Big East basketball:
Hardly the Pitts

Feb 3, 2004 4:30 AM
BIG EAST MARVELS ”” It’s no shock Boeheim (L) and Calhoun have Syracuse and UConn in title hunt.

With the Super Bowl in the rear view mirror, the next big event on the sports stage is college basketball’s season-ending tournaments.

Since 1997, college basketball’s national champion has come from several different conferences: the Pac 10 (Arizona), SEC (Kentucky), Big 10 (Michigan State), the ACC (Duke, Maryland), and the Big East (UConn, Syracuse). Over the next several weeks, let’s examine some of the top hoop teams in each conference, starting this week with the Big East.

PITTSBURGH: Coach Ben Howland may be gone, but the Panthers look similar under new Coach Jamie Dixon. Their team defense is outstanding, allowing 60 ppg on the road and 54 at home. They can play the muscle game with 6-7 Chevon Troutman and 6-10 freshman Chris Taft up front, while last season’s Big East tournament MVP Julius Page (13 ppg) provides senior leadership.

They also have great depth with sophomore Carl Krauser, who leads the team in scoring and assists, and 6-10 junior Mark McCarroll. Just ask defending champion Syracuse how good Pitt’s defense is. The Orangemen were held to their lowest point total in 36 years in a 66-45 loss, as Pitt won the battle of the boards 50-36. Defense often wins championships and the Panthers are in the running. Like last year, poor team free throw shooting could be a big factor in close games come tourney time.

UCONN: Jim Calhoun’s Huskies were a preseason No. 1. They’ve had some upset losses and injuries, but are still formidable and a threat to go all the way. At 6-foot-9, junior Emeka Okafor is a dominant low post player (19 ppg, 11 rpg), though missing some time due to a bad back. Also, star guard junior Ben Gordon (17 ppg) suffered a midseason broken nose. Okafor and Gordon are UConn’s leading scorers.

The Huskies haven’t been dominant, with upset losses to Georgia Tech and Providence along with a one-point win over Rutgers as a 12-point favorite. Still, this team can run the court behind senior Taliek Brown and plays outstanding defense. They hope to get healthy at the right time. Circle Feb. 15 on your sports calendar when UConn travels to Pitt.

PROVIDENCE: How important is experience in college sports? Look no further than Providence, as the Friars began the season with all five starters back. The leader on this team is 6-7 junior Ryan Gomes (19 ppg, 9.8 rpg), an underrated, powerful low post player. His inside presence opens things up for guards Donnie McGrath and Shieku Kabba.

They went to UConn on Jan. 24 and beat the Huskies 66-56 as a +11 road dog! Gomes was terrific that game with 26 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) and 12 rebounds. This is an extremely balanced team that is playing with great confidence. This Saturday (Feb. 7) the Friars get to flex their muscles when they host defending national champion Syracuse.

SYRACUSE: They aren’t favored to repeat as national champion, but coach Jim Boeheim’s young team is playing well again. Junior Hakim Warrick (19 ppg, 8 rpg) has blossomed as a strong scorer and rebounder, while sophomore guard Gerry McNamara (16 ppg) and Billy Edelin handle the backcourt. All were key players in the team’s national title last season.

Syracuse won three of its first four road games and has looked disciplined running Boeheim’s patented zone defense. The Orangemen are more run-and-gun than physical, and that hurt in the recent loss at Pitt. However, they were near the bottom of the Big East in rebounding last season and that didn’t hurt when the chips were on the line in March!

SETON HALL: The surprising Pirates have been getting the money (10-4 ATS start) because of experience and tough defense (64 ppg allowed). Perhaps they have a chip on their shoulder after narrowly missing the tourney as a bubble team last season. Senior guard Andre Barrett (18 ppg, 6.6 apg) is one of the best backcourt players in the nation. Barrett is a solid scorer and floor general and even shoots 43% from three-point land.

The frontcourt is deep with 6-8 sophomore Kelly Whitney and 6-6 junior Andre Sweet, along with role players 6-5 sophomore J.R. Morris and Marcus Toney-El. Coach Louis Orr has the talent to push his team to the Big Dance, and last year’s snub seems to be providing some motivation. On Monday, Feb. 9, Seton Hall hosts Pitt. However, be careful: Seton Hall began the season 10-2 SU/9-2 ATS as a favorite, but 0-2 SU as a dog.