When Corliss Williamson was growing up—and growing large—in Russellville, Ark., he wanted more than anything else to one day play for John Thompson at Georgetown. But even though he became one of the country's best high school players, he didn't hear a word from Big John until his senior year, by which time it was too late. Williamson (page 74) had already agreed to attend Arkansas, which he led to the NCAA title last spring.
Up in Syracuse, N.Y., meanwhile, a hard-nosed gym rat named Michael Brown was also dreaming of playing for a team in Georgetown's league, the Big East, mostly because he liked its aggressive style. "The Big Last defenders got up in your face, played you all the way to the basket, didn't rely on help," says Brown. "You'd watch these other leagues on TV, like the ACC, and it was all help defense, let your man get by you and see who else was going to pick him up. The Big East was a challenge league." And so Brown took his muscular 6'1" frame and his in-your-face disposition to Providence.
The dreams of Williamson and Brown—one unfulfilled, the other realized—revealed two problems of the Big East, which was not long ago arguably the nation's best conference. To wit, it has suffered from lackadaisical recruiting, and it has developed a reputation for overly physical play.
Every coach misses a gem or two, of course, but for Thompson to overlook a potential All-America who wanted to play for him and who was tailor-made for Georgetown's physical style was inexcusable. And though one can find as Brown did and still does much to admire in the Big East's stranglehold style, its brand of bash ball, encouraged by an ill-advised six-foul rule, gradually overwhelmed the conference, turning intraleague games into wars of attrition that were a blight on the college basketball landscape. "Whenever we played a team outside our league," says Boston College coach Jim O'Brien, "it felt like we were getting out of prison."
November 28, 1994
Which is as good a metaphor as any for discussing this year's outlook in the Big East. Oh, the league didn't land every good freshman in the country. Forward Danny Fortson decided to go to Cincinnati instead of slaying home in Pittsburgh, and Syracuse lost out to Colgate, of all places, in a battle to land one of the country's other top big men, Adonal Foyle. And the Big East will still be among the most physical conferences, "the closest thing to the NBA in college basketball." as NBA director of operations Rod Thorn put it last year after watching some Big East action. And some of the league's bottom feeders, especially Miami, will struggle for wins. But, clearly, the Big East is out of the slammer—largely self-constructed—that it inhabited over the last few seasons. The reasons:
•Freshmen. The nation's two most highly acclaimed first-year players, St. John's Felipe Lopez and Georgetown's Allen Iverson, will be working their magic in the Big East this year. And so will St. John's center Zendon Hamilton, Boston College point guard Chris Herren and Georgetown center Jahidi White, three other freshmen on everyone's blue-chip chart. The league also boasts two of the nation's top transfers, Syracuse point guard Michael Lloyd (from San Jacinto Junior College) and Villanova forward Chuck Kornegay (from North Carolina State).
•Coaches. Pete Gillen, who made Xavier a perennial NCAA tournament overachiever, takes over this year at Providence, and Ralph Willard, who guided Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 in 1993, assumes command at Pitt. Both are city guys who can talk the shell right off an egg; together these two A-list catches will spice up the Big East with new-kid-on-the-block enthusiasm, colorful quotes and, most important, a wide-open style on both offense and defense. So will the lesser-known but widely respected George Blaney, who coached for the last 22 years at Holy Cross and was a wise choice to succeed P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall, after the Pirates' unsuccessful courtship of USC's George Raveling.
•Style of play. Lopez adds open-court octane to the St. John's offense just by lacing up his sneakers, and O'Brien has already handed the ball to the transition-minded Herren. And early reports indicate that Thompson will allow the talents of Iverson, widely considered the best point guard to come out of high school since Kenny Anderson in 1989, to give wings to Georgetown's sludge-and-drudge offense. The conference suffered from a lack of good point guards over the past few seasons, a trend that began when New York metro-area legends Anderson and Bobby Hurley spurned the Big East for the ACC. Now, having added Iverson, Herren and Lloyd, together with the finesse orientation of influential backcourt veterans like Syracuse's Lawrence Moten, Villanova's Kerry Kittles and Connecticut's Ray Allen, it looks as if the league's guard is up once again.
•Commissioner. The early years of the Big East were perfect for Dave Gavitt, the league's first commish and the quintessential diplomatic dictator, but these aren't the early years anymore. His successor, Mike Tranghese, has taken a lot of internal hits for his bluntness in dealing with the league's problems, but gradually he has earned points for his hard work, forthrightness and ability to see the big picture. And the big picture now includes football, expansion and...
