Md. pair adorns UConn, Big East

Honors come early for Gay, Boone as conference warms up

College Basketball


New York -- The Big East is out to prove it is the best college basketball league. It is definitely the biggest ever, and no player is more highly regarded in that unwieldy 16-team monster than Rudy Gay.

Connecticut's 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, who prepped at Archbishop Spalding, was voted preseason co-Player of the Year by the Big East coaches. Gay shares that advance notice with Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara.

Gay was co-Rookie of the Year last season with Georgetown's Jeff Green, but in all-Big East balloting in 2004-05, he was not among the 20 players voted first, second or third team, and didn't even merit honorable mention.

His upside is considerable, however, as Gay is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NBA draft.

"Any day that can change," Gay said. "God willing, it won't, but it's up to me to keep focusing on what's important, which is making myself and Connecticut better. The [Player of the Year] award is nice, but what matters is what happens in March, at the end of the season."

Connecticut center Josh Boone, a Mount Airy native who played with Gay at the Cecil-Kirk Rec Center in northeast Baltimore, was a unanimous selection for the 10-man preseason all-Big East team. The junior center led the Huskies in rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots last season.

Boone was a starter on Connecticut's 2004 NCAA champions. McNamara teamed with classmate Carmelo Anthony on Syracuse's 2003 titlists.

The coaches voted Villanova the most likely candidate to make it three NCAA crowns in four years for the Big East, but that vote was taken before senior forward Curtis Sumpter went down last week with a knee injury. The Wildcats' best inside player is out indefinitely.

Former Maryland signee Shane Clark, who is enrolling at Villanova, could come in handy at the end of the first semester for coach Jay Wright, who has four quality guards. Point guard is the major concern at Connecticut, where legal problems sidelined the two best prospects.

Huskies coach Jim Calhoun points to Georgetown, where the top six return, as a "stealth" contender, but if the Big East has anything, it's depth.

After being raided by the Atlantic Coast Conference, which enticed Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, the Big East plundered Conference USA for five new members, including past NCAA champions Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette.

Four of the 16 will not make it to the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, the likely fate of Rutgers and Seton Hall, whose most-improved players are two locally bred big men, Byron Joynes and Marcus Cousin, respectively.

Pittsburgh and Villanova, the only Pennsylvania schools in the Big East, won't meet in the regular season, and commissioner Mike Tranghese admitted that TV contracts make the schedule "dysfunctional" through 2006-07.

Newcomer South Florida, which began playing in 1971, is the only Big East member that has never gone to the Final Four. Louisville returns sublime guard Taquan Dean and Juan Palacios from the team that got there last year.

Yesterday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino was back at Madison Square Garden, where he coached the Knicks in the late 1980s. Four jobs back, he took Providence to the 1987 Final Four. He knows his way around the new Big East better than anyone, but the faces have changed.

Then, he challenged an established coach at Georgetown. Now, he'll run into that coach's son, John Thompson III.

"In '87, it was an Italian league - [Lou] Carnesecca, [P.J.] Carlesimo, [Dom] Perno, [Rollie] Massimino, myself, Thompson," Pitino joked. "If I've got an advantage, it's that I know where to eat."

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