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."
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.