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The Big Beast

After just a week of conference play the new Big East has proved that no league in the country is stronger top to bottom

Had it really come to this? A chorus of boos-from disgruntled UConn fans, directed at their sluggish, second-ranked Huskies-filled the Hartford Civic Center last Saturday as an alley-oop slam put unranked LSU up 33-19 with 5:07 left in the first half. UConn coach Jim Calhoun quickly called timeout, upset not only with his players but also exceedingly perturbed with his home crowd. He strode onto the court and egged on the audience, fuming with an expression that seemed to say, We're 11-1. What are you doing?

The UConn faithful had walked through the arena doors that afternoon still smarting from their team's Big East opener, a 94-79 loss on Jan. 3 at Marquette, which was picked to finish 12th, 10 spots behind UConn, in the league's preseason coaches' poll. And even though the fans quickly-and almost guiltily-reverted to raucous support and the Huskies rallied for a 67-66 victory, it was clear that there would not be smooth sailing in the Big East this year, even for a program that had won two national titles in the previous six seasons.

The defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC over the past two seasons led the Big East to raid Conference USA for five members-Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida-creating a 16-team superconference universally acknowledged as the nation's strongest. With six teams in the latest AP Top 25, and what would be a record 10 schools potentially bound for the NCAA tournament, the league is fulfilling preseason prophecies of its unparalleled quality. Indeed, unheralded Pittsburgh, 12-0 (1-0 in the Big East) at week's end and ranked No. 12, was one of three remaining unbeatens, along with No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Florida. UConn junior point guard Marcus Williams put it best when he said, "There won't be any nights off this year."

Villanova quickly found that out. The Wildcats entered league play in the midst of their best start in 44 years, using a four-guard attack led by seniors Randy Foye (averaging 21.0 points) and Allan Ray (19.4) to outscore opponents by 24.7 points per game. Unlike UConn, Villanova survived its conference opener, winning 76-67 on Jan. 5 at ninth-ranked Louisville, to improve to 10-0. Afterward Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said, "I don't think anyone in Louisville knew how tough the Big East and Villanova were before tonight. Now they all know."

Three days after enlightening the Derby City, it was the Wildcats' turn to be humbled-on the Main Line, no less. "You come home, and West Virginia is waiting for you," says Villanova coach Jay Wright. "Every night [in the Big East] is going to be a game where people are coming after you." Although they shot 58% from the field for the game, the Wildcats committed 22 turnovers and watched as the Mountaineers, behind 23 points from Joe Herber and 22 from Kevin Pittsnogle, used a late surge to pull off a 91-87 upset. It was a reminder to all that No. 16 West Virginia (10-3, 2-0), whose season ended last March in overtime against Louisville, one step from the Final Four, is in the mix for conference supremacy.

Some equilibrium was restored to the league on Monday night as Connecticut handed another newcomer, No. 25 Cincinnati (13-3, 2-1), its first loss in the Big East, 70-59. Still, the No. 4 Huskies (13-1, 1-1) no longer look as indomitable as they did in November when they knocked off Arkansas, Arizona and Gonzaga to win the Maui Invitational. Says Calhoun, "We keep hearing [we have] superstars ... but I don't see an Adam Morrison yet. Rudy [Gay] can get there, but we're not there yet." The fans, Calhoun said, "maybe need to understand this team a little better."

Patience is something Villanova fans already understand. Although the No. 3 Wildcats (10-1, 1-1) suffered a home defeat just six days into the inaugural season of the supersized Big East, they were serenaded with applause as they left the floor. It was a sign that the message is spreading fast: The league's teams may emerge battle-tested and in record numbers for the postseason, but no one will make it out of conference play unscathed. Fans had better learn to savor the struggle.


Is Millsap the Next Mailman?

When Paul Millsap arrived at Louisiana Tech three summers ago, no one expected him to be an especially strong rebounder. "We thought we had signed a good all-around player," says coach Keith Richard, "but then every day for two weeks straight during practice, he had double figures in rebounds. It was obvious this guy had a special gift."

