In case you have spent the past few weeks gridlocked in New Orleans, we would like to fill you in on another place, one that's only a slip of a typing finger from the Big Easy. It's the Big East, where young men try out exotic new martial arts, exchange vulgar unpleasantries and sometimes play a little basketball. As they begin their second decade, the Beastie Boys are going through all the tumult and identity crises that plague any preteen. Go figure:
•At week's end, upstart Connecticut—Connecticut?—had won six straight league games. The streak included consecutive whuppings of blue bloods Syracuse, Georgetown and—in last Saturday night's opening of the Huskies' new on-campus Gampel Pavilion—St. John's. That 72-58 victory, which moved UConn into a first-place tie in the league, was baffling because the Red-men had won a Jan. 2 meeting between the two teams by 31 points.
•Syracuse, 0-8 against Georgetown in nine seasons of playing the Hoyas at the Capital Centre and facing the nation's leader in both field goal percentage defense and rebound margin, shot 53%, ruled the boards 43-37 and routed Georgetown 95-76 last Saturday. The Orangemen's Billy Owens, who shot 1 for 9 in the Cap Centre last season, went 11 for 17 and scored 36, a career high.
•Last March, St. John's finished tied for seventh in the league. At week's end, with virtually the same team, the Redmen were 6-2 and right there with UConn atop the league.
•Villanova had blown out three of four Big East opponents on the road, including mighty Syracuse by 19-but still hadn't won at home in four tries.
•A 6'7½" Israeli (Connecticut's Nadav Henefeld) led the league in steals. A converted wide receiver (Pittsburgh's Darelle Porter) led it in assists. A defensive specialist who isn't supposed to be able to shoot (Seton Hall's Michael Cooper) was tops in field goal percentage. And the league's leading scorer (Mark Tillmon of Georgetown) got no preseason mention—not even honorable-mention mention—in any context other than "questionable backcourt."
The only certainty in the Big East nowadays is that five, possibly six, schools will go on to the NCAA tournament. Just don't try to guess which ones. "The elevator goes up and down a lot quicker in our conference," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "The first and second tier teams are separated by a player, an injury, a call. But it's like on a golf course—if you roll off the fairway, it's tough to get back on. This league is a very unforgiving course."
Unless the Huskies get the yips, they'll hole out for their first NCAA bid since the Big East began in 1979-80. At first glance, Connecticut looks like the Seton Hall team that reached last season's national title game. Both were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference after losing a star frontcourt player (the Pirates' Mark Bryant, the Huskies' Cliff Robinson) to the NBA. Each added a mature foreigner (Andrew Gaze, Henefeld). Both showed early-season promise in the Great Alaska Shootout. And each had a senior guard who was maligned for three seasons, only to blossom in his last. Of Tate George, UConn's answer to the Hall's John Morton, Calhoun says, "People have told me I must not have a dog because I've yelled at Tate so much."
As for Henefeld, he is a deft outside shooter with the passing and pilfering skills of a much smaller man. He was recruited originally by St. John's, but when he arrived in Queens, N.Y., he was disappointed to discover that the Redmen's urban campus was not the bucolic place he had envisioned. Connecticut's campus in rural Storrs seemed to suit him more. Henefeld has withstood an anonymous letter, written in Hebrew, that was sent to the NCAA's offices and alleged he had been a pro in Israel. (A subsequent investigation failed to turn up any evidence to confirm the charge.) He spent a dizzying few days in November, flying from New York to Tel Aviv to play for the Israeli national team. Shortly after the game, he flew from Tel Aviv to Anchorage via New York to join the Huskies for their season opener. And during a lineup for a free throw in UConn's win over Georgetown, he was subjected to some lewd woofing from the Hoyas' Alonzo Mourning. Henefeld, the man they call the Dove (his first name is pronounced nah-DOVE), charitably ascribes Mourning's words to the heat of the moment.
A retinue of 14 daily newspapermen chronicles Connecticut's every dribble, and with 85,000 alumni living within 1½ hours of the Hartford Civic Center—the Huskies' home court for some Big East games—UConn basketball has long been a mania in search of a team. Four years ago, Calhoun, a salty New Englander who had turned Northeastern into an area power, went to work for Connecticut. The opening of Gampel Pavilion begins another stage of the Huskies' development. Though it seats half as many people (8,241) as the Civic Center, Gampel has the acoustics and configuration of a cozy pit.
The Dove contributed his usual four steals against the Redmen, including a huge one, with just over five minutes to play, that resulted in a John Gwynn layup and a 57-51 Huskies lead. But Henefeld and George struggled offensively. So guard Chris Smith threw in 20 for UConn, and three players off the bench—Dan Cyrulik, Scott Burrell and Gwynn—picked up for the slumping starters, each going for double figures.
