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Later, Boeheim gathers his players and lectures them about their propensity for making excuses and pointing fingers. "The only way to get through this is together," he says. "This is too tough a league to do it as individuals." To a man, the Orange players insist that they will stay together. Besides, says guard Andy Rautins (whose father, Leo, starred for Boeheim in the early 1980s), this tough stretch of games is exactly "what we signed on for when we came to the Big East ."
FEB. 11, STORRS, CONN.
Colorful coaches ... with a few concerns
The Big East rose, in part, through the entertainment value provided by an array of coaching characters in the '80s, originals who, instead of the magisterial gravitas of a Dean Smith or a Mike Krzyzewski, exhibited a streetball intensity that hammered home the blue-collar ethos of the league. There was Boeheim, bookishly bespectacled but prickly and competitive; Georgetown's John Thompson, towel over shoulder, scowling and mysterious; Villanova's Rollie Massimino, roundish and fun-loving but able to go volcanic in an instant; St. John's Lou Carnesecca, impishly lovable but ready to steal your shoes if you turned your head.
Calhoun—tall, formidable, challenge ever-present in his tough-guy, Braintree, Mass., stare—fit right in when he joined this colorful group in 1986. Within a couple of seasons he had lifted the Huskies into that magic circle of Big East perennials. During his tenure, Boeheim has kept the 'Cuse there. Relative newcomers Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Jamie Dixon (Pitt), John Thompson III ( Georgetown) and Jay Wright ( Villanova) have lifted their programs to a similar level. The bench presence of Rick Pitino, competitive and dapper as ever, will almost certainly assure that Louisville, now in its fourth year of Big East play, is annually near the top of the heap. And look for West Virginia to get better under Bob Huggins, now in his second season in Morgantown.
So there is Calhoun, 66, two NCAA titles and three bouts with cancer (prostate in 2003 and skin in '06) behind him, feisty and ready to go, pronouncing this season's team as one of his alltime favorites. "It's a blessing to coach these guys," he says.
Still, there are worries. After the football defections, the Big East restocked but ended up with some geographically quizzical matchups (anyone think Marquette--South Florida screams Big East?) and an unwieldy conference tournament that this season features a double bye for its top four teams. "I don't even like one bye," says Calhoun, "so you can imagine what I think about two." He also feels for the bottom-feeders in a 16-team conference. "You can do a great job of getting better," Calhoun says, "but look at how many really good teams you have to pass to get near the top."
The top is where Connecticut is, though, and on this night the Orange is no match. In the Huskies' 63--49 victory Boeheim's players don't take the ball through Thabeet's face; instead he sends it back in theirs. The center finishes with seven blocks and 16 rebounds, guard A.J. Price has 17 points and the sharpshooting that the Orange needs is not there—Flynn, Devendorf and Rautins are a combined 13 of 35 from the field.
Syracuse is now 18--7 and skidding fast, and Boeheim decides that it's time to "talk big picture for a minute" as he addresses his team in a graveyardlike locker room after the game. "We're 6--6 in the league. We'd all like to be better. But our whole purpose this year is ...what? Paul?"