Had it really come to this? A chorus of boos-from disgruntled UConn fans, directed at their sluggish, second-ranked Huskies-filled the Hartford Civic Center last Saturday as an alley-oop slam put unranked LSU up 33-19 with 5:07 left in the first half. UConn coach Jim Calhoun quickly called timeout, upset not only with his players but also exceedingly perturbed with his home crowd. He strode onto the court and egged on the audience, fuming with an expression that seemed to say, We're 11-1. What are you doing?
The UConn faithful had walked through the arena doors that afternoon still smarting from their team's Big East opener, a 94-79 loss on Jan. 3 at Marquette, which was picked to finish 12th, 10 spots behind UConn, in the league's preseason coaches' poll. And even though the fans quickly-and almost guiltily-reverted to raucous support and the Huskies rallied for a 67-66 victory, it was clear that there would not be smooth sailing in the Big East this year, even for a program that had won two national titles in the previous six seasons.
The defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC over the past two seasons led the Big East to raid Conference USA for five members- Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida-creating a 16-team superconference universally acknowledged as the nation's strongest. With six teams in the latest AP Top 25, and what would be a record 10 schools potentially bound for the NCAA tournament, the league is fulfilling preseason prophecies of its unparalleled quality. Indeed, unheralded Pittsburgh, 12-0 (1-0 in the Big East) at week's end and ranked No. 12, was one of three remaining unbeatens, along with No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Florida. UConn junior point guard Marcus Williams put it best when he said, "There won't be any nights off this year."
Villanova quickly found that out. The Wildcats entered league play in the midst of their best start in 44 years, using a four-guard attack led by seniors Randy Foye (averaging 21.0 points) and Allan Ray (19.4) to outscore opponents by 24.7 points per game. Unlike UConn, Villanova survived its conference opener, winning 76-67 on Jan. 5 at ninth-ranked Louisville, to improve to 10-0. Afterward Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said, "I don't think anyone in Louisville knew how tough the Big East and Villanova were before tonight. Now they all know."
Three days after enlightening the Derby City, it was the Wildcats' turn to be humbled-on the Main Line, no less. "You come home, and West Virginia is waiting for you," says Villanova coach Jay Wright. "Every night [in the Big East] is going to be a game where people are coming after you." Although they shot 58% from the field for the game, the Wildcats committed 22 turnovers and watched as the Mountaineers, behind 23 points from Joe Herber and 22 from Kevin Pittsnogle, used a late surge to pull off a 91-87 upset. It was a reminder to all that No. 16 West Virginia (10-3, 2-0), whose season ended last March in overtime against Louisville, one step from the Final Four, is in the mix for conference supremacy.
Some equilibrium was restored to the league on Monday night as Connecticut handed another newcomer, No. 25 Cincinnati (13-3, 2-1), its first loss in the Big East, 70-59. Still, the No. 4 Huskies (13-1, 1-1) no longer look as indomitable as they did in November when they knocked off Arkansas, Arizona and Gonzaga to win the Maui Invitational. Says Calhoun, "We keep hearing [we have] superstars ... but I don't see an Adam Morrison yet. Rudy [Gay] can get there, but we're not there yet." The fans, Calhoun said, "maybe need to understand this team a little better."
Patience is something Villanova fans already understand. Although the No. 3 Wildcats (10-1, 1-1) suffered a home defeat just six days into the inaugural season of the supersized Big East, they were serenaded with applause as they left the floor. It was a sign that the message is spreading fast: The league's teams may emerge battle-tested and in record numbers for the postseason, but no one will make it out of conference play unscathed. Fans had better learn to savor the struggle.
Is Millsap the Next Mailman?
When Paul Millsap arrived at Louisiana Tech three summers ago, no one expected him to be an especially strong rebounder. "We thought we had signed a good all-around player," says coach Keith Richard, "but then every day for two weeks straight during practice, he had double figures in rebounds. It was obvious this guy had a special gift."