The Big Brutal

Feb. 23, 2009
Feb. 23, 2009

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Feb. 23, 2009

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The Big Brutal

With its canny coaches, take-no-prisoners style and battle-tested stars, the Big East is the best—and toughest—conference in the land. Spend a week with Syracuse and see what it's like

IT HAD been arough week for Syracuse junior forward Paul Harris, one of many tough ones inthe meat grinder known as the Big East Conference. He had played a mediocregame in a 102--85 loss to Villanova on Feb. 7 and a far-less-than-mediocre gamein a 63--49 loss to the nation's No. 1 team, Connecticut, on Feb. 11, both onhostile courts. ¶ One-on-one powwows during the week with his coach, JimBoeheim, had not exactly lifted his spirits and certainly didn't take place atHarris's instigation. On perhaps a dozen occasions, on the court or in thelocker room, Boeheim had gone after Harris for hanging his head after bad playsand, as the coach saw it, disregarding instructions.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 2009 issue

One example:Boeheim thought that Harris had repeatedly—and unwisely—challenged UConn's7'3" center Hasheem Thabeet when the big man had space to make a block orchange a shot. This went against a game plan that strictly admonished, You mustget into his body in order to attack him. You have to take it through hisface.

But now it wasthree o'clock last Saturday afternoon, and a 98--94 overtime win overGeorgetown before 32,000 orange-wearing loyalists at the Carrier Dome was a fewminutes old, and Harris was smiling. Sort of. "To be honest with you,having Coach Boeheim on me all the time is hard," said Harris, whosefull-court inbounds pass to junior guard Eric Devendorf all but sealed the gamewith 18 seconds left in OT after the Orange had blown a 16-point lead in thefinal eight minutes of regulation. "It doesn't do any good debating withhim, because you can't win. He gets me thinking too much about mistakes."Harris paused. "But I'm going to keep going because that's what you gottado. This is the Big East, right?"

Copy that, asJack Bauer says. The victory stopped an unnerving Syracuse skid—six losses inthe previous eight games, all to Big East opponents—that showed how hard it isfor a good but not great team to gain traction in a conference that offersprecious few soft touches. Just ask Georgetown, the only team to have beatenUConn this season. The Hoyas, who were once ranked as high as ninth in thecountry, were in 12th place in the Big East at week's end. Playing the nation'ssecond-toughest schedule, they had lost eight of their last 11 conference gamesand, at 13--10 overall, will probably need to win at least five of their lastsix to get an NCAA bid. Georgetown is spinning in what Connecticut coach JimCalhoun calls "the washer, a cycle of losing with seemingly no wayout."

Over the lastthree weeks Notre Dame has gotten Maytagged too. Ranked as high as seventh sixweeks ago, the Irish (11th-most-difficult schedule) lost six league games in arow, and chances are that its surprising 90--57 rout of then fifth-rankedLouisville last Thursday will not persuade the NCAA selection committee toaward the Irish a tournament berth.

"Our bottomteams would be middle to top tier anywhere else in the country, including theACC," says Pitt point guard Levance Fields, whose Panthers are rankedfourth behind UConn, Oklahoma and North Carolina in the latest AP poll."Quality teams like Georgetown and Notre Dame are struggling because of howtough the league is."

Boeheim, now inhis 33rd season as Syracuse's coach, agrees. "This is the best ourconference has ever been," he says. The primary reason, Boeheim and otherssay, is experience. West Virginia's Joe Alexander and Syracuse's Donte Greenwere the only Big East players of note to bolt school early for the NBA lastyear, leaving behind such seasoned talents as UConn's Thabeet, Notre Dame'sLuke Harangody and Marquette's Jerel McNeal.