Richard told his rookie to lead the WAC in rebounding. "And then he led the country," says the coach.

Now the 6'8", 245-pound Millsap aims to become the first Division I player to lead the nation for three straight years. He averaged 12.5 rebounds as a freshman and 12.4 as a sophomore, leading to the inevitable comparisons with Karl Malone, who starred at Louisiana Tech from 1982 to '85. Millsap's rebounding style, however, is more like Dennis Rodman's. He uses leverage and a nose for the ball to pick off errant shots and missed free throws.

With 30 total rebounds (20 offensive) in last week's road wins at Boise State and Idaho, Millsap (20.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg) climbed from seventh to second nationally. "I had some catching up to do," he says.

Hoop Thoughts


For four months during the summer of 2004, Tim Floyd worked as an unpaid consultant on Glory Road, a Disney movie based on Texas Western's 1966 NCAA championship team coached by Don Haskins, for whom Floyd worked as an assistant from 1978 to '86. Floyd (right) had free time on his hands because he'd been fired by the New Orleans Hornets in May 2004, and his days on the set often lasted 12 or more hours as he helped the crew stage basketball scenes and advised actor Josh Lucas on his portrayal of Haskins. The movie, which has earned generally positive reviews, opens nationally on Friday. "I think it's great that the movie came out when Coach Haskins is still alive and can see people's reaction to it," Floyd says. "Not only do I think he's the greatest coach who ever lived, but he's an unbelievable person who has lived his life with conviction."

Floyd is earning good reviews himself as the first-year coach at USC. He took over a 12-17 team that had only four players on scholarship at season's end, but through Sunday the Trojans were 11-4 (2-2 in the Pac-10), including a 74-59 upset of then No. 17 North Carolina in L.A. on Dec. 21. USC has benefited from the improvement of 6'6" sophomore swingman Nick Young, who is averaging 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, but with no dependable post scorer on the roster, Floyd understands that his team will most likely not have a Hollywood ending this March. "If there's a big guy out there who can catch the ball and score, he can call our toll-free number because we'd like to have him," Floyd says. "He can even play 40 minutes [a game] if he wants."


1 Kentucky's shooting is atrocious. Joe Crawford (left) and the Wildcats made just two of 27 three-pointers in a blowout loss at Indiana on Dec. 10, then went 3 for 25 from behind the arc in last Saturday's 27-point pasting at Kansas. The return of 6'10" sophomore center Randolph Morris will help, but it won't solve all of UK's woes.

2 The ACC is giving Boston College a rude welcome. The 15th-ranked Eagles dropped to 0-2 in their new league with a 60-58 loss at Georgia Tech on Sunday night. And the conference didn't do BC any favors by scheduling four of its first six conference games on the road.

3 Oklahoma needs better guard play. The Sooners are 11th in the Big 12 in three-point shooting (30.2%) and last in three-point defense (38.9%). Not that their big men are without blame: Oklahoma shot just seven free throws during last Saturday's one-point loss to unranked Nebraska in Lincoln.

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Pro Prospects

An NBA scout evaluates the potential of Oklahoma forward Taj Gray, a 6'9", 238-pound senior who led the Sooners at week's end with 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game while shooting 62.1% from the field.

"His skills aren't that refined yet. His balance doesn't seem to be very good, and he doesn't have great footwork.... Because he was a junior college player, he's relatively new to high-stakes basketball and he's still raw. But when you're an unknown quantity, that can have some appeal.... He could be a hell of a defender because of his length, athleticism and size.... He scores because he is a relentless energy guy, but that's not enough for our league. If he can get significantly bigger and stronger, he could blossom as a pro. But he won't be drafted in the first round."



STUMBLING Gay and UConn fell to Marquette, while Foye (inset) and Villanova were Pittsnogled by West Virginia.





BALL HOG Millsap is on track to lead the nation in rebounding for the third straight season.