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/ Jan. 31, 2005

Editor's Note: This was written on January 24. We're posting it late. Our apoligies. It's still a great read.

Sometimes, you can see it coming.

Bill Self did. The Kansas coach saw what many of us saw: a team just getting by, playing on borrowed time. Time ran out at Villanova on Jan. 22, as wings Curtis Sumpter and Allen Ray combined for 52 points in an 83-62 romp.

"It had been coming," Self told reporters after the game. "We've been putting a lot of band aids on our deficiencies."

Had Kansas been winning? Yes. Is that all that matters? Well, yes and no. A 109-75 North Carolina thrashing of Maryland counts for the same number of wins as a 59-57 Kansas nail-biter over Nebraska. However, it was clear that Kansas, while undefeated heading into Philly, was not playing top-flight basketball, regardless of what misleading RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers might say.

In other words, it was clear, or at least should have been clear, what was coming- a thrashing at the hands of the 'Cats that wasn't even as close as the already wide margin indicated.

After come-from-behind wins- at home, no less- against underwhelming foes like Vermont, Pacific, South Carolina and Texas A&M, the Jayhawks appeared to be vindicated by wins over Top 10 foes Georgia Tech and Kentucky, especially considering they won both games without All-American big man Wayne Simien.

In retrospect, those wins don't look as amazing as they originally did.

Georgia Tech was also missing a star, B.J. Elder. They were manhandling Kansas in the first half until Elder went down with an ankle injury. Tech has not been a good team without him, having lost their last three games.

Though winning at Rupp Arena is always impressive, Kentucky is a very young team, and not a very good one on that day. That's the nature of a team with so many young players in their rotation; they may be great on some days, and very much the opposite on others.

Kansas is also still trying to figure out which of their young players are mature, and which aren't. Fortunately for the beakers, Bill Self-coached teams have a history of finishing strong. But there may not be enough time to fix this team's deficiencies- a young bench, a disappointing J.R. Giddens, and an inconsistent offense marred by mediocre outside shooting.

Even if a team's record is flawless, the course of a season will eventually expose their flaws. No longer holding a perfect record, Kansas is now fully exposed. How they respond will be a gauge of this team's maturity level and Self's coaching ability.

A few hours later, another upset took place in Big East territory, this one also stunning and predictable all at once.

UConn had certainly been having their ups and downs, following losses to Boston College and Oklahoma with gritty road wins over Georgetown and Seton Hall, respectively. Obviously this is not the same UConn team that won it all last year. Nearly half of their points from last season, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, are currently first and second among NBA rookies in scoring.

But this sure didn't look like the same Pittsburgh team coming into Storrs- one of the nation's toughest places to win, don't forget- that had won 13 Big East games in each of the last three seasons.

Pitt played one of the most embarrassingly easy nonconference schedules a good team has ever played. Perhaps a case of karmic backlash, the Panthers dropped a home game to one of those patsies, Bucknell. It didn't get any better once conference play started, as they fell to Big East lightweights Georgetown and St. John's and barely got by Rutgers and Seton Hall.

With an RPI freefalling toward triple digits and a nonconference strength of schedule checking above 300- nearly dead last in the nation- there is no way Pitt would have been an NCAA tournament team had the season ended on Jan. 21.

If their name hadn't been Pitt, you would have given no thought of them winning at UConn. And when UConn was up 49- 34 with 18 minutes left, it was all but decided that they wouldn't.

So why was UConn's monumental collapse and Pitt's comeback not as surprising as it should have been?

Two reasons. First, UConn does not have the guards to close out a game. Both Wake Forest and Illinois faced similar onslaughts after building double-digit leads last week, against Cincinnati and Iowa, respectively. Why did the Demon Deacons and Illini find a way to hold on? Because they have great guards who control a game.

Chris Paul drilled a pair of free throws and a thre-pointer on consecutive posessions when the Bearcats had closed the gap to three points late in the second half. In overtime, Dee Brown hit all four of his free throws, and Luther Head locked up Pierre Pierce and hit an impossible floater with a minute left to seal the Illinois win.

UConn does not those kinds of guards. They don't even have very good guards. Marcus Williams has the makings of a brilliant playmaker- and his assist/turnover numbers certainly suggest that- and will some day be a better player than Taliek Brown. For now, though, the Huskies miss Brown's veteran hand more than they would have imagined, not to mention Ben Gordon's dominant performances, which have been replaced by wayward shooting from Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown, both shooting well under 40% from the floor this year.

No matter how many talented big men the Huskies have, college basketball is a guard's game. When their backcourt play catches up to the likes of Boone and Villanueva up front, they will be scary to opponents. In the meantime, UConn fans will be the nervous ones.

The second reason? Pitt was simply due. They aren't as bad of a basketball team as recent weeks suggested. Carl Krauser showed why he's one of the nation's better point guards with 15 points and eight assists, and Chevon Troutman dominated the Huskies' touted frontcourt, scoring 23 of his 29 points- on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor- in the second-half comeback.

The next few weeks will answer the important questions. Are Villanova and Pitt good teams, after all? Are Kansas and UConn flawed teams that are due for a March letdown? Or were both of these games prove meaningless blips on the large radar of a five month season?







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