March, Garden, Big East wild mix

It's madness

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NEW YORK -- Seton Hall was spanking Providence up and down 7th Avenue the other night, almost in the exact way that Pitt should have been deep-frying the Friars late last week, when Herb Pope abruptly fouled out.

Up by 29 at one point, the Hall prevailed by a scant three points, and Pope, the Aliquippa kid who now avoids his hometown due in part to an acute aversion to being shot, settled for a sterling, 27-point, 11-rebound, 5-assist Madison Square Garden debut.

As it happens, it was during Pitt's shockingly unnecessary Providence entanglement last Thursday, which required a last-second game-winning shot by Ashton Gibbs, that a certain Steelers quarterback, watching in a Georgia saloon, jumped ecstatically into a lake of O-bombs -- allegedly -- and crawled out dragging a second sexual misconduct charge in eight months.

Hey, ya think they call this March Madness for nothin'?

With the Panthers waiting in Manhattan for Pope and his Seton Hall teammates to unravel in the re-entry heat of Notre Dame Wednesday night, whiffs of a fine madness emanated from the Big East tournament's first rounds.

Wasn't that Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, vacuously explaining a 22-point loss to St. John's, looking like a 68-year-old man deserted by his basketball team?

It was, and it's a mad world when Connecticut doesn't make it to the New York weekend.

But elsewhere form was holding, generally, particularly on the other side of the tournament bracket, which is why Georgetown will play Syracuse at noon Thursday. Historically, there is no more common Big East tournament pairing than Syracuse-Georgetown, who have met 12 times and split 'em right down the middle.

"I told our guys in the locker room," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said after the Hoyas dispatched South Florida Wednesday afternoon, "what you need to do against Syracuse is to make shots and guard your guy. Let's not make it rocket science. It's a group effort guarding them."

Syracuse is the tournament's top seed due in large part to an opulent scoring margin of more than 15 points, the best such figure in the conference, which will constitute a jarring adjustment for the Hoyas about 22 hours after fooling around with a South Florida team that couldn't score in New York unless it was standing under a Garden basket.

The Bulls, in two tournament games, shot 1 for 18 from 3-point range, and only marginally better otherwise.

"It took us longer than usual to adjust to what they were doing on offense," Thompson actually said.

Adjust? You let 'em shoot. You watch 'em miss. Adjust what?

Even though Seton Hall and Providence each broke the tournament record for points in a game in that 109-106 playground event Tuesday night, this convention did not stage its first good basketball game until St. John's and Marquette went to the final minute Wednesday afternoon.

At stake, ostensibly, was the coaching future of Red Storm boss Norm Roberts, and without putting too fine a point on it, he might have lost his job on the roulette probability known as the possession arrow. With his club behind a bucket and 32 seconds left, former Schenley ace D.J. Kennedy tried to get across the foul line in front of 6-foot-6 Marquette forward Lazar Hayward.

Hayward tied him up, possession went to Marquette, and Roberts' future slipped beyond uncertain.

"I had an opportunity to make a play there, and it was just a great defensive play by Hayward," said a dejected Kennedy. "I was just trying to get into the lane; I thought I had a chance there to drive and tie the game. It was just a great individual play by him."

Hayward made both ends of a one-and-one at the other end, and Marquette's two-point win represented the 12th time in 19 games against conference teams that the Golden Eagles have won by 1, 2, or 3.

Marquette gets Villanova Thursday at 2, with Villanova searching for some answers as to why it's suddenly dropped four of its past six games.

Thus the most intriguing quarterfinal without prejudice is Pitt's 7 p.m. appointment against this Notre Dame team that has won five consecutive games, including Wednesday night's methodical dismissal of Seton Hall, which established itself as the hottest team in town this week, and doing it all while completely reinventing its offensive approach.

"We're one of the best stories in college basketball right now," said Irish coach Mike Brey, straining for humility.

Feb. 24 in Indiana, Notre Dame thumped the Panthers without Luke Harangody in the lineup, and now Brey has the rejuvenated 6-8 forward bursting off his bench with dramatic impact. Harangody scored 11 of Notre Dame's first 20 points Wednesday night, earned a double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds) in just 24 minutes, and is the prime illustration of new Irish versatility.

If you think the Irish aren't dictating tempo, note that Seton Hall scored 109 here Tuesday night, barely half that Wednesday night. Notre Dame shot 53 percent against Seton Hall. Anything close to that against Pitt will guarantee that Jamie Dixon's team will be extremely well rested for the NCAA's.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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