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College basketball

Ball at the Garden now privilege, not promise

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

NEW YORK - One of the biggest perks of playing basketball in the Big East has always been playing in the league tournament at Madison Square Garden. Now that only the top 12 of 16 teams get to play there, there's a new pressure on coaches to make sure they're not one of the schools watching from home.

"It puts an enormous pressure on coaches, but it's going to create incredible interest at the end of the year," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said.

Tranghese said a compelling reason in not playing an unprecedented 16-team tournament was not wanting to make the league's best teams play four games in four days, just before their most important stretch of the season. The league's coaches would prefer the recruiting advantage of telling players they'll be there every year.

"We sell it on the road in recruiting. Any time you play there is special," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "To have schools not coming is going to be another reason why coaches are going to face increasing pressure, from 1 through 13, 14, 15, etc.

"We as coaches fought (that) like crazy. We'd play on a Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. just to get people to New York, but obviously that didn't make as much sense."

USF WOMEN PICKED NINTH: The team, seeking its first NCAA Tournament appearance in its first season in the Big East, was picked to finish ninth out of 16 teams in the coaches' preseason poll.

Only five of the teams picked ahead of the Bulls made the NCAA field last season, but USF coach Jose Fernandez is confident his team will hold its own. "I don't get into these polls, because this is the kind of stuff that's determined on the floor," said Fernandez, who has been aggressive in putting together a tough nonconference schedule that includes Michigan State, LSU and North Carolina. "The middle of the pack could be determined by one win or one loss during the season."

Junior forward Jessica Dickson was one of 10 players named to the league's preseason all-conference team. Rutgers was picked as the league's favorite, marking the first time in 12 years that Connecticut didn't have that honor. The Huskies got five first-place votes to Rutgers' 11. Rutgers senior guard Cappie Pondexter was named the league's preseason player of the year, and teammate Kia Vaughn earned preseason freshman of the year honors.

Fernandez said senior Tristen Webb, who has missed the last season and a half with a knee injury, is making a strong case to start at point guard. She's competing with freshmen Shantia Grace and Jessica Jackson, though junior guard Rachael Sheats could also see time at the point.

BATTLE AT THE TOP: Villanova and Connecticut split the first-place votes in the men's coaches' preseason poll, and the biggest difference between the two squads is backcourt experience.

"We're good at every spot at point guard," Calhoun said. "We had two kids (Craig Austrie and Rob Garrison) who yesterday did something I thought impossible. They had a 1-to-3 ratio of assists to turnovers. I told them it's physiologically impossible what they did, and I want to congratulate them on that."

Villanova coach Jay Wright, sitting at the table next to Calhoun, noted the size of the players Connecticut brought along, compared to his stellar but small starting backcourt of 6-foot-2 Allan Ray and 6-3 Randy Foye.

"Look at the three guys Connecticut brought and the size of them, and look at our three midgets sitting here," Wright said. "We've got a lot of work to do, and there's a lot of other things we have to do besides have good guard play."

The coaches votedbefore Villanova forward Curtis Sumpter aggravated a knee injury that will require surgery in two weeks, jeopardizing his season.

[Last modified October 28, 2005, 01:36:14]

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