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The Orange get squeezed
Jack McCallum
March 16, 1981
Syracuse won the Big East crown, but three losers were the real winners
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March 16, 1981

The Orange Get Squeezed

Syracuse won the Big East crown, but three losers were the real winners

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It wasn't decided until the final three seconds of the third overtime period, when the best player ever to come out of Canada tapped in a rebound. If you're scoring, that would be Leo Rautins, not Bobby Orr. The tip-in gave Syracuse, a team that had literally lost its Headd but still played over it, an 83-80 victory over Villanova in the title game of the Big East tournament last weekend.

Following the basket, the losing coach drew a technical foul for calling a timeout his team didn't have, a mistake he'd never made in his 25-year career. Then, as the Villanova players awaited the trophy presentation, they were pelted with tennis balls, a Frisbee and other objects by a group of fans who for some reason didn't appreciate a triple-OT finale to a tournament that had more plot changes than an episode of Knots Landing. Had the fans known then what was revealed the next day—that Syracuse would not be invited to the NCAA tournament, while two teams it defeated in the tournament, Georgetown and Villanova, would be—they might well have thrown bowling balls. In other words, it was an appropriate conclusion to a clamorous year in the Big East, that hey-look-me-over, eight-team conference that lies north of the ACC, east of the Big Ten and south of the national polls.

Syracuse's $27 million, 25,000-seat (for basketball) Carrier Dome was the site. "That's not exactly Wabash," said Providence College Coach Gary Walters, but for all the national attention the Big East received this season, it could've been. Georgetown and St. John's were preseason Top 20 picks in the SI poll but faded after early losses. Connecticut won its first 11 games, but then lost a couple in the conference and joined Boston College, Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's in that circle of Big East teams just out of the Big Picture.

Indeed, on the dance floor of the NCAA, this year's Big East tournament was a back-street shuffle. But, oh, what a shuffle. And what better back street than Syracuse and its cavernous, drafty insane asylum where the Dome Ranger, the Beast of the East and beer sales to the crazies made the hometown Orangemen the team to beat, despite a 15-11 record coming in.

Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino was so happy about playing in the Dome that he said, "If that [the postgame abuse] takes place, we shouldn't have the tournament in Syracuse. Absolutely no way." Georgetown Coach John Thompson was so overjoyed about the Dome that, after a 67-53 loss to Syracuse in the semis, he related the tale of Hoody Bear, a character he grew up with in a Washington, D.C. housing project. "Hoody Bear used to play real well and fight real well in his own neighborhood," said Big John.

That short parable followed an incident between Thompson and Orange Coach Jim Boeheim during the semifinal game. The officials had to restrain them from going at each other after Boeheim at 6'4", 175 pounds, had challenged the right of Thompson (6'11", 300 pounds) to stroll near midcourt to counsel his players during the action. Later, the two men clasped hands and patted shoulders—the coaching counterpart of kissing and making up, said Thompson. Besides, it just wouldn't have been a Big East game without a little of that sort of thing.

Take the two finalists. In a game in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, Massimino, who has broken new ground in bench theatrics, outdid himself and drew an official reprimand from Big East Commissioner Dave Gavitt. After the game, which Villanova won 88-78, Dolph Schayes, the former NBA all-star and father of Syracuse Center Dan Schayes, took center stage when he charged one of the referees, who had called five fouls on his son. During the tournament final, an enthusiastic but much calmer Dolph watched from high in the Carrier Dome as 6'11" Dan put together a solid 15-point, 11-rebound effort.

Nobody, but nobody, had it easy this year in the Big East, where 17 of the 56 conference games were decided by three points or fewer. Boston College, the regular-season champion, with a 21-5 record—10-4 in the league—was the one shoo-in for an NCAA bid, if it won the tournament. (As Syracuse found out, there was no automatic bid for the tournament winner. For the champion of a conference tournament to be considered for such a bid, that conference must have existed for at least two full years. This is the Big East's second season.) In traditional shoo-in fashion, BC went out and lost the opening game to last-place Providence, 67-65. The Eagles got an NCAA bid anyway, a somewhat remarkable end to their season, considering the shadow of the point-shaving scandal that has followed them everywhere.

Georgetown had been one of three Big East teams to get an NCAA bid in the conference's rookie season—Syracuse and St. John's were the others—and seemed to have the best chance for national recognition at the beginning of this year. But as the Hoyas, who are 20-11, endured Act I of Waiting for Ewing, they sometimes played as if they were waiting for Godot. With practically the entire team back and the addition of Patrick Ewing, a 7-foot center from Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin High who's considered the nation's top high school player, the Hoyas could be one of the top clubs in the nation next season.

Then there was St. John's, the Team That Couldn't Shoot Straight. During the season, the Redmen did such things as go more than 12 minutes without scoring in a nationally televised loss to Oregon State. Still, they were a welcome tournament addition, if only for the performance of Coach Lou Carnesecca, the master of the pained expression. Carnesecca was so intense in his first-round, game against Syracuse that he twice ran down the sidelines to retrieve loose balls and once even led a fast break. Despite Carnesecca's efforts, St. John's lost 71-66, ending a 17-10 season that, according to senior Forward Frank Gilroy, was "110% heart and 50% execution."

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