Upon reaching the ripe old age of 10, any league with two NCAA basketball titles, a full calendar of TV dates and a ton of money is entitled to raise a glass to itself. But having made the toasts and downed the drinks, does the Big East really have to take "bottoms up" so literally?
For three discombobulated days last week, the Big East standings looked as if they had been botched by someone in the composing room: Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's were at the bottom without a victory in league play. Seton Hall, Providence and Connecticut, the customary stooges for the Big East's Big Four, were unbeaten in conference competition and were 33-1 overall.
The week wound up this way: St. John's, which had been annihilated by Providence earlier in the week, beat Villanova by 19 points; Pittsburgh, which had shocked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, lost to Boston College and Dana Barros (43 points) at home; Seton Hall, which had bumped off Georgetown, suffered its first loss of the season in a 90-66 rout at Syracuse; and Providence, an emphatic pick for last in the league in the Big East coaches' preseason poll, nipped Connecticut 80-78 in Hartford to remain one of only four undefeated Division I-A teams in the nation.
The one knock against the nine-team Big East has been that the conference is so predictably two-tiered. "Some years the break was at four," says Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo. "Some years it was at five. One year we had six great teams in the league. But you could always find at least three at the bottom. Now everybody's got 16 games they don't want to deal with. And we should be an expert on the bottom of the league, because that's where we were."
No team better symbolizes the turn the Big East has taken than Carlesimo's swashbuckling Pirates, winners already of three tournaments this season and 94-86 conquerors of previously unbeaten Georgetown at the Meadowlands on Jan. 3. Seton Hall has had to labor under the knowledge that it is in the league only because Rutgers turned down the invitation of Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt. Ten years ago Seton Hall played all home games on its South Orange, N.J., campus in 3,200-seat Walsh Gym, a dingy crypt with a Podunk High School-style stage at one end. Says Carlesimo, "We were happy just getting side baskets in our gym, a secretary and two full-time assistants."
But "the Hall" prudently reinvested its league revenue-sharing checks each year until 1985, when Gavitt decreed that ah Big East games must be played in arenas he deemed suitable. So the Pirates booked New Jersey's Meadowlands for all home conference games, hoping Brendan Byrne Arena would become for them what Madison Square Garden has been for St. John's. "At first, people loved playing us there," says Seton Hall athletic director Larry Keating. "It was like a neutral site." But against Georgetown last week, with 19.761 fans punching the place out and the Hoyas not punching anybody, Byrne Arena seemed, as Pirates floor leader Gerald Greene said, "like Syracuse was playing at home."
Greene and his fellow South Orangemen soon got a sobering dose of the real thing. On Saturday night they found themselves visiting the Carrier Dome in the wake of the Orangemen's humiliating 81-76 loss to Pitt. "Sooner or later there's going to come a night when the shots don't fall," Carlesimo had said after the Pirates defeated DePaul 83-60 over the holidays. Now that such a night has come—Seton Hall shot 37% against Syracuse—the Pirates can only hope they won't have to endure another.
All of this heady activity is so new to the 39-year-old Carlesimo that, when asked whether the win over the Hoyas was his biggest ever, he could only say, "We haven't had that many to compare it to." Seton Hall has been making steady progress under Carlesimo, who left Wagner College on Staten Island to take over the program in 1982. But two seasons ago up in Providence, another young coach with an Italian surname, Rick Pitino, guided the likes of Billy Donovan, David Kipfer and Jacek Duda to the Final Four, while the Hall went 15-14 with guys who actually could run and jump and dunk. This did not go over well in South Orange. P.J., the conventional wisdom had it, was a sleepwear coach with a somnambulant program.
That was all prelude to the events of last season: the Pirates being booed as they departed the Meadowlands floor after losing to St. John's in a game that left them 2-6 in league play; the student senate passing a resolution calling for Carlesimo's resignation; the Hall winning six of its last eight games and beating Georgetown in the Big East tournament to land an NCAA bid, which some say Carlesimo needed to avoid being fired.
When he was given a five-year contract in March, Carlesimo cried. When he was voted Big East Coach of the Year the next day, he cried again. The joyride was all very nice and heartwarming and, no one doubted, certain to come to an end this season, because Carlesimo had to replace standout forward Mark Bryant and two other starters. But it hasn't. Without Bryant, starters Ramon Ramos, Daryll Walker, Andrew Gaze, John Morton and Greene are all scoring in or just under double figures. "Apparently we were the dregs," says Gaze, who enrolled at Seton Hall last fall after starring for the Australian Olympic team. "But I never knew that."
