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COLLEGE HOOP EXPERTS OFF MARK ON BIG EAST

These things tend to go in cycles. A few top players graduate. A couple of others grow disillusioned and transfer. The preseason basketball annuals, usually lacking in independent or original analysis, look over the situation and declare that the Big East is destined for a down year.

As I recall, the last time the experts predicted an off season for the Big East was before the 1986-87 season. All the conference did that year was send Syracuse to the championship game and Providence to the Final Four. Georgetown went to the Final Eight and might have gone to the Big Dance, but they had to play Providence to get there.

This was supposed to be another of those down seasons. Derrick Coleman and Stephen Thompson left Syracuse. Tony Scott and Richard Manning transferred. Georgetown graduated its backcourt. Connecticut lost Tate George to the Nets and Nadav Henefeld to Israel. Boo Harvey, who seemed to win all of St. John's games with last-second shots, graduated. And so on.

Then, this week, the Big East went out and won six of eight games in its challenge with the supposedly superior Atlantic Coast Conference. Georgetown took out Duke. Syracuse beat North Carolina State. The Orangemen, seeded only fourth in the challenge, are now fourth in the country. Seton Hall ripped Clemson. St. John's knocked off Kenny Anderson and Georgia Tech. Heck, if Pittsburgh wasn't still trying to find itself, and if UConn could shoot free throws, the Big East might have swept.

A down year?

"I thought we were down," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said Friday, "but after watching some of the teams play, I'm not so sure. I was surprised by the way the whole series went. Of course, I don't know what it all means. At the end of the year, the ACC might send two teams to the Final Four while we don't send any (as was the case a year ago)."

What it means is there is no longer such a thing as a true down year in the Big East. The conference has simply grown too big and powerful. The best players keep coming, lured by the prospect of playing before huge crowds and, most important of all, on national television. The names and faces change, but the talent level doesn't. It just takes a little time for the public to recognize it.

But there is a lot of talent emerging in the conference right now. Seton Hall senior Anthony Avent is ready to make a major statement, the way Mark Bryant did a few years back. Villanova's Lance Miller, Seton Hall's Terry Dehere and Connecticut's Scott Burrell are sophomores on the verge of stardom. Gerrod Abram, Boston College's 6-foot-2 freshman guard, went for 30 in the Eagles' win over Maryland.

"Top to bottom, this is the most impressive the league has ever been," Boeheim said. "I don't think you've ever seen all nine teams playing like this. I wouldn't say I'm shocked, but it has been a surprise."

Boeheim's Syracuse team -- which hosts Canisius Wednesday -- also has been a bit of a surprise. Lacking depth, outside shooting and backcourt experience, the Orangemen were assigned to the lower half of all the Top 20s heading into the season. But they've already beaten Indiana and N.C. State, and are beginning to inspire comparisons with that '86-87 team, a lightly regarded squad that came within five seconds of a national title.

"The scary thing is, we're playing extremely well and just getting by," Boeheim said. "That just shows you how well you have to play to win today. I still think we've got the same weaknesses we had before the season began."

They also have junior Billy Owens, perhaps
the finest all-around player in America. Owens alone will keep the Orangemen in most games. But Boeheim has to be encouraged by the early play of junior swingman David Johnson, who had 24 points and 17 rebounds against N.C. State, and 6-10 sophomore Conrad McRae, a force off the bench.

And watch out for Adrian Autry, the 6-4 freshman from Tolentine High in the Bronx. Autry plays with the audacity and confidence of a much older player -- reminiscent of Coleman when he arrived at Syracuse in 1986. The kid isn't shy about taking his shot. Plus, his ability to play the point or the off guard will allow Boeheim to play around with his lineups.

"He's not afraid," Boeheim said with a laugh. "He wants to make plays, and he'll make big plays."

Even LeRon Ellis has played well in spurts, though he still has a disturbing tendency to disappear at times. In the N.C. State game, Boeheim pulled Ellis because he failed to box out on a free throw. The two had words in front of the bench, brushed one another, and Boeheim sent Ellis to the locker room.

"I got a little upset," Boeheim said. "He played so hard and was so active in the first half, then he starts hanging around and gives me a lame excuse. I said 'That's it,' and sent him to the locker room. I hate to say this, but Le-Ron's the type of player where you wish somebody would punch him in the face in the first minute. Then he'd go play. He's just too nice. He needs to get more aggressive."

After all, this is the Big East.

Around the Rim

The NCAA lost whatever credibility it had by putting off UNLV's sanctions a year and allowing the Rebels to defend their title. Gee, do you think CBS, which has invested $1 billion in the NCAA tournament over the next seven years, might have exerted any pressure to have the college game's best team reinstated? . . . South Carolina is one of the big surprises of the early season. The Gamecocks have beaten Houston and North Carolina, and it'll be interesting to see how they fare tonight against Temple . . . Notre Dame's five-game losing streak is its longest in nine years. If the Irish lose as expected today at UCLA, it'll be their longest losing spell since 1971-72 . . .

Pittsburgh had to come from 17 points down to beat St. Francis (Pa.) last week, then lost to Virginia in the Big East Challenge. Despite all their acknowledged talent, they remain one of the most perplexing and overrated teams in the nation . . . The night after NBA star Mark Price went down with a season-ending knee injury, his younger brother, Brent, scored a career-high 35 points for Oklahoma . . . Since when did Nebraska figure out how to play with a round ball? The Cornhuskers shocked Michigan State, then buried Creighton by 34 two days after Creighton knocked off Missouri . . . Georgetown rose three spots in the national polls last week without playing a Division I team . . . If there's a better name in sports than Colorado's House Guest, I want to hear about it.

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