•Notre Dame. One of the first things Tranghese did when he succeeded his friend Gavitt in 1990 was to make a point of getting acquainted with Irish athletic director Dick Rosenthal. They've gotten better acquainted in the four years since, and next season Notre Dame becomes a Big East member for every sport except football. In basketball the Irish's arrival will coincide with that of Rutgers and West Virginia to bring the conference up to 13 teams. Notre Dame realized an immediate recruiting bonanza from its decision to join the Big East: Four high-profile high school basketball stars have already agreed to head for South Bend next season. And what are the chances that a Notre Dame team—good or bad—will decrease interest in the conference? Absolutely none.
Some Big East people refuse to acknowledge that there was a decline, so they hardly want to talk about a renaissance. Not surprisingly, Thompson is one of them. "Every league has its run," he says, "the Big East, the Big Eight, the ACC. Now it's Arkansas and the SEC. It makes for good conversation to talk about it." But in most quarters around the league there is grudging recognition that the decline was more than "conversation" and that the wonder years of the mid-'80s (the league reached its zenith in '85, when Georgetown, St. John's and eventual champion Villanova all reached the Final Four) had given way to the blunder years of the early '90s.
"We've been down," says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has been around since the Big East was formed, in 1980. "We haven't had a Final Four team in years. [The last was Seton Hall, which lost to Michigan in the 1989 final by a point in OT.] Last year Connecticut was the only Big East team you thought could make it to the Final Four, but this year four teams could make it. And ultimately leagues are judged by how many teams they get to the Final Four."
Tranghese is even stronger in his belief that the Big East slipped. "We hadn't fallen off the map," he says, leaning back in his chair at the conference's headquarters in Providence, "but we had definitely changed for the worse. The bottom line is that our players just weren't as good. Yet many of our coaches and administrators would insist they were as good. It was not a healthy situation."
Tranghese says the league bottomed out in 1993, when only three of its teams qualified for NCAA tournament berths. Pitt lost to Utah in the first round, and in the second St. John's lost to Arkansas and Seton Hall was upset by Willard's Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. "All the questions afterward were about the Big East," says Tranghese. " 'Why is the Big East so bad?' 'What happened to the Big East?' If you had grown up with this conference and remembered what it once had been, it was a terrible moment."
A few days later Tranghese sent out a strong message via an interview reported in Bill Reynolds's column in The Providence Journal. He said that an air of complacency permeated the league, manifesting itself most of all in weak recruiting efforts. Whether or not the coaches took his message to heart will never be known, for no one is rushing to admit it. Thompson, for one, says, "I go out and see kids as I see fit. I don't think all kids feel the necessity to be seen. I'm not going to call somebody every day. It borders on being ridiculous. It borders on being irresponsible." But another major college coach, not a Big Easterner, sees it differently: "I think John went through a period when he didn't do anything with recruiting. Then he got his ass kicked, so you saw him out there again. John doesn't like to lose."
Neither does Boeheim. A significant factor in the decline of the Big East was Syracuse's being on NCAA probation for the last two seasons, especially 1992-93, when it was not allowed to play in the NCAA tournament; now the Orangemen are off the blacklist, and Syracuse is once again competing for the top players. (It is said to have the inside track, along with Georgia Tech, in the recruiting of Brooklyn point guard Stephon Marbury, widely considered the best player in this year's senior class.) No matter that St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova accomplished great things in the past or that UConn has become perhaps the league's most consistent program; the identity of the Big East is determined, to a large extent, by the success—or failure—of Georgetown and Syracuse.
Then, too, recruiting at both St. John's and Villanova was bound to improve even without scolding from the league office. While the conference owes lifetime-achievement awards to Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, those paternal paisanos who helped build prestige for the league in the early years, both men had clearly lost the energy needed to run competitive programs by the time they left the Big East following the 1991-92 season, Massimino for UNLV, Carnesecca for retirement. Enter Brian Mahoney, who sat beside Looie and his garish sweaters for 16 years, and Steve Lappas, an assistant under Massimino when the Wildcats won their NCAA title in '85. A Big East computer couldn't have spit out any more logical choices—street-savvy New York guys who know the East Coast.
Lappas, whose Villanova office is adorned with a painting of his old upper-Manhattan neighborhood at 181st and Pinehurst, brought in the Wildcats' first recruit from Philadelphia in 20 years when he signed guard Alvin Williams in 1992, and he scored even bigger when he plucked prize 6'11" Philadelphian Jason Lawson, who is also now a sophomore. Massimino's strategy had been to go after only the top Philly players, such as Gene Banks, Dallas Comegys and Rasheed Wallace, and if he lost them to other schools, to pout about it and then go foraging for players in places like Connecticut. "To succeed in this league," says Lappas, "you've got to be strong at home."
