Rutgers plays St. John's and Syracuse faces Penn Friday night in the East semifinals, perhaps the most evenly matched of the four NCAA regional basketball tournaments.
"You draw any one of the four names out of a hat and you've got an equal chance of winning," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim at the Orangemen's final workout for the 7 p.m. opener (WTTG-TV 5).
"I felt we were as good as any of the four teams at Providence, and I feel we're as good as any of the four here," said Rutgers Coach Tom Young. "I also feel any club could come out of here into the final four."
The oddsmakers favor Syracuse by three points and Rutgers by one to addvance to Sunday's regionally televised final. They base their picks partly on big men, with Rutgers' James Bailey and Syracuse's Roosevelt Bouie the best in the Northeast.
However, the Atlantic Coast Conference fans here are not gulping up tickets -- at $23 a book for the two sessions -- since North Carolina and Duke lost in the second round, to Penn and St. John's, respectively, Sunday.
Boeheim, who earlier this week said the ACC's aura of invincibility was a media-hyped myth, said today with a smile, "The ACC stinks, just like I said... To put it how people will understand it down here, it's a Big Four tourney of Eastern basketball."
Rutgers, the Eastern Eight champion, brings in the longest winning streak (nine games), and a lot is being made about the matchup of Bailey, a senior, against St. John's 6-9 sophomore, Wayne McKoy.
"If I felt it was going to come down to that matchup, I'd feel rather confident," said Young. "But that isn't the case. My biggest concern is beating them twice during the season.
"We've beat them six out of the last seven times. We have to be very careful about how our kids respect them. That, I think, is why Duke and North Carolina had problems."
St. John's style -- one-on-one offense and man-to-man defense -- does not fit the book well on how to beat either Rutgers or Syracuse. "What do we have to do?" said St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca. "I can say it in two words. Wait, I'm not good at math. Make that three words: 'Don't beat ourselves'."
St. John's (20-10) started slowly (9-8) but has played well since Frank Gilroy -- "a young Havlicek," according to Carnesecca -- replaced bigger Rudy Wright at forward and point guard Bernard Rencher has been playing with better control.
Penn should feel at home in ACC country since the Quakers beat three ACC teams -- Virginia, Wake Forest and Carolina -- in a 23-5 season. The Ivy League champions do not plan to overemphasize Bouie, Coach Bobby Weinhauer said.
Syracuse's 26-3 record was built on good outside shooting by guards Marty Headd and Hal Cohen against the better teams. When they shot well, Syracuse won. When they didn't, the Orange lost, as happened against Georgetown in the ECAC playoffs.
"Most people think about their front line first and then their guards," Weinhauer said. "I don't think that's the way to play them. It's got to be an even amount. We wouldn't want to see Headd or Cohen get it going early. That would really hurt us."