Although the Big East is just eight years old, it already has the trappings of conferences decades older: glamorous arenas, feisty rivalries, network TV exposure, tournament madness—and a communal arrogance. "It's easier to win an NCAA first- or second-round game than to win a Big East regular-season game," says Providence's new coach, Gordie Chiesa. The conference is missing only the usual clearly drawn line between the haves and the have-nots. In the Big East, anybody can suddenly be a have-it-all.
Last season Syracuse and Providence, the latter supposedly among the leagued dregs, made it to the Final Four. In '85, Georgetown, St John's and Villanova all went, with 'Nova coming from nowhere to win the NCAA championship. This season, Pitt is considered a No. 1 candidate in many circles, and Seton Hall, with Mark Bryant (see box), is a comer. If you're counting, that leaves only two Big East teams—Boston College and Connecticut—out of the recent picture, and BC had a nice run in the early '80s. In most leagues you have to scan back to aught-something to find certain schools' last bids for postseason glory.
The lure of this conference is now so strong that top prospects in the lush talent groves of the urban Northeast pick the Big East first and then decide which of its teams can give them the most minutes. This often means going to a (temporarily) lesser program. Commissioner Dave Gavitt has made sure that this cycle of parity hasn't been disrupted by infighting among coaches. And it's that crucible of league play that helps, come tourney time. Since 1980 the Big East has been 66-32 in the NCAAs. In other words, Chiesa is right.
Because Syracuse. St. John's and Villanova brought in just one top highschooler among them, the league rates a notch below the Big Ten this year. Syracuse, however, looks second to none in the land. The Orangemen, a point away from the national title last year, bring back center Rony Seikaly, power forward Derrick Coleman and playmaker Sherman Douglas. Each is the best at his position in the league.
"We can be as talented, but can we be as good?" asks Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "That comes with balance, the kind we had." The Orange did lose splendid role players in Greg Monroe and Howard Triche. But with forward Herman Harried, swingman Stevie Thompson, gunner Matt Roe and guard Earl Duncan, a prep All-America benched last season by Bylaw 5-1-(j), Boeheim has the elements to create a potent chemistry.
Pittsburgh actually goes deeper than the Orangemen, but will the Panthers blend any better than they did last year? With Mike Goodson in academic trouble, coach Paul Evans will have to finger a point guard. A familiar choice for Pitt fans would be freshman Sean Miller, a ball-handling whiz who as a kid dribbled during Pitt halftimes, not to mention on The Tonight Show. "He's not a normal freshman," says Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. In addition to Miller, Evans brings in a much-needed shooter in guard Jason Matthews and a recruiting class that's better than the rest of the conference's combined.
Pitt's inside players match up well with the Orange's. Evans assembled a panel of NBA experts, including Red Auerbach, to convince 6'10" senior Charles Smith to finish his college career. At 6'6", junior Jerome Lane led the country in rebounding, to become the smallest Division I board king since Alex (Boo) Ellis from Niagara in 1958. Says Boeheim, "No one in the country, I don't care how tall he is, can outrebound Jerome Lane one-on-one."
If Georgetown can find someone to pick up for Reggie Williams come crunch time, the Hoyas will have the hordes to overrun anyone. Anthony Tucker, a 6'8" freshman, may answer that call in time; for now, senior Perry McDonald is John Thompson's most able veteran. Look for Charles Smith, one of several backcourt pests, to become the three-point gun.
After years of playing behind Chris Mullin and Walter Berry and Mark Jackson, Shelton Jones will have to step out for St. John's. Fortunately, with juco guard Greg (Boo) Harvey around, Jones won't stand alone. Harvey persuaded his teammate at San Jacinto, Michael Porter, to transfer with him, giving the Redmen an instant backcourt.
When P.J. Carlesimo arrived at Seton Hall in '82, one of the first players he tried to recruit was 5'3" Tyrone Bogues. This year he plucked same-sized Leland (Pookey) Wigington out of Ventura (Calif.) Junior College. The Pirates hope Wigington will lead as well as develop a following.
Chiesa vows to stick to threebies and a pressing D at Providence. He has the troops: guard Delray Brooks, improving center Steve Wright. 6'10" Abdul (the Sheikh) Shamsid-Deen and former juco man Cal (Sir Dunkalot) Foster. The key will be the play of sophomore playmaker Carlton Screen.
In two years of recruiting. Villanova coach Rollie Massimino has yet to come up with a blue-chip scorer or rebounder to complement juniors Doug West at forward and Kenny Wilson at point guard. He has to hope 7'2" Tom Greis emerges. Academics sidelined forward Cliff Robinson and guard Phil Gamble at the end of the first semester last season, and Connecticut wound up with just six active scholarship players. Robinson and Gamble are now eligible, but league wins will still be scarce. When a herniated disk kept Boston College coach Jim O'Brien from recruiting last fall, it didn't help ease the backbreaking burden on 5'10" junior Dana Barros, who runs a close second to Douglas among the conference's guards. In the competitive free-for-all that is the Big East, a recruiting injury may be the most debilitating impairment of all.
In its drive for a title, Pitt will count on Lane, the biggest 6'6" man in the country.