Mahoney, too, mined the fertile local ground, eventually landing Lopez, whose home was 30 minutes west of St. John's in the Bronx, and Hamilton, who was 15 minutes east in Manhasset. And for good measure he also got the Red Storm (St. John's new PC. nickname, replacing the Redmen) a talented point guard, Tarik Turner from Oak Hill Academy, in Virginia.
But just as important as the Big East's recruiting gains is a change in its style of play. Willard and Gillen have made no secret of the fact that they find the conference's bruising style worrisome, and they have already spoken to Tranghese and the league's referees about it. "The Big East was getting to be known as a hand-to-hand combat league," says Gillen, "and I think that was hurting it in the recruiting wars. It was also a league where coaches were known to be quite hard on the officials, and that's why some of the calls weren't made. I think we have to do something about that."
Willard is concerned that while the Big East game has been a war in the half-court trenches, officials have sometimes been overly punctilious about making calls on pressing teams. "If you let teams play physical defense in the half-court, then you've got to let them play 94-foot defense, too," says Willard. "That's what we plan to do, and I know Pete and some others will do the same thing. That will open up the game considerably."
Of course, cynics might say that the new coaches are just getting the jump on their brethren and are working the refs already. But at least they won't have to contend with the odious six-foul rule—abolished before last season—which was "a crucial mistake for the league," according to associate commissioner Tom McElroy. The rule was instituted before the 1990-91 season to help the Big East's marquee players stay on the floor; instead, it brought Marquis de Sade players out on the floor, as many teams cultivated a combative make-them-shoot-the-free-throw mentality that slowed down games and squeezed final scores into the 50's. Even Providence's Brown, who wears his Big East bruises like a badge of honor, says, "Sometimes it did get a little blatant out there." It was less blatant last year and will be even less so this year, if only because overly physical play has been topic numero uno among league execs, refs and coaches.
And the new crop of players should contribute to the reduction in bash ball. True, Thompson has never been known for cultivating flashy backcourt play, but he has never had a guard like Iverson, either. Give him the ball, Big John, and bite your tongue once in a while when he makes a mistake. That's what O'Brien plans to do with Herren. Herren is a folk hero in the making, as New England as a cup of chowder, and a pugnacious battler whose cocky style will make enemies in, oh, about 30 seconds in the Carrier Dome and Madison Square Garden. He is probably also the only potential All-America in history to get shooting tips from a sportswriter.
Herren is one of the primary subjects of Bill Reynolds's Fall River Dreams, an account of high school basketball and blue-collar life in Herren's Massachusetts hometown. "We used to go over to the Y a lot when Mr. Reynolds was working on his book," says Herren. "He helped me with my follow-through." O'Brien can only shake his head when he hears that. "Well, I'll know to blame the press if the kid can't shoot," he says.
The things that Lopez does can't be taught, only refined. The downside of landing him, of course, is that he brings with him crushing expectations: St. John's, a 12-17 team last season, is ranked 25th in SI's Top 25. And the Big East is as tough a trial as Lopez can face. "We'll let him know right away what we're all about in this league," says Brown. But the bottom line is that the kid from the Dominican Republic is the real deal. St. John's may get only two years out of Lopez before he goes to the NBA, but by the time he's gone, he figures to have put a stamp of finesse and grace on the Big East that hasn't been there since the golden era of Chris Mullin, Ed Pinckney and Pearl Washington. As Lappas says of the league, "We've become very athletic again."
With all the expected change, however, the Big East will maintain its essential roughneck character, as explicated by BC guard Marc Molinsky: "Conferences like the ACC and the Pac-10 are the textbook conferences—make the perfect pass, play the perfect help defense. We're not like that. We do the wrong thing sometimes because we have the opinion that the toughest team wins, not the most perfect.
"I saw it last year when we played Indiana [the Eagles beat the Hoosiers 77-68 in the semifinals of the East Regional in Miami]. You certainly wouldn't say Indiana isn't a tough team, but I noticed a different level of aggressiveness in that game. Their guys weren't up on you. It wasn't a war just to get the ball past half-court or a battle just to move from one spot to another. That's what the Big East is all about. Toughness. Aggressiveness."
That's true. But what the league desperately needed was a little beauty to go with all that beast, and now it has it. The Big East is back.