he end of January and the beginning of February ushers in four tough games for the Minutemen. Two of them -- Duquesne and Virginia Tech -- are on the road. The next two -- against nationally-ranked Temple and Texas -- are at home. Prior to the Virginia Tech game, head coach Bruiser Flint talked about the topsy-turvy world of college basketball when conference play heats up and every game becomes a war.
February is the home-stretch month in college basketball. It is the time when both coaches and players want to be at their best heading into conference and postseason tournaments. But as long as I have been involved in college basketball, as both a player and a coach, the end of January can be a perilous time for teams.
The last two weeks have proved just, that not only for our team, but for many others.
Most recently, the defending national champion UConn Huskies were beaten soundly by Syracuse, 88-74, at the Carrier Dome. Although Syracuse remains the only unbeaten team in the nation, a lot of people were shocked as to how easy Syracuse made it look against Connecticut. It will be interesting to see the rematch on March 4, the last regular season game heading into the Big East Tournament.
A week earlier Temple (the favorite to win the Atlantic 10 and advance deep into the NCAA Tournament) was stunned by St. Bonaventure. A few days later, Fordham, a team we defeated by 30 points, shocked the Bonnies. La Salle recently crushed Xavier.
That is not all: Florida State (another team we defeated), went into Chapel Hill and defeated No. 21 North Carolina. Unranked USC, playing without leading scorer Sam Clancy and sixth-man Jarvis Turner, defeated No. 2 Arizona; Mississippi upset No. 4 Auburn; Missouri dominated No. 7 Kansas; Purdue moved into first place in the Big Ten by defeating No. 11 Indiana; Texas A&M squeaked past No. 12 Oklahoma State; St. Louis knocked off No. 23 DePaul.
Even teams that should have had an easier time winning didn't. No. 9 Florida needed two free throws in the last 16 seconds to defeat Alabama. No. 18 Kentucky needed overtime to beat Vanderbilt.
In my opinion, this is what makes college basketball so special and exciting. For everyone else, that is. I don't like it when it's my team being ambushed.
We have two crucial road games this week. First we travel to Pittsburgh to face Duquesne, and then we move on to play at Virginia Tech. It is time for our team to tighten our belts and play hard each game. I would be the first to admit that we have yet play consistent basketball. But, when we play on all cylinders like we did against Rhode Island, we can be a formidable opponent.
Most importantly, we have to play each game like it could be the last of the season. We are in no position to look ahead. I am sure that our next two home games -- against No. 24 Temple and No. 14 Texas -- are contests that everyone is looking forward to watching. However, before we can get excited about those games, we have to take care of business against Duquesne and Virginia Tech.
With all the upsets in our league over the last few weeks, I think the A-10 race is going to be competitive. Temple has been playing good basketball, and so have the Bonnies. In my opinion, they remain the teams to beat. As for our next opponent, the Dukes are on a seven-game home-winning streak (6-0 this year), the best home mark since the 1993-94 season. Duquesne can thank Courtney Wallace for this streak. He has been averaging 39 minutes at the point guard position and has been very reliable. He is Duquesne's second-leading scorer (12.7 ppg). The Dukes are 8-9, 3-3, and are trying to get over the hump just like we are.
The key to the Duquesne game is twofold. First, we want to take the home fans out of the game. Secondly, we have to defend Wayne Smith (team-leading 19.4 ppg) and keep him from having a huge game. He had led Duquesne in scoring in all but four games and had a season-high 27 points in a 62-59 loss to St. Joseph's last Saturday. Both Mike Babul and Chris Kirkland will share time guarding the 6-foot-7 forward. Smith is one of only two A-10 players in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding. He is having a great year. I am hoping that Kirkland will make Smith work hard on the defensive end, because this will help us contain him offensively.
Virginia Tech is another team having a mediocre season thus far. At 9-9, 3-3 heading into our game, the Hokies have lost two straight against Temple and Virginia, but had previously won three straight. An 82-61 win over Fordham tells me these guys are for real.
Chris Mims, a 6-foot-9-sophomore forward, is leading the team in scoring (13.9 ppg) and in rebounding (7.4 rpg). I have been a fan of 6-foot-7 junior forward Rolan Roberts (12.9 ppg). He plays hard. Freshman guard Tony Dobbins, who has been struggling with a bad back, is healthy again and performing like a veteran. He is a good defensive player, having held George Washington's SirValiant Brown to 6-for-20 shooting in the Tech's January 15 win over GW. I am sure he would like to do the same to Monty Mack or Shannon Crooks.
We return home to face Temple on Feb. 1 and then Texas on Feb. 5. With the return of point guard Pepe Sanchez from injury, the Owls are starting to gel as a team and have certainly benefited from playing so many tough non-conference games without his services. Temple is a big rival and a big game for us. Nothing will change in how we prepare. We will have to be patient and find the gaps in Temple's vaunted matchup zone.
I'll preview the Texas game in my next column. As a teaser, the Longhorns may have the national Player of the Year in 7-foot center Chris Mihm. Some might suggest that Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin is a deserving candidate as well. I won't disagree.