Karron Clark was the offensive sparkplug in the Demons’ effort against Rutgers with a season-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field (4-of-6 3-point range). St. John’s (10-7, 1-3) has lost all three games since defeating DePaul and is averaging only 56 points in those setbacks. In a 68-59 loss to Connecticut, the Red Storm won the battle of boards (39-36) and turned the ball over fewer times than the Huskies, but couldn’t overcome 33.3 percent shooting. Lamont Hamilton scored only 9 points vs. UConn but still leads St. John’s with 13.4 points a game. DePaul is -12 for tonight's game on WagerWeb.com.
NOTRE DAME at VILLANOVA (7 p.m. EST Wednesday): The Fighting Irish (15-2, 3-1) are off to their best start under Coach Mike Brey after their third Big East home win, 88-79 over Seton Hall on Sunday. Notre Dame leads the Big East with 84.1 points a game, led by Russell Carter’s 18.8 points a game and 14.4 from Rob Kurz. Carter and Irish backup Zach Hillesland each logged double-doubles against the Pirates – Carter with 24 points and 10 rebounds, Hillesland with 12, 10 and 8 assists. Notre Dame and Villanova meet Wednesday night and again Jan. 27. The Wildcats (11-5, 1-3) need to get in a groove after losing three of their last four Big East games – including a 75-64 setback at Syracuse on Saturday. Curtis Sumpter came up big against the Orange with 24 points and 12 boards and was 9-of-17 from the floor. ’Nova guards Mike Nardi and Scottie Reynolds added 14 and 13 points, respectively, but each was just 2-for-10 from 3-point range against SU. The Wildcats are 10-2 against Notre Dame since the Irish joined the Big East and need a win this week to get back on track.
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