"It's scary that we're playing this well," said Carlesimo before traveling to Syracuse. The Orangemen gave substance to his fears, but the loss didn't alarm Carlesimo. The maturity of Gaze, a graying 23-year-old junior, has had a lot to do with the team's even temper. "Andrew doesn't understand how well he's played for us, because he's used to scoring 35 and being the main man," says Carlesimo, "When he scores 12 points, we have to convince him he really had a good game."
Carlesimo, with a fedora on his head, ruddy curls along his jaw and the occasional long-stemmed bachelorette on his arm, is a garrulous urban dandy. By contrast, Rick Barnes, who replaced Pitino at Providence, is a low-key, backwoods North Carolinian who studied 94-foot pressure at the knee of Ohio State coach Gary Williams. Barnes, 34, was such an efficient recruiter for the Buckeyes—he would befriend prospects' mailmen to find out which schools were in contact with his quarry and reputedly lost only one player that he went after—that folks in Columbus called him the Deal Closer.
Providence is as tough a sell to a recruit as any Big East school. Barnes is making do with thieving guards Carlton Screen and Eric Murdock, who at week's end were first and second, respectively, in the league in steals; gangly frontcourt players Marty Conlon, Abdul (the Sheikh) Shamsid-Deen, Cal Foster and Darryl Wright; and 6'3" forward Matt Palazzi. The son of former Holy Cross All-America Togo Palazzi, Matt got caught up in a miniseries' worth of personal problems; but after quitting on two other Providence coaches, he has finally settled in for his senior season. "We never underestimated ourselves," says Palazzi, "but now we're actually doing it."
Conlon, who also quit the team last season, renders much the same sentiment: "For us, we always knew. It was everyone else who was undecided."
This is essentially the same cast that accounted for the Friars' hellish 1987-88 campaign. Ultimately the Providence administration ran off hyperintense coach Gordon Chiesa. He was replaced by Barnes—inevitably called Good News (after Marvin "Bad News' " Barnes, a Providence star of the early '70s)—who says, "I haven't even looked at tapes of last year. I told the players from Day 1 this was a new start for them and me."
A new start, perhaps, but the same Providence system—the full-court Mother-in-Law defense, so-called because it inflicts constant pressure and harassment—accounts for the Friars' 12-0 record. Of the first four possessions by the Redmen in St. John's 98-69 loss to Providence on Jan. 3, two ended in throwaways and two in clean strips. The Redmen wound up with 30 turnovers. In the Friars' two-point defeat of Connecticut on Saturday, Murdock had four steals (UConn had 22 turnovers) and Screen scored 23 points. After a couple of hurried Husky three-point heaves misfired at game's end, you could hear the Deal Closer's briefcase snap shut. "They hung and dug and scratched, grabbed it, put it away and beat us," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
Though Providence hasn't been tested nearly as severely as Seton Hall, a 3-0 league record at week's end wasn't a bad start for a team that most observers had thought would finish last in the Big East. The coaches' poll, which had Seton Hall winding up seventh, began to look suspect as early as November. That's when Cibona, a Yugoslav club team playing an exhibition series against Big East schools, whupped both Georgetown (95-87) and Syracuse (86-78) but lost badly to Seton Hall (117-81), Providence (104-79) and Boston College (82-68).
And the cause of the Big East's newfound parity? The same rising-tide-lifts-all-boats principle that buoyed Georgia Tech from 0-14 in ACC play in 1980-81 to conference champion four seasons later. These days the combination of a high-profile conference and a chance to play has profound appeal. "We got all our seniors when we were rock-bottom in the league," says Carlesimo, who has six seniors and starts four. "We sold the Big East and the opportunity to play, and they bought in. And by coming to us and getting to play, they surpassed some of the Parade All-Americas that weren't playing somewhere else. Our guys are better because they got the——kicked out of them by Pearl Washington and Charles Smith when they were freshmen and scared stiff."
Last week Barnes was worried that his Friars could still finish 12-15. "It's awfully early to start talking about parity and balance," he said. As he and his staff watched a tape of Connecticut's 57-55 defeat of Villanova during the bus ride to Hartford, Barnes said, "I didn't even allow myself to watch what Villa-nova was doing."
Such is the lot of the Big East's arrivistes, ever wary of where they've come from. As Cyn (Joan Cusack) tells Tess (Melanie Griffith) in the movie Working Girl, "Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will."
Like Tess and Cyn, Carlesimo has Staten Island roots and last-shall-be-first designs. And notwithstanding their undressing at Syracuse, his Pirates have been doing some fancy dancing, in their own big house and in a number of other people's as well.
In time, the Friars will also play those precincts. Until then, said Screen, "We'll practice like we're oh-and-12, not 12-and-oh."