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Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Casting our ballots: Big East

By Dana O'Neil

A quick look at the player and coach of the year races in the Big East:

Player of the Year

Dwight Hardy
St. John's guard Dwight Hardy is averaging 17.9 points per game.
Of course there is no runaway favorite for Big East Player of the Year honors. This topsy-turvy, brutal league has been too wildly entertaining for that. I’d argue there are three front-runners and two darkhorses who are likely to split up the votes.

For much of the season, Connecticut’s Kemba Walker was (and perhaps still is) on everyone’s short list for national player of the year. While he might have been Jimmered from that trophy, he remains very much in play for Big East honors. In conference games, he’s second in the league at 20.9 ppg (22.8 overall), and perhaps more impressive in the brutal league, he’s slogging 38.8 minutes per game and has carried a team with zero expectations into a near-season-long spot in the rankings.

Once Tyler’s little brother, Ben Hansbrough has morphed into his own phenomenon. In the past 11 games, of which the Irish have won 10, Psycho B is averaging 22.5 points per game, including a 30-point, 10-assist show against Villanova. I like Hansbrough for his intangibles as much as his scoring. He’s brought a snarly edge to the Irish.

And then there is the Johnny-come-lately, Dwight Hardy of St. John’s. During the Red Storm’s surge to the top 15 and into the national conscience for the first time in more than a decade, Hardy has been unstoppable. Since the Duke game, the line of demarcation for the Storm, Hardy is averaging 25.1 points per game. He dropped 33 on Connecticut, and 34 on Villanova.

Two others who could get consideration: Scoring machine Marshon Brooks of Providence, who averaged 30.9 points in February and is at 26.8 in Big East play. Oh, and the nation’s second-leading scorer also set a conference record with 52 points against Notre Dame. And don’t forget about preseason POY Austin Freeman, who has been a savvy leader for a thriving Georgetown team. His scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are all higher than last season.

I won’t be upset if any of the guys listed here take the honor, but my pick is Hardy, who has resurrected a dormant program and turned it into a force to be reckoned with.

Coach of the Year

The Big East has brought us four of the biggest surprise teams nationally, and those four coaches -- Rick Pitino, Steve Lavin, Jim Calhoun and Mike Brey -- headline the candidates for coach of the year.

When Louisville trounced Butler to open the season, most everyone interpreted it as a fluke, a feed off the frenzy of the brand new arena, a one-time rush. Well, we’re still waiting for the Cards to crash. Louisville is 22-7, 11-5 in the Big East. Pitino’s lone returning starter, Jared Swopshire, hasn’t played a game because of a groin injury, and nine others have missed at least one game with an injury. Yet the coach has pushed all of the right buttons to keep the Cardinals, picked eighth in the preseason, in the top 25 and among the league’s top four.

Lavin had a nice roster to work with -- nine seniors returned to the Red Storm -- but that roster was more or less the same roster that barely scratched .500 last season. Now the Johnnies are ranked 15th in the country and have a mind-boggling six wins against top-15 teams. With a much-heralded recruiting class coming, next season was supposed to be the start of something big for St. John’s. Lavin instead fast-tracked the plan.

The sight of Connecticut sitting at the No. 10 spot in the Big East preseason poll, barely ahead of Seton Hall, was pretty stunning. But where else to put a team that had lost three of its top four scorers and would rely heavily on its freshmen to win? How about among the most surprising teams of the season? Certainly Walker has a lot to do with the Huskies’ success, but it is Calhoun who has guided UConn’s young roster to success. Three of the Huskies’ top five scorers are rookies, yet Connecticut has 21 wins and is ranked No. 16 in the country.

Brey has done the impossible, making his team better after losing a three-time All-Big East player and one-time player of the year in Luke Harangody. The Fighting Irish are 13-4 in the Big East (compared to 10-8 last season), and the team that could never win a road game won the ultimate road game, at Pittsburgh. Notre Dame is No. 7 (and rising) in the country? No one saw that coming.

My vote? I’d go with Pitino. Nobody has started with less and done as much.

Click here to find out who our panel of 15 experts picked in each of the nation's 10 best conferences.