Playingmy-conference-is-better-than-your-conference is part of the charm of collegehoops (box, page 36), particularly as Selection Sunday (March 15) draws nigh.The whir of propaganda machines on college campuses and in conference officesas always provides the background music around this time of year. But the BigEast—overloaded with talent, toughness, tenacity and, for that matter, teams(16, the most in the country)—would seem to have a strong case for being thenation's best, which is all the more remarkable since it looked in danger ofextinction five years ago when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech tookflight to the ACC for the sake of football. As things stand, the Big East is agood bet to get eight teams into the NCAA tournament, as it did in setting arecord last season. But that's still only half the conference; if the ACC getsseven (also a good bet), that's 58% of its 12-team league.

On the otherhand, playing 18 conference games (schools elsewhere play 14 to 16) all butguarantees that even a good Big East team might have more losses at the end ofthe season than a comparable team in another league (though 24--1 UConn and23--2 Pitt, who threw down on Monday night in Hartford, don't seem to recognizethat).

But rather thanjust crunch the numbers, SI examined the Big East by spending abehind-the-scenes week with Syracuse as it ended a brutal run of games againstelites UConn and Pitt; almost-elite Louisville and Villanova; and dangerous(though inconsistent) West Virginia, Notre Dame, Providence and Georgetown(twice!).


Big crowds, bigcities
Sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn bops onto the Syracuse bus outside the team'shotel in Philadelphia for the trip to the Wachovia Center and bumps fists withall aboard. Earlier he had rhapsodized to a reporter about his Big East bonafides.

"I beenhearing about the big, bad Big East my whole life," says Flynn, who comesfrom Niagara Falls. "My pops [Reverend William Flynn] used to go on and onabout it. Chris Mullin. Patrick Ewing. Derrick Coleman. I got it from a youngage."

Flynn, a NiagaraFalls High teammate of Harris's, remembers the first time he came to theCarrier Dome in Syracuse on a rec-league trip. "Seeing that many people inone place," he says, "is something that never left me. Coming to schoolhere was a no-brainer."

It's hard tooverestimate the effect that Syracuse's domed facility (capacity of 49,000,which essentially translates to endless for basketball) had on the growth ofthe Big East after it opened in 1980. Architecturally a white elephant to some,it had one overarching factor in its favor: Recruits loved the idea ofroutinely performing in front of 30,000 sets of eyes. Couple that with aseason-ending appearance at Madison Square Garden, where the conferencetournament has been held since '83, and the combination can be irresistible."No matter what kind of year you've had," says Big East commissionerMike Tranghese, who is retiring at the end of the season, "you get thechance to redeem yourself in New York City in prime time. Recruits lovethat."

The problem forSyracuse on this day, however, lies in Philadelphia, where the 21,000-seatWachovia Center is filled to capacity. Boeheim warns that Villanova isundersized but scrappy, qualities that become evident from the tip-off.Syracuse, particularly shooting guard Devendorf (seven turnovers), can't handlethe Wildcats' relentlessly aggressive trapping and ball hawking, and loses102--85.

Afterward Boeheimis asked whether he was surprised by the number of fouls—29 on Villanova and 24on the 'Cuse. "No," says Boeheim, "I was more surprised by the 25that weren't called."


Hard play, nowhining allowed
Sarcasm aside—and Boeheim does sarcasm as well as anyone—his team's inabilityto match Villanova's physical play is a major concern for the coach,particularly with top-ranked UConn looming two days hence. The league hasalways had a tough, urban edge to it, man-to-man being the defense of choice,Syracuse's 2--3 zone notwithstanding. "Most kids want to play a physicalstyle," says Boeheim, "and if they don't, they think they do."

Boeheim detects alackadaisical bent to practice at the Dome on this Monday afternoon. WithThabeet in mind, the coach comes down hard on Harris for flipping up a layuprather than going strong. "The big guy blocked 10 last year," Boeheimshouts. "You want him to get 12 on Wednesday?" (Actually, Thabeetblocked seven shots in UConn's 63--61 win last February.) Then the coach turnshis attention to Flynn. "When you put your hand under the ball, that is acarry," he says after his sophomore leader is called for traveling, ararity in practice. "Do you want to learn or not?"

