NEW YORK -- The new Big East officially launched on July 1, but Wednesday felt like the first day of a new era.
The conference held its preseason basketball media day in Manhattan, just as in the days of old. But a new location was chosen: Chelsea Piers.
Legendary coaches Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino were noticeably absent, among others. But three new schools were part of the mix: Butler, Xavier and Creighton.
We've admired them from afar -- particularly Butler, which went to back-to-back NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011. Now the Bulldogs will be competing with local squads St. John's and Seton Hall year in and year out for a conference title.
Butler coach Brandon Miller is in his first year at the helm, replacing Brad Stevens, who moved on to the Boston Celtics. But he also played for the Bulldogs from 1999 to 2003, so he has a good sense of the school's history.
"There’s a buzz around Butler. There’s an excitement around the university," Miller said Wednesday. "I think it’s a great time to be a part of Butler, because of the transition into the Big East. I love the fact that we get to compete against some of the best basketball schools in the country, night in and night out."
The Bulldogs lost their top returning scorer, Roosevelt Jones, to a season-ending wrist injury in August and were picked to finish second-to-last in the preseason coaches' poll. But they're used to being underdogs, and exceeding expectations.
"I feel like Butler’s always placed under the radar -- people like doing that to us, and I feel like we kind of like having that done to us," said senior forward Erik Fromm. "I think we thrive in situations where we’re kind of under the radar. This adds fuel to the fire, when you have people ranking you low."
Xavier was picked to finish two spots higher, in seventh place. But the Musketeers have one of the top players in the conference in sophomore guard Semaj Christon. He averaged 15.2 points per game as a freshman and was one of five players named to the preseason All-Big East first team.
Christon is anxious to test his game against Big East competition and help prove the Musketeers belong. "I feel like every year we have something to prove, but this year will be a good year for us, getting to play better teams," Christon said. "I think we play better when we play better competition."
Xavier hasn't been to the national championship game, like Butler has. But the Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament seven of the past eight years, and have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in four of the past six. The only other schools that can say that? Kansas, Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Louisville and Syracuse -- that's quite a list.
And coach Chris Mack believes his program will grow even stronger now. "The exposure that Xavier is going to gain is gonna be tremendous," Mack said. "We feel like for so many years we’ve played at such a high level. We’ve chartered every flight, we’ve had multiple guys go on to the NBA, we’ve been in four of the last six Sweet Sixteens. We’ve done it at such a high level, but conference affiliation, especially in recruiting -- it’s like your front porch. If you can’t get a person on your front porch, you can’t get him in your house."
Butler and Xavier left the Atlantic 10 to come aboard. The third newcomer, Creighton, arrives from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bluejays have been a perennial power in one of the most underrated conferences in America, but the Big East is a new and bigger challenge.
Fortunately for them, two-time first-team All-American forward Doug McDermott (23.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg last season) elected to return for his senior season. He was announced as the Big East Preseason Player of the Year on Wednesday, and showed off a strong knowledge of Big East history, referencing Kemba Walker's magical Big East tournament in 2011 and the Syracuse-UConn six-overtime game in 2009.
It turns out Creighton's move to the Big East was a big reason why he decided to play one more year of college ball. "This is a really historic time for our university," McDermott said. "Our school’s been looking to do this for a while, they’ve really wanted to make this jump. And to be one of the group of guys that made it happen, I think it’s really special."
Coach Greg McDermott, Doug's father, thinks his new conference rivals, and their fans, will be impressed by what Creighton brings to the table.
"We’re in a basketball town, we play in one of the best facilities in the country, and we have one of the top fan bases anywhere in college basketball," McDermott said. "As you look through the top 10 in attendance in the country and Creighton jumps out at No. 6, we’re the school that doesn’t look like we fit there. But once you come to our arena and see how passionate our fans are, what an understanding they have of the game of basketball, it’s really a special place."
The Big East season ends with a tournament at arguably the most special place in all of basketball, Madison Square Garden. The players and coaches from all three new schools gushed about the opportunity to play at the World's Most Famous Arena come March.
Creighton, picked to finish third, could certainly cut down the nets this season. Butler and Xavier might not be ready just yet.
But all three schools should give New Yorkers plenty of entertainment in the coming years.