Thursday, October 28, 2004

NEW YORK — Welcome to the calm before the storm.

It’s hard to imagine, but the league that gave us college basketball’s last two national champions is about to get a lot better.

The Big East soon will begin its last season in roughly its original incarnation before expanding to a 16-team mega-conference at the conclusion of the current school year. And everyone present at the league’s annual media gathering yesterday sensed the anticipation surrounding the birth of college basketball’s ultimate beast.

“Man, I wish I was going to be around to experience it,” said Notre Dame senior point guard Chris Thomas, an All-American candidate and four-year starter. “You know, there have always been Big East people and ACC people. We’ve always kind of argued back and forth about who had the best conference. Even though the Big East has the last two rings, maybe the ACC came out on top in most of those arguments. Not anymore. Starting next season, it won’t even be close.”

One result of the ACC’s football-centric raid on the Big East is that the latter has been able to jettison its two traditionally weakest hoops programs (Virginia Tech and Miami). And next season, when Boston College joins the defectors, the Big East makes a mockery of their roundball losses by adding a handful of traditional hoops powers (Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul) and upstart South Florida.

“You’re definitely going to have a situation where the seventh- or eighth-best team in our conference is ranked in the Top 25,” said Jim Calhoun, coach of defending national champion Connecticut. “It’s such an exciting prospect that it’s a little difficult to keep everyone focused on this season.”

Calhoun got a little help in that regard when the coaches voted Syracuse the preseason conference favorite and didn’t tap a single UConn player for first-team league honors.

Unlike Syracuse, which has its two top players back in power forward Hakim Warrick (19.8 points, 8.6 rebounds) and perimeter gunner Gerry McNamara (17.2 points), UConn lost the inside-outside foundations of its team when All-Americans Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon departed for the NBA after the Huskies’ title run.

That said, nobody is crying for Calhoun, who returns what is universally regarded as the nation’s deepest frontcourt.

“I feel terrible for [Calhoun],” said smirkingly sarcastic Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “He’s got three or four guys on his front line who will play in the NBA, probably the best shooting guard in this league in [Rashad] Anderson and an elite rookie in [Baltimore freshman Rudy] Gay. They get some consistent play at the point, and he can weep his way all the way back to the Final Four.”

Georgetown finds itself at the other end of the Big East’s expectation spectrum after closing last season with nine straight losses and a program-worst 4-12 Big East record which led to the ouster of coach Craig Esherick.

John Thompson III has boldly grabbed the reins of the program his father once crafted into a hoops leviathan, but the Princeton product has little to work with in his first year on the Hilltop. Only one double-digit scorer returns for the Hoyas — versatile junior swingman Brandon Bowman (15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds). And of the two guards who have played meaningful college minutes, sophomore Ray Reed has been sidelined with a broken foot, leaving junior Ashanti Cook (9.2 points, 3.8 assists) to shoulder virtually all of the ball-handling duties.

“The first week of practice has been ugly, ugly as hell, but productive,” said Thompson. “But the guys have been both intense and very receptive to a lot of new ideas and concepts. I definitely see some optimistic signs.”

Many of those positive indicators likely have come from a solid freshman foursome of forwards Jeff Green and Cornelio Guibunda, shooting guard Tyler Crawford and throwback center Roy Hibbert (7-foot-2, 275 pounds).

“All those guys can play, and it helps that they’ve got a fresh slate to work on for this offense,” said Cook, an instant convert to Thompson’s brand of the Princeton Offense. “There’s this idea that his offense limits guys, but it’s really just the opposite. It makes you a more complete player. Guards set screens and picks. Forwards and centers handle the ball and pass. Everything is in constant motion and very precise, but the key is you’re not looking for yourself. It’s all about team, and I love it. It just feels right.”

Bowman likes the new motion offense, as well, and thinks the new-look, team-first Hoyas, picked to finish 11th in the league, could be underrated.

“I guess that’s to be expected after last season’s performance,” said Bowman. “But all I’ve got to say about that is nobody remembers where you start, only where you finish.”

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