Shortly after inventing basketball, Dr. James Naismith declared that his new game "cannot be coached, it can only be played." The best player in this season's best conference is an émigré to western New England, just as Naismith was, and in his own persistent way, Connecticut's Ray Allen—along with cohorts like Georgetown's Allen Iverson, Villanova's Kerry Kittles and a brace of other players in the Big East—is vindicating the good doctor's contention.
The Big East first took its place in the college hoops firmament in the early 1980s by making stars of its coaches, then fell to earth when those coaches retired or took other jobs or got lazy. This season the league has dominated the Top 25 more than any other conference—UConn, Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse and Boston College were all ranked for six straight weeks before BC dropped out on Monday—while putting the spotlight where it belongs: on the players. In addition to All-Americas Allen, Iverson and Kittles, John Wallace has had a showcase season at Syracuse, which is good news for the senior forward who would have been a lemon had he gone early to the NBA last spring. Instead, he remained an Orangeman and added a feathery three-pointer to his inside game. At St. John's, Zendon Hamilton has been a rebounding fool and the calm eye of a stormy Red Storm season. Boston College's Danya Abrams and Seton Hall's Adrian Griffin are both around the rim like a tire. With five leagues ranked ahead of the Big East in the RPI power ratings, you don't need Gary Kasparov to tell you that computers don't know nothing. As Allen says, "We've got a lot of guys who get the job done and do it with flair."
Kittles should have been making a final case for conference player of the year on Sunday by exhibiting the Sean Elliott-like quality of his game in a matchup with Allen. But on Feb. 21, Kittles, a eucharistic minister at the Catholic school, admitted to Villanova's Augustinian fathers that he had sinned in charging an unspecified sum in personal phone calls to a university credit-card number. The university duly notified the NCAA, which ordered him to sit out the Wildcats' final three regular-season games, including Sunday's 70-59 loss to UConn in the Spectrum—no small penalty for a senior who was looking forward to his last collegiate appearance in Philadelphia.
Iverson knows about involuntary sidelinings, too. He spent four months in jail in 1993 for his involvement in a bowling alley brawl, and after his release he was banned from playing high school basketball his senior year (the conviction was later overturned). He took refuge at the playground at Davis Middle School in Hampton, Va. "When we would play pickup games, they used to say I was the answer," says Iverson. "If you wanted to win, I was the answer. If you wanted to score, I was the answer." Hence the tattoo on his left biceps reading THE ANSWER.
By shooting more selectively in his sophomore season, Iverson has boosted his field goal percentage by 10 points over the past year. But he still pinballs so heedlessly around the court at times that he has needed 27 stitches this season and wears matching scars over each eye. "Think about what happened in that child's life," Georgetown coach John Thompson says. "He had been incarcerated, so I didn't want to incarcerate him on the basketball court."
After Iverson dropped 16 points on BC in a 67-64 victory last Saturday, someone asked him where the Hoyas would be without him. Iverson furrowed his disfigured brow but came up empty. The Answer had no answer.
For all of Iverson's kinetic brilliance—he's such a literal blur that photographers from The Hartford Courant, shooting Georgetown's 77-65 defeat of UConn on Feb. 19, chose to scrap their newfangled autofocus cameras and reach for their old manual jobs—it's Allen who might be the nation's best player and is certainly the Big East's. UConn coach Jim Calhoun intends no disrespect when he points this out, but he says, "Iverson makes it look difficult. Ray makes it look easy."
"Control is basically the whole agenda of my life," says Allen, a 6'5" junior swingman. "To take charge of everything and make decisions for myself."
As he goes up for one of his jumpers, a shot so reliable that he was making 47.4% of his three-pointers at week's end, Allen is compact, in control. He plays defense with the relentlessness of a spurned long-distance company that wants you back, but always...in control. When he curls off a screen and takes a pass from his usual setup man, Huskies guard Doron Sheffer, and slashes his way to the basket, it's the same thing. "He's committed one charge all year," says Calhoun. "For a guy who's averaging 23 points a game, that's remarkable." Indeed, Allen may sometimes be too controlled for the Huskies' own good; Calhoun frets that Allen is so adept at altering his flight path with midcourse corrections that he often avoids contact altogether, thus losing out on a trip to the foul line.
Calhoun still isn't sure he has figured his star out. "He's independent, but really caring," the coach says. "He's driven, but not possessed. He's proud, but humble, too. I'm learning new things about him all the time."