NEW YORK -- In this, the season after the Dream Season when the University of Connecticut won its first Big East Conference tournament championship, the question is: Will the Huskies be the hunted, instead of the hunters?

Georgetown Coach John Thompson, whose team has won six Big East tournament titles, says: "They've always been the hunted. Everybody in this league is the hunted."

No one can relate better to this than Thompson, whose team has won six Big East tournament titles and been an annual target of every team's best shots since the conference was formed in 1979.

"I'm not certain if anybody ever disrespected UConn," Thompson says. "The adrenaline might flow a little harder because they have a strong team coming back. There is a special consciousness of UConn now."

Georgetown and its Big East compatriots have Connecticut in their sights.

The coaches voted the Huskies the No. 1 team in the preseason poll. Of course that was before UConn's Nadav Henefeld decided to play professionally in Israel.

Still, there is respect for the Huskies from Big East coaches and players, though the Huskies no longer have the player who set an NCAA record for steals as a freshman or guard Tate George, now a New Jersey Net.

This respect was not definitive until last season, when UConn surprised most participants and observers of college basketball with a 31-6 record and an appearance in the NCAA Eastern Regional final.

Before 1989-90, UConn had only one winning season in the Big East, 8-6 in 1980-81, and an overall conference winning percentage of .342 (55-106).

"UConn was a surprise last year," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim says. "I mean if you went into prediction time not knowing about Henefeld. When you figured him into the equation, they were very good."

UConn was picked to finish eighth in last year's coaches' preseason poll.

"I had no knowledge of Henefeld, but as soon as he signed with UConn and people over there told us about him, I knew he was a player," Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo says. "I knew UConn would be a good team."

No one, not even the Huskies and Coach Jim Calhoun, knew how good.

"They were a big surprise until I realized as the season went how well Tate George, Chris Smith and everyone there played together," Seton Hall forward Anthony Avent says. "Tate would penetrate. Then there was a screen, switch, pass to {center} Rod Sellers, layup. And that press, whew. They ran teams crazy with that."

The Huskies' full-court, trapping defense was a major ingredient to their offense. They had no singular star around which everything revolved. Many players contributed to the march through the Big East.

"Everyone did their role and accepted it," Pittsburgh guard Darelle Porter says. "UConn learned how to win and how it feels to win."

St. John's forward Billy Singleton says, "A lot of teams get on a good slide and ride that train as long as they could take it. UConn did and almost took it all the way to the ultimate goal, the NCAA title."

So what is UConn's position in the Big East? That depends whom you ask.

"Maybe in the media's eyes what UConn did last year was a major step for them," Pittsburgh Coach Paul Evans says. "I don't agree. In the coaches' eyes, we look at Syracuse and Georgetown as generally having the best athletes. Most of us are as afraid of each other as anyone else."

Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino and Boeheim say the conference is more balanced than ever.

"There are no classifications in this league," Massimino says.

"The last three or four years there's been a wild-card team, like a Providence, Seton Hall or UConn, that's come through," Boeheim says. "Basically Syracuse and Georgetown have been there. Yet either one of us could drop down this year. Any one from 1-7 can win it."

St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca says UConn is one of the top three teams in the Big East and a top 20 team.

Boston College Coach Jim O'Brien says it's too early to group UConn with Georgetown and Syracuse.

"This is nothing critical of UConn," he says. "I think UConn did a great job last season. But to start to put UConn in that category, to what Syracuse and Georgetown have done over the years, you have to wait a while."

It seems clear UConn, with Calhoun's guidance and motivation, has built a firm foundation for being a viable contender for the Big East title, rather than a mere spectator.

UConn has recruited its best class of high school players, an apparent direct result of last season's success. Fan support is at its highest level with season ticket sellouts in its two home courts, Gampel Pavilion and the Civic Center. And UConn is ranked 17th in the Associated Press preseason poll.

For the first time since UConn joined the Big East, it will face a different kind of pressure this season, as defending champion.

"The challenge of being in the Big East is: What have you done lately?" Carlesimo says. "That's what UConn faces. Fans shouldn't expect because of what UConn did last year that they'll do it again. Last year was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Everything fell into place perfectly. Fans have to be realistic about their expectations."

Avent, a member of Seton Hall's 1988-89 Final Four team, understands what UConn will face.

"The year after the Final Four, fans were still thinking of that," he says. "It wasn't quite as hard for us. We knew that was in the past, but you can't dwell in the past. You've got to work on your game for today."

Thompson says UConn should not be concerned with the expectations or opinions of others.

"It's not how other people perceive UConn," he says. "It's how UConn views itself. That will be its true measure."