Notwithstanding St. John's loss last Saturday, and even without Henefeld, the Redmen's frontcourt is as well balanced as any in the country. Malik Sealy is all willowy finesse. Robert Werdann is an occupying power. And Jayson Williams, who missed 10 games at the start of the season while recuperating from a broken foot, sprang for 23 in an 83-75 victory last week at Providence, where St. John's has rarely won lately. "Two years ago we lost and I ended up in jail," said Williams, who had been charged with assault—the charge was later dropped—for chucking a chair at a spectator that evening. "Tonight we won, and I'm free."
As floor leader, Boo Harvey gets more and more comfortable running a team that walk-it-up coach Lou Carnesecca has allowed more freedom. "We're like a luxury sports car," says Williams. "We can go fast if we want to, but we can slow it down and look good at the same time."
For a while, Syracuse resembled a stretch limo that couldn't take a corner. First, guard-poor coach Jim Boeheim stuck two thirds of the best front line in the nation—Stevie Thompson and Billy Owens—in his backcourt. They ate up the Orangemen's mediocre December fare, but conference teams threw thickety zones at them, and Syracuse couldn't sink an outside shot. After the astonishing loss to Villanova, Boeheim put an embargo on three-pointers.
Still, Syracuse struggled. Exasperated, Boeheim—after consecutive losses to UConn and Providence, and an hour and a half of nonstop coach-bashing on one postgame call-in show—benched mercurial swingman Dave Johnson and turned to a more orthodox arrangement. He started Michael Edwards, a 5'11" freshman from Eastern High in Voorhees, N.J., who has the stroke to loosen up a zone. "Everybody was saying we didn't have a true point guard," Edwards says. "It made me mad. Why am I here if I'm not a true point guard?"
Edwards began so many full-court sallies that ended with Thompson, Owens and even power forward Derrick Coleman doing chin-ups on the rim that play had to be stopped midway through the second half so a basket support could be repositioned.
The Hoyas' 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, Mourning's Zairean sidekick, seemed lost against Syracuse, which rolled up the most points scored against Georgetown in 14 years. But after a meeting with Red Auerbach last summer, Thompson has been using Mutombo and Mourning together, something he rarely did last season.
Where Mutombo is worldly and, in Thompson's phrase, "a jewel," Mourning is still growing up. "People are always comparing Alonzo to what they thought Patrick [Ewing] was," says Thompson. "Where Patrick was private, Alonzo enjoys an interview, so people say, 'He's so mature.' That's b.s. He's a 19-year-old country boy."
Mourning's fraternization with Rayful Edmond, a D.C. drug dealer convicted on conspiracy charges last December, is one example of Thompson's point. "Alonzo's got to know who Alonzo is," says Thompson. "That's news, him even being seen with someone like that. He's got to realize it. Maturity will come when he knows it."
Yet when the Hoy as need to get a fire lit under Mutombo, Thompson pulls Mourning aside. "Do me a favor," he tells Alonzo. "Get your boy plugged in."
The experimental six-foul rule, which the Big East and three other leagues are trying this year and which gives the Hoya M & Ms 12 personals to play with, is a transparent sop to TV, intended to keep stars in games longer.
Of course, it has also given the Big East's Beasties an extra chance to hack away with impunity, and they're availing themselves of that chance. Thus it took Providence and St. John's 27 minutes to slog through the final 3:30 of playing time during their game last week. When Villanova and Georgetown hooked up two days earlier, a single minute in the second half—still early enough so no one was yet fouling tactically to regain possession—featured nine fouls, and ESPN couldn't join its telecast of Wisconsin and Minnesota, a couple of five-and-you're-out wimps from the Big Ten, until about eight minutes were gone in the first half. "The Big Ten's mad at us." says Big East assistant commissioner Chris Plonsky, whose conference's games usually are featured on ESPN before Big Ten games on Mondays and before ACC games on Wednesdays. "The ACC's mad at us. We make everybody late."
When TV finally gets fed up with the scheduling snafus, this rule—which encourages sloppy defense and only plays to the Big East's reputation for mayhem—will pass.
Opponents of the six-foul rule also point out that it discourages upsets because it takes away from weaker teams the option of attempting to get star opponents in foul trouble. But that argument is almost irrelevant to the Big East this season, because no one can define an upset. Even the three stragglers—Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Boston College—have all punched upper-floor buttons in Calhoun's elevator for next season. Pitt has several talented, though ineligible, players in the bank and will add injured point guard Sean Miller. The Pirates have signed 7'2" Luther Wright from Elizabeth, N.J. And while BC's commitment from Bill Curley, a 6'9" local kid, isn't comparable to landing Wright, it has given the low-flying Eagles—they were 0-8 in the league as of Sunday—credibility.
A couple of Syracuse fans taunted Thompson as he left the court last Saturday. "Hey John!" they called out. "Who's Number One now?"
Thompson heard them. He wheeled around and pointed their way. "Wait," he said. "Just wait."
Such a turnabout in the Big East: the Hoyas invoking patience and the Huskies mushing happily through the here and now.