Conference spotlight: THE BIG EAST

Isolated East-Coasters residing in Utah probably won’t be surprised to hear that the Big East could roll seven deep into the NCAA Tournament this March.

Every year, and each time with such fervor as though it has happened for the first time, the media flies into frenzy about the number of Big East teams populating the tournament field.

It’s no different this year. Well, maybe a little.

No. 20 UConn and No. 8 Syracuse won the last two national championships, but both are shells of their title-winning squads after losing their defining players to the NBA (Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor from UConn and Carmelo Anthony from Syracuse).

They still boast experienced and talented lineups, but the cream of the Big East in 2005 is a relatively unheralded program, at least for one of the most prolific conferences in college basketball.

No. 5 Boston College has fought to No. 1 status in “bracketology” projections-for whatever that’s worth-but they haven’t silenced doubters who question their easy ride thus far this season (having only faced two ranked teams).

Some are also challenging the viability of a team that relies exclusively on two undersized 6-foot-7-inch forwards.

Junior Craig Smith (18.9 ppg., 8.3 rpg.) makes good use of his wide, 250-pound frame and maneuvers craftily underneath the basket for high percentage shots.

Jared Dudley is slimmer and more athletic at the three spot, chipping in 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.

Both possess savvy basketball intelligence, and contribute readily to coach Al Skinner’s relentless defensive scheme. They won’t allow anyone an easy game, and they easily dispose of those who sleep on them.

Challenging the Golden Eagles for the top spot in conference standings will likely be an Orange team that is very similar to the lineup that won it all in 2003.

Senior Hakim Warrick (20.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and junior Gerry McNamara (16.1 ppg, and 5 apg.) have developed into two of the top players in the nation, leading Syracuse to a 20-2 record.

Coach Jim Boeheim will try to get the hot/cold Orangemen rolling through a difficult remaining conference schedule that includes five games against ranked teams.

One of those teams is the No. 15 Pitt Panthers, carried by one of the best point guards in the nation, junior Carl Krauser (16.1 ppg, 6.1 apg).

Coach Jamie Dixon demands that his Panthers be aggressive at both ends of the court. They consistently put in the necessary effort in close games to get over the hump, as in their 17-point comeback victory against Syracuse last Saturday.

The resurgence of Chris Taft seems imminent after his 25-point, 15-rebound performance against Providence on Monday night.

Firing on all cylinders, the Panthers seem poised to improve by March, though they’re a not-too-shabby 15-3 already.

Another team that could easily get rolling is No. 25 Villanova, whose up and down season has seen them absolutely demolish then-No.2 Kansas and later beat a ranked West Virginia team 83-43.

In addition to being the most intriguing potential future Supersonic in college hoops, and getting an unofficial Oscar nomination, Allan Ray has had a big year on the court, sharpshooting his way to 17.7 points a game.

At No. 20, 13-5 UConn has to feel a little disappointed in their play thus far, and things won’t get any easier for them in the near future.

Jim Calhoun will need to rally his Huskies for big games against Syracuse (twice) and No. 2 North Carolina. Sophomore forwards Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva have combined for 25.7 points, 21 rebounds and 4.9 blocks a game.

The duo provides a low-post presence that can bang with anybody, and if perimeter threat Rashad Anderson is hitting, the Huskies have a deadly offensive attack.

Georgetown (14-6) and Notre Dame (13-5) lack consistency, but are capable of an upset on any given night. Yet, they represent off-games for Big East standouts the rest of the way.

The Golden Eagles hope they don’t get tripped up in their undefeated bid, but they’re motivated by a different theme: legitimacy.

If you don’t believe they’re a worthy No. 1 seed, you’re going to have a tough time believing your eyes if they roll through the best teams in your countries.

They won’t know what the big deal is. They have been doing it all year.

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