On the bus for a USA Basketball game a few years back, Jim Boeheim sat down next to Jay Wright and whispered a little secret. The Hall of Famer had gotten the drop on the Big East schedule, which by then was a convoluted mess thanks to the league’s gargantuan size.
Neither coach loved playing the other twice a season, but somehow the folks in Providence, R.I., usually conspired to make that happen, and Boeheim had just learned the two would tango twice yet again.
“You ought to call the league and complain,’’ Boeheim told Wright.
“And I’m like, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame. You call,’” Wright said recently, recounting the story.
That Big East is no more, yet Villanova-Syracuse continues, this time because Boeheim and Wright wanted the game.
But what once looked like nothing more than just a nostalgic trip down the defunct conference’s Memory Lane is now something far more sizable. Saturday's 2 p.m. ET game at the Carrier Dome was supposed to be the undercard, the warmup to Louisville at Kentucky.
Instead, it’s the main attraction.
The Philadelphia Wildcats and the Orange, not the Kentucky Wildcats and Cardinals, are both in the top 10; Villanova and Syracuse each bring undefeated records, not the past two national championships.
Eighth-ranked Villanova might be the most unlikely top-10 team in the country, a squad picked to finish fourth in its brand-new league. But Villanova has earned its way to its ranking, not just on the backs of wins against Kansas and Iowa but by summarily dismissing everyone else. Throw out those two games (one won by four, the other by five in overtime) and Villanova is beating its opponents by an average of 21.7 points.
Still, understandably, questions linger, with folks curious if the Wildcats merely caught some Bahamian magic to win in Atlantis. And with the strength of the new Big East still uncertain -- no one else is ranked, though the teams do have pretty hefty RPI numbers -- those questions might not go away easily.
The date with Syracuse will help. While the No. 2 Orange may not have a litany of big wins -- Baylor and Indiana rank as the best -- anyone who has seen them play knows Boeheim has another special team. Tyler Ennis isn’t mentioned among the best freshmen in the country, but he ought to be. The point guard is nothing shy of superb, and has a terrific supporting cast in C.J. Fair, Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant to help make him look good.
Yet what will make this game especially fun is that, unlike most nonconference opponents that go into the orange haze of 20,000-plus in the Carrier Dome like deer in headlights, Villanova won’t be intimidated.
The less-experienced, more-unsure Wildcats nearly knocked off the then-No. 3 Orange last season, and when, in 2006, the entire town of Scranton, Pa., joined the city of Syracuse to laud Gerry McNamara in his final game, it was Villanova spoiling the party, winning by 10.
“It’s going to be a test, another chance to show what we can do,’’ said Nova senior James Bell. “But it’s nothing new.’’
No, but then again this isn’t just another stroll down Memory Lane, either.