Later, Boeheimgathers his players and lectures them about their propensity for making excusesand pointing fingers. "The only way to get through this is together,"he says. "This is too tough a league to do it as individuals." To aman, the Orange players insist that they will stay together. Besides, saysguard Andy Rautins (whose father, Leo, starred for Boeheim in the early 1980s),this tough stretch of games is exactly "what we signed on for when we cameto the Big East."


Colorful coaches... with a few concerns
Four hours before tip-off, Jim Calhoun relaxes courtside and declares that he'sfeeling "better than ever." That's saying something, considering thatseven months ago the UConn coach was finishing a six-week course of almostdaily radiation treatments after doctors removed 36 lymph nodes, initiallyfeared to be malignant, from his neck. His taste buds were dulled and he lost24 pounds. "As a diet, I don't recommend it," he says, "but I likethe end result." He has been pronounced cancer-free.

The Big Eastrose, in part, through the entertainment value provided by an array of coachingcharacters in the '80s, originals who, instead of the magisterial gravitas of aDean Smith or a Mike Krzyzewski, exhibited a streetball intensity that hammeredhome the blue-collar ethos of the league. There was Boeheim, bookishlybespectacled but prickly and competitive; Georgetown's John Thompson, towelover shoulder, scowling and mysterious; Villanova's Rollie Massimino, roundishand fun-loving but able to go volcanic in an instant; St. John's LouCarnesecca, impishly lovable but ready to steal your shoes if you turned yourhead.

Calhoun—tall,formidable, challenge ever-present in his tough-guy, Braintree, Mass.,stare—fit right in when he joined this colorful group in 1986. Within a coupleof seasons he had lifted the Huskies into that magic circle of Big Eastperennials. During his tenure, Boeheim has kept the 'Cuse there. Relativenewcomers Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Jamie Dixon (Pitt), John Thompson III(Georgetown) and Jay Wright (Villanova) have lifted their programs to a similarlevel. The bench presence of Rick Pitino, competitive and dapper as ever, willalmost certainly assure that Louisville, now in its fourth year of Big Eastplay, is annually near the top of the heap. And look for West Virginia to getbetter under Bob Huggins, now in his second season in Morgantown.

"Part of thewhole thing about the Big East is the coaches," says Syracuse's Flynn."You really know those guys."

So there isCalhoun, 66, two NCAA titles and three bouts with cancer (prostate in 2003 andskin in '06) behind him, feisty and ready to go, pronouncing this season's teamas one of his alltime favorites. "It's a blessing to coach these guys,"he says.

Still, there areworries. After the football defections, the Big East restocked but ended upwith some geographically quizzical matchups (anyone think Marquette--SouthFlorida screams Big East?) and an unwieldy conference tournament that thisseason features a double bye for its top four teams. "I don't even like onebye," says Calhoun, "so you can imagine what I think about two." Healso feels for the bottom-feeders in a 16-team conference. "You can do agreat job of getting better," Calhoun says, "but look at how manyreally good teams you have to pass to get near the top."

The top is whereConnecticut is, though, and on this night the Orange is no match. In theHuskies' 63--49 victory Boeheim's players don't take the ball through Thabeet'sface; instead he sends it back in theirs. The center finishes with seven blocksand 16 rebounds, guard A.J. Price has 17 points and the sharpshooting that theOrange needs is not there—Flynn, Devendorf and Rautins are a combined 13 of 35from the field.

Syracuse is now18--7 and skidding fast, and Boeheim decides that it's time to "talk bigpicture for a minute" as he addresses his team in a graveyardlike lockerroom after the game. "We're 6--6 in the league. We'd all like to be better.But our whole purpose this year is ...what? Paul?"

"Get to theNCAA tournament," mumbles Harris.

"Right,"says Boeheim. "The important thing is to get in. We have six games left. Wecan't give one away. And it starts Saturday. Georgetown is good, no matter howmuch trouble they've had lately. But if we play well, we will beat them.O.K.?"

