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Big East teams have ups, downs at season's start

We saw the beast of the Big East last Saturday, when No. 2 Pittsburgh barely got out of Alumni Arena with its unbeaten record intact. The Panthers have lived up to their preseason billing and can really boost their resume with a win today at Wisconsin (noon, ESPN).

The rest of the Big East is full of question marks. The conference is just sixth in the Ratings Percentage Index (behind the ACC, Missouri Valley, Pac 10, SEC and Big Ten) in large part because puffy schedules have helped 14 of the 16 schools get over .500. DePaul is 5-5 and Rutgers is 4-5.

Syracuse has no point guard in the wake of Gerry McNamara's graduation and that figures to be troublesome all season. SU had to climb out of big holes against Canisius and Northeastern but couldn't do it in losses to Wichita State and Oklahoma State. There are two dangerous home games looming, Tuesday against Drexel and Friday against Loren Stokes-led Hofstra, and the first conference game is the Jan. 4 visit by Pitt.

By the way, folks around here need to stop with the Paul Harris-to-the-NBA talk.

The Niagara Falls native is a wondrous talent, easily one of the nation's top five freshmen, but he's not going to get to the rim in the pros like he's done so far against mostly inferior competition. And Harris is just 1 for 13 from three-point range, adding to skeptics' notions that his inability to make a jump shot is going to be a huge hurdle at the next level.

Meanwhile, Connecticut is 8-0 but its schedule (rated 295th) is an open disgrace. The Huskies' first 11 games are at home, and Mississippi is the only foe above .500. You can understand coach Jim Calhoun taking the schedule down a few notches given the heavy losses from his roster after last year but this is ridiculous. It's a joke the Huskies are ranked eighth in the coaches poll.

Among other contenders, Georgetown began the season in everybody's Top 25 but has been decidedly ordinary in its wins and has suffered home losses to Old Dominion and Oregon. Marquette is 9-2 but needed overtime to beat Idaho State at home and fell to North Dakota State in the championship game of its own tourney.

The surprises have been Notre Dame and West Virginia (both 7-1). The Irish cracked the polls with wins over Maryland and Alabama, and have lost only to Butler. The Mountaineers have beaten North Carolina State and lost only to Arkansas.

South Florida is 6-1 but the best team it's played so far is UB. Seton Hall, in its first year under Buffalo State grad Bobby Gonzalez, is also 6-1 but lost at home to Fairleigh Dickinson and has not played a top-100 team. Cincinnati has bounced back nicely in its last two games with wins over Temple and Xavier but will probably pay the piper today when it meets Ohio State (3:45, Ch. 4). Earlier in the year, the Bearcats lost at home to Wofford. Yes, Wofford.

DePaul, Providence and Villanova are enigmas. DePaul scored just 39 points in a loss at Northwestern but has beaten Kansas and Wake Forest. Providence somehow owns wins over Boston College and George Washington but scored only 41 points in a home loss to Brown. Nova won at Oklahoma but lost to Drexel at home.

St. John's and Louisville are in improvement mode while Rutgers, in its first year under Fred Hill, lost to Jackson State at home and has huge problems on offense.

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Carney's call

Sister Margaret Carney, St. Bonaventure president, is on a seat almost as hot as coach Anthony Solomon in the wake of her decision to hire Franklinville native Steve Watson as athletics director. That's because she bypassed Bona grad Tom McElroy, the former Big East assistant commissioner who most alums figured had the best chance of reviving the basketball program.

McElroy was the clear choice of the search committee and virtually all athletic boosters but Carney did not follow the recommendation and instead hired Watson.

McElroy had a dangerous skeleton in his closet, as his departure from Rhode Island earlier this year has never been fully explained, and that clearly spooked Carney. Given what happened in Olean in 2003, she has every right to be wary of any such red flags.

Still, passing on McElroy seems to be a lost opportunity to bring in a hugely respected and experienced figure when one is desperately needed. In time, Watson may prove to be a solid hire and Carney's choice will be viewed as prudent.

Alums need to give the new man time to learn in the top chair. The problem is McElroy could have jumped right in with virtually no learning curve.

If Carney was going to make the choice herself, there shouldn't have been a search committee. When alums found out the committee had picked McElroy, they thought their beloved basketball program was saved. Now, Watson has been unnecessarily put into a prove-it mode with every grad. That's going to make his job of fixing this mess even tougher.

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Baron blazing at line

Rhode Island guard Jimmy Baron, the son of Rams and ex-Bona coach Jim Baron, is atop the NCAA charts in free throw shooting at a perfect 26 for 26 and is fifth in three-point shooting at 56.4 percent. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is averaging 15.7 points per game for Rhody (6-4) heading into today's game against DePaul.

Baron was named Atlantic 10 Co-Player of the Week on Monday after connecting for a career-high 28 points Dec. 5 against Brown. He hit 8 of 9 from three-point range.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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