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Reaching the Garden is No. 1 goal in Big East

It's not a stretch to think the newly bloated 16-team Big East could send eight or even nine teams to the NCAA Tournament next month. But conference coaches aren't thinking too much about that right now. Most are in the race to stay out of the bottom four because only 12 teams get to go to the storied conference tournament in Madison Square Garden.

South Florida (0-9 in league) is almost certain to be one team that won't be going to New York. But there are some big names fighting to stay out of a final four of which they want no part.

"I'm sitting in the seat, baby. When not getting to the league tournament is a possibility, you are fighting and scratching," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Thursday on the league's conference call, which features half the teams on alternate weeks. "Last year, West Virginia came out of nowhere, but the nice thing they had when they were struggling was they could say, 'At least we're going to New York.'

"Hell, the only bracket I'm concerned about is the one with 12 teams. Don't even tell me about a 65-team bracket. We need to get to New York."

Brey's snakebitten team is 2-8 in league, tied with DePaul. Just above them at 3-7 are St. John's, Rutgers and Louisville, which could go from the real Final Four one year to out of its conference tournament the next. Cincinnati (5-5), Syracuse (4-5) and Providence (4-6) are in decent shape but need to avoid any big losing streaks or they will slip into the danger zone.

"Every league game seems like a conference tournament game to me," said DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright. "You're looking at two sets of standings: who's winning and who's at the bottom. It's a tough, tough thing on coaches. That's why I rent (a house) and I didn't buy."

Wainwright was laughing at that thought, but most coaches hate leagues that exclude teams from the tournament because administrators and alumni often look at missing the event as a fireable offense. While securing the Garden for an entire week would be difficult, you would think the Big East would at least ponder an additional round of games on campus sites to determine who goes to New York.

"I thought from Day One the difference between third and ninth place, and eighth place and not going to New York, might be a bad weekend, and that's going to play out," said Cincinnati interim coach Andy Kennedy. "West Virginia, Connecticut and Villanova have separated themselves, but everybody else is a game here or a game there."

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Harris set for 'Cuse

Folks in Syracuse can't wait for Niagara Falls product Paul Harris to finish his year of prep school in Massachusetts and get into Jim Boeheim's rotation. Wrote Syracuse Post-Standard beat reporter Mike Waters in a recent online blog: "A lot of people ask me about how good Harris is. Let me put it this way: I think he could start for Syracuse. Right now."

Harris attended Wednesday's Syracuse game at UConn and told the Post-Standard he's earned his qualifying score on the SAT and will be eligible to play at Syracuse next season. He also revealed he's been invited to the Jordan All-American Classic on April 22 in Madison Square Garden.

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WVU wants to keep Beilein

There's a wildly spreading chain rumor in hoop circles that goes like this: Skip Prosser is going to leave Wake Forest to take over at Cincinnati, former Canisius coach John Beilein is going to bolt West Virginia and replace Prosser at Wake Forest (Beilein was Wake's No. 2 choice when Prosser was hired), and ex-Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins will replace Beilein and take over West Virginia, his alma mater.

Prosser's sub-par season at Wake puts one crimp in the plan. And West Virginia Athletics Director Ed Pastilong is so fed up with the rumor that he addressed Beilein's contract this week with ESPN.com. After last year's Elite Eight run, Beilein's deal was extended through 2011-12 at a base salary of $700,000 with incentives that push it close to $1.2 million annually.

"He's got a solid contract," Pastilong said. "All these folks that talk about the dominoes fail to realize that John Beilein has a contract with West Virginia. He and the school made a commitment, and we intend to fulfill it."

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Around the rim

*Attention, UConn fans: Stop e-mailing me. I changed my AP vote this week and put the Huskies No. 1 over Duke after last week's impressive win at Indiana while Duke was struggling to beat Florida State at home in overtime.

*Elsewhere in the poll, there is no reason for Washington to still be ranked. The Huskies are 21st in the rankings but 50th in the Ratings Percentage Index, behind five Missouri Valley teams and six mid-majors. Washington (17-5) played a laughable nonleague schedule and needs a win today against first-place UCLA to make its NCAA hopes solid.

*Games of the Day: Gonzaga hosts improving Stanford tonight at 9 (ESPN) trying to preserve its 35-game home winning streak, the best in Division I. Maryland's only quality win is over Boston College, and it really needs to upset Duke today at 1 (Ch. 4) to boost its NCAA resume. Florida needs a win today at home against LSU to stay within range of catching Tennessee in the SEC East.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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