Heads nod. Handscome together. Voices raise. But there is a sense of uncertainty in the room aseveryone prepares for a 70-minute flight back to Syracuse that will seem likean eternity.


The league thatTV built
Tip-off on ESPN is noon, one of 10 starting times for Syracuse this season,which is not atypical. "The league is TV-oriented or TV-mandated," saysPitt coach Dixon, "whatever you want to call it." Either will do.

In 2006,Tranghese struck a six-year deal that puts every Big East game on television,either on CBS or one of the ESPN outlets, resulting in a schedule that is,well, squirrelly. "Because of TV, we play on so many different nights ofthe week that it's hard to keep track," says Dixon. "We had a stretchof one game in seven days, then four games in nine days." Syracuse playedfour games from Jan. 10 to Jan. 19 but will have eight days off after today.Calhoun, whose teams had four games from Jan. 15 to Jan. 24, isn't exactlycomplaining—after all, who can complain about too much TV, since TV brings inthe recruits—but he does wonder if the combination of the tough league, theschedule and the seams-bursting conference tournament might have the Big East"eating its young."

At any rate,Syracuse looks ready for a minivacation as it bumbles its way into overtimeagainst Georgetown by surrendering 30 points over the final 6:30. But in theextra session two momentum-changing three-pointers by Devendorf, superb pointguard play by Flynn (six points, two assists, one rebound) and theBoeheim-designed out-of-bounds play that gets Devendorf a layup combine to turnthe tide.

"I'm gettingtoo old for this," the 64-year-old Boeheim says as his team jubilantlygathers around him after the game. He wants to acknowledge the game'simportance in the run-up to the NCAA tournament but stops short. "I'll tellyou what. This is the game that ... well, all we really know is that it gets usgoing again and probably knocks them out." In truth, Syracuse's 19th winall but locks up a bid.

The coach stayspositive for a minute or two but, being Boeheim, just can't keep himself fromturning gloomy. "If we would've blown this game," he says, "itwould've been the worst loss in the history of Syracuse basketball."

A chorus ofgroans follows. "No, seriously," he continues. "Are you kidding me?A 16-point lead at home. It would...."

In the back ofthe room, Flynn stands up. "Hold it, Coach. We've heard it all before,"the point guard says, waving his arms. He raises his hands to bring the teamtogether, leaving a smiling Boeheim shrugging his shoulders and effectivelyending the lecture. Man, how Harris would've liked to have done the same thinga few times during the week.

"Having Coach Boeheim on me all the time ishard," says Harris. "But I'm going to KEEP GOING because that's whatyou gotta do."
The league has always had a hard, urban edge to it."Most kids want to play A PHYSICAL STYLE," says Boeheim.
"All we really know is that this win GETS US GOINGAGAIN," Boeheim said, "and probably knocks [Georgetown] out."



See which college hoops teams are up and which are down in Luke Winn's PowerRankings each Thursday.


PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansHEADED OFF AT THE PASS The Orange's Flynn faced rough sledding against the Huskies' Kemba Walker (15) and the majestic Thabeet, who had 16 boards and seven blocks.PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansFALL GUYS After Kristof Ongenaet (12) and the Orange fell to UConn (opposite), Harris got a postgame earful from Boeheim.PHOTOPhotograph by Al Tielemans [Seecaption above]PHOTOPHOTOJOHN BIEVERBUSINESS AS USUAL From left: UConn's Jerome Dyson found out that Notre Dame's D is a drag; Marquette's Wes Matthews (23) was hogtied by the Hoyas; Pitt's Gary McGhee (52) got sandwiched by 'Nova; and the Wildcats' Dwayne Anderson (22) took it on the chin in a blowout loss to West Virginia.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above]PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above]PHOTODON WRIGHT/AP[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansBREATHING ROOM After a nail-biter against the Hoyas, Boeheim finally shared a smile with Harris (11) and Co.