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The Big East is King

January 20, 2003 Columns No Comments

Big East is king thanks to Prince Syracuse

by James Burns

You can almost feel it tearing at the corners of the country like a big game of tug-o-war. The nation’s four best conferences – the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Pac-10 and Big 12 – ripping at each end of the blanket, each one trying their hardest to steal the glory away from the other three. Back and forth they go.

Which conference is the nation’s darling?

After a preseason that really never favored one conference over the next, inter-conference play has offered us playing at home a clearer picture. League schedules, with their rivalry weekends and backyard brawls, expose the conference’s true grit.

This season, unlike years past, Duke and Maryland aren’t leading the ACC in a runway. While both teams are playing a surprisingly good brand of basketball, there conference fell from grace with this summer’s NBA Draft. When Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Wilcox were taken in the first round of the draft leaving their respective ACC-contingents, they took with them the face and reputation of the conference.

This year, however, the crown stays on the East Coast, moving up the shoreline a couple of hours to the Big East. Big East basketball is back this season and with a vengeance. The Big East, with four nationally-ranked squads including three in the top-10, has moved to the front of the pack this season, establishing itself as the country’s toughest conference.

Leading the charge for the Big East is not Connecticut, although they are ranked No. 6 in the nation, but Pittsburgh. With point guard Brandon Knight (6.3 assists per game) in the driver’s seat and fellow guard Julius Page riding shotgun, the Panthers are one of the nation’s strongest teams. Knight’s leadership alone was enough to land Pitt a top-5 ranking at the start of the season, but Page’s emergence as an explosive No. 2 is what’s keeping them there.

And then there is perennial conference favorite UConn, which has turned an eclectic group of basketball players into a young college powerhouse. Ben Gordon follows in a long line of UConn All-American players, a list that includes Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen and Caron Butler. Gordon gives UConn offensive swagger with his 21.5 scoring average; while Emeka Okafor cleans up anything he might miss (11.8 rebounds).

No. 8 Notre Dame, in vast contrast to their football team, packs a big offensive punch. Guards Matt Carroll (20.6 points), Chris Thomas (16.8 points) and Danny Miller (14.4 points) account for 70 percent of the Fighting Irish’s attack; and, in turn, are a large reason why Notre Dame is enjoying their rise to basketball – not to be confused with football – dominance.

Each conference seems to have their big three schools, all of which are very similar in stature to the Big East’s. The ACC has Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest. The Big 12 has Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. And Arizona, Oregon and an upstart California squad rule the Pac-10.

What separates the Big East this season from the rest of the nation is Syracuse, probably a No. 1 in any other conference. Syracuse, with a little bit of fortune and steady play, could very well be the No. 1 in their own conference by seasons end.

No other conference – not the ACC, Big 12, Pac-10 or Big 10 – can say they have a team as talented as Syracuse as their No. 4. Missouri (Big 12), Arizona State (Pac-10) and Virginia (ACC) are upset-minded basketball teams with postseason prospects, but they aren’t top-20 caliber ball clubs.

Syracuse, on the other hand, is.

Despite their recent loss to Pittsburgh, Syracuse remains one of the hottest teams in the country and they have fresh legs to thank for that. Diaper Dandies Carmelo Anthony (23.5 points and 9.7 rebounds), arguably one of the best players in the nation, and Gerry McNamara (15.1 points) form one of the most dynamic duos in college basketball. Freshmen aren’t supposed to dominate competition like these two have shown they can do.

Then again, freshmen aren’t supposed to make a conference the toughest in the land like these two have shown they can do.


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