tampabay.com

Big East reunion's outsider

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times wires
Published March 24, 2006


MINNEAPOLIS - Last weekend in Jacksonville, it was all about the Gators. This week, however, it's a Big East love fest.

This region includes Villanova, Georgetown and former Big East member Boston College, which makes Florida the odd team out.

"The Big East schools are going to pull for the Big East schools, like most conferences I would guess," junior guard Lee Humphrey said. "It's good to have a home crowd, but we're used to going on the road in a hostile environment in the SEC. It'll probably be like the SEC tournament when Kentucky controls the gym."

UF coach Billy Donovan, for one, is having trouble adjusting to the Eagles in their new conference. "Boston College is the Big East, it probably will take me a few years to get accustomed to them being in the ACC," he said. " ... Boston College being a year removed, it's almost like having three Big East teams here this week."

NOAH'S WORLD: He left the warmth and abundant sunshine of Florida for Minneapolis, where the high was 34 degrees and snow flurries fell all day. But sophomore forward Joakim Noah couldn't have been happier. That's what happens when the exposure gets to be too much. Noah was on a region cover of Sports Illustrated and his popularity apparently is soaring so much he needed to get away.

"I'm just happy right now we left Gainesville," Noah said. "Right now, I'm happy to be in the hotel and turn off my phone a little bit, and just focus on the present moment, focus on the task at hand. We're all trying to do the same thing and that's win a basketball game."

Meanwhile, the accolades keep coming. CBS analyst Billy Packer said Noah has been the most surprising player of the tournament.

"He showed me some things in terms of his ability to handle the ball," Packer said. "He came up big time, like the kind of player that can take over a game. That surprised me."

He hasn't surprised John Thompson II or current Georgetown coach John Thompson III.

"I've known him from the time he was a baby," Thompson II said. "What's so impressive is his agility. He's up and down the court, he does it constantly. He reminds me a lot of Dikembe Mutombo. He's what I call an instinctual runner. A lot of big guys have to think, "Oh, I have to run.' He just moves."

NBA TALK: With Noah and sophomore center Al Horford playing so well in the postseason, talk of the NBA has begun. Donovan says it's just media speculation, and junior forward Chris Richard thinks the odds are the team, minus senior Adrian Moss, will return. "I think it's a great chance because none of the people who have an opportunity to leave are really hurting financially," Richard said. "That helps us out a lot."

TWO STUNNERS: Just last month, George Mason and Wichita State met on national television in a bracket-buster game with hopes of impressing the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

Evidently, the teams accomplished that. They meet again tonight, this time in a Sweet 16 contest at the Verizon Center in Washington.

Coming from mid-major conferences that get few invitations to the Big Dance, both the Patriots and the Shockers made the field of 65 despite losing in their respective league tournaments.

George Mason, of the Colonial Athletic Association, fought off a comeback to top host Wichita State 70-67 in the teams' first encounter.

"Coach was saying, "That's a Sweet 16 team you just beat,"' George Mason guard Lamar Butler said, referring to Patriots coach Jim Larranaga. "I never imagined we would see them in the NCAA tournament, and we would be in the same bracket."

DIVISION II: Darius Hargrove scored 22 to help Virginia Union beat Seattle Pacific 68-63 in the national semifinals in Springfield, Mass.