IT HAD been a rough week for Syracuse junior forward Paul Harris, one of many tough ones in the meat grinder known as the Big East Conference. He had played a mediocre game in a 102--85 loss to Villanova on Feb. 7 and a far-less-than-mediocre game in a 63--49 loss to the nation's No. 1 team, Connecticut, on Feb. 11, both on hostile courts. � One-on-one powwows during the week with his coach, Jim Boeheim, had not exactly lifted his spirits and certainly didn't take place at Harris's instigation. On perhaps a dozen occasions, on the court or in the locker room, Boeheim had gone after Harris for hanging his head after bad plays and, as the coach saw it, disregarding instructions.
One example: Boeheim thought that Harris had repeatedly—and unwisely—challenged UConn's 7'3" center Hasheem Thabeet when the big man had space to make a block or change a shot. This went against a game plan that strictly admonished, You must get into his body in order to attack him. You have to take it through his face.
But now it was three o'clock last Saturday afternoon, and a 98--94 overtime win over Georgetown before 32,000 orange-wearing loyalists at the Carrier Dome was a few minutes old, and Harris was smiling. Sort of. "To be honest with you, having Coach Boeheim on me all the time is hard," said Harris, whose full-court inbounds pass to junior guard Eric Devendorf all but sealed the game with 18 seconds left in OT after the Orange had blown a 16-point lead in the final eight minutes of regulation. "It doesn't do any good debating with him, because you can't win. He gets me thinking too much about mistakes." Harris paused. "But I'm going to keep going because that's what you gotta do. This is the Big East, right?"
Copy that, as Jack Bauer says. The victory stopped an unnerving Syracuse skid—six losses in the previous eight games, all to Big East opponents—that showed how hard it is for a good but not great team to gain traction in a conference that offers precious few soft touches. Just ask Georgetown, the only team to have beaten UConn this season. The Hoyas, who were once ranked as high as ninth in the country, were in 12th place in the Big East at week's end. Playing the nation's second-toughest schedule, they had lost eight of their last 11 conference games and, at 13--10 overall, will probably need to win at least five of their last six to get an NCAA bid. Georgetown is spinning in what Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun calls "the washer, a cycle of losing with seemingly no way out."
Over the last three weeks Notre Dame has gotten Maytagged too. Ranked as high as seventh six weeks ago, the Irish (11th-most-difficult schedule) lost six league games in a row, and chances are that its surprising 90--57 rout of then fifth-ranked Louisville last Thursday will not persuade the NCAA selection committee to award the Irish a tournament berth.
"Our bottom teams would be middle to top tier anywhere else in the country, including the ACC," says Pitt point guard Levance Fields, whose Panthers are ranked fourth behind UConn, Oklahoma and North Carolina in the latest AP poll. "Quality teams like Georgetown and Notre Dame are struggling because of how tough the league is."
Boeheim, now in his 33rd season as Syracuse's coach, agrees. "This is the best our conference has ever been," he says. The primary reason, Boeheim and others say, is experience. West Virginia's Joe Alexander and Syracuse's Donte Green were the only Big East players of note to bolt school early for the NBA last year, leaving behind such seasoned talents as UConn's Thabeet, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Marquette's Jerel McNeal.
Playing my-conference-is-better-than-your-conference is part of the charm of college hoops (box, page 36), particularly as Selection Sunday (March 15) draws nigh. The whir of propaganda machines on college campuses and in conference offices as always provides the background music around this time of year. But the Big East—overloaded with talent, toughness, tenacity and, for that matter, teams (16, the most in the country)—would seem to have a strong case for being the nation's best, which is all the more remarkable since it looked in danger of extinction five years ago when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech took flight to the ACC for the sake of football. As things stand, the Big East is a good bet to get eight teams into the NCAA tournament, as it did in setting a record last season. But that's still only half the conference; if the ACC gets seven (also a good bet), that's 58% of its 12-team league.
On the other hand, playing 18 conference games (schools elsewhere play 14 to 16) all but guarantees that even a good Big East team might have more losses at the end of the season than a comparable team in another league (though 24--1 UConn and 23--2 Pitt, who threw down on Monday night in Hartford, don't seem to recognize that).
But rather than just crunch the numbers, SI examined the Big East by spending a behind-the-scenes week with Syracuse as it ended a brutal run of games against elites UConn and Pitt; almost-elite Louisville and Villanova; and dangerous (though inconsistent) West Virginia, Notre Dame, Providence and Georgetown (twice!).