A final stand for old Big East
NEW YORK -- On its website, the New York Athletic Club boasts of its unique history, with a "founding premise to bring structure to a sporting environment that was lacking in organization and a uniformity of measurement."
Ah, how New Yorkers love their irony.
On Wednesday, the Big East Conference's member schools, once as staid and predictable as the club that hosted its annual media day, walked through the opulent doors, a poster child for lack of structure, organization and uniformity of measurement.
The commissioner, Mike Aresco, is new; the television contract is unfinished; and by this time next year, the entire room will have a different look, with the upstate New York/western Pennsylvania contingent replaced by the Houston/Dallas group.
This, in fact, was the last stand for the old Big East. By this time next season, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be gone. So too, perhaps, will be Notre Dame, if the Irish negotiate a similar early exit fee. Memphis, Temple, Central Florida, Houston and SMU will be in. Out with one Hall of Fame coach (Jim Boeheim) and in with another (Larry Brown).
The coaches, like the commissioner, sounded the same corporate line: Change, though inevitable, isn't necessarily bad; the league has a history of bolstering up newcomers by opening up new recruiting avenues (though USF and DePaul might want to add the qualifier "eventually"); and the brand of the league remains strong and relevant regardless of its membership.
But beneath all of that confidence and all those assurances there also was a sort of undercurrent of curiosity and maybe even a hint of nostalgia.
"As a 40-year-old coach I revered all the coaches in this league,'' said Buzz Williams. "Bob Huggins, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim helped make this league what it is. Can it be the same without them? I don't know. It doesn't mean it can't. It means I don't know.''
Huggins and Calhoun, of course, already are gone -- the former to the Big 12, the latter to retirement. Boeheim exits to the ACC in a year.
Boeheim takes with him a fan base and a building that has come to represent the beast of the Big East, and potentially one of the game's greatest rivalries, against Georgetown. The less-than-sentimental Boeheim wouldn't take the bait when asked to comment on his team's increasingly imminent departure, though he did insist he wouldn't cut ties with the league's teams altogether.
"We will continue to play teams in this league,'' he said. "I don't know who but more than one.''
Whether one of those teams is Georgetown remains to be seen.
John Thompson III grew up in this league quite literally, watching his father grow the Hoyas into national prominence before rebuilding Georgetown himself.
"I don't think my dad would be surprised, honestly,'' Thompson said. "Ever since this league started 34 years ago, it's been changing and evolving. The game against Syracuse is special to us. That changes us, but I'm not sure it changes everyone else.''
The last -- or latest -- head coach to be readying for departure is a little less nonchalant. Mike Brey started his career alongside Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. So in a lot of ways, the Fighting Irish's move to the ACC is going home.
Except Brey also has spent the past 12 years in the Big East, going from a young, wide-eyed coach to the league's longest-tenured coach after Calhoun's retirement.
He recognizes the move to the ACC as a legitimate basketball move, but he isn't necessarily giddily packing his bags.
"I've had mixed emotions,'' Brey said. "I grew up in the ACC, so this is going back home but I also came up as a coach in this league. This is home and I'm going to miss it.''
Of course teams relocate and people move on. Change, as DePaul's Oliver Purnell noted, is the one constant we can count on.
Twenty-three years ago, the NYAC grudgingly agreed to admit women for the first time. At the time, members fretted.
"The feeling when women were first admitted was, 'What's going to happen?'" Ray Glynn told The New York Times.
The building is still there.
Things changed and yet everything continued.
A new voice (and language) at UConn
NEW YORK -- The first sign that things were different: no reporters standing on chairs or bunching five deep with ears pressed on the back of the person in front of them to collect the homespun pearls of wisdom that were preached, at times bombastically.
The second: This guy could say his R's. No one pahking the cah.
For the entirety of his UConn career, Jim Calhoun was equal parts coach and equal parts attraction, a sideshow, especially at media day, when people literally climbed on chairs to hear what he had to say.
His longevity, coupled with his Hall of Fame credentials, wove into a style and language of filibustering all his own. It made him both a good and entertaining authority on just about anything in college basketball.
Kevin Ollie attracted a steady crowd, if not a Calhounesque throng, in his first official media carnival in New York, coming off relaxed, comfortable and calm amid the mayhem.
That, in and of itself, was a huge accomplishment.
Once a stable bedrock in Storrs, UConn in the past year has been hit by APR sanctions that have rendered the Huskies ineligible for the postseason, watched three players transfer and two more declare for the draft, and then endured the expected yet still surprising retirement of Calhoun.
And Ollie's been given a one-year contract to try to muddle through this mess.
Yet the rookie head coach had a "What, me worry?" attitude that, if it's just bluster, was sold with some serious acting chops. He is aware of his team's limitations, keenly aware of his own contractual limitations and acutely aware that no one expects much out of this UConn team (the Huskies were picked ninth in the preseason poll) and he's fine with all of it.
"I put that jersey on, I graduated from this university,'' Ollie said. "We are held to a standard because of that. That's everyone, including me, and I don't think that standard has changed.''
As he spoke, Ollie apologized for a hoarse voice, courtesy, he said, of yelling in practice. Of course, no one could dress a player down quite like Calhoun, whose combo platter of back-turned indifference to blistering rage could wither even the toughest player.
But it's not just the voice that's changed. It's the presence. Calhoun was exactly that, a presence, and even though his retirement was rumored for months, the finality of it hit everyone hard. Napier said he sat quietly in his room, alone, for hours, just trying to process what it would mean for him and what it meant to him.
"It just hit me like a rock,'' he said. "He was so important to me and I was scared. I didn't know what to do but he got me out of it. We had a meeting and he let me explain how I felt and that helped me so much.''
That Ollie is both a former player and assistant to Calhoun helps tremendously. He is, as Mick Cronin said, the exact right choice because what he might lack in credentials he offers in stability. It's a comfort zone Cronin himself didn't have when he took over at Cincinnati after Bob Huggins left.
"Stability is so important,'' Cronin said. "It just makes everything easier.''
Easy isn't exactly the adjective of choice right now for UConn. Ollie is Sisyphus with a basketball, and with just one calendar year to prove he can get the boulder to the summit.
"I worry about what I can control,'' he said. "If it were up to me, I'd have a contract for life, but it's not up to me. All I can do is go out there and show that I welcome the responsibility of running this team, which I do, and how important this team and this program is to me. If I do that, then I prove that I deserve a longer deal. If I don't, well then I probably didn't deserve it.''
Pitt, Villanova put woeful seasons behind them
NEW YORK -- It didn't make sense. Villanova had players, good players, highly recruited, once highly desired players. That was the hardest part to understand.
And the Wildcats were bad.
They were terrible, spiraling to a 5-13 finish in the league, and a 13-19 free-for-all overall. Not since Jay Wright first came to the Main Line 11 years earlier had Villanova gone through such lean times.
Up the Turnpike, the picture wasn't much prettier; Pittsburgh finished 22-17 overall but matched Villanova in the Big East standings at 5-13, completing the sandwich of the East-West Pennsylvania Putridity.
The Panthers at least had an excuse -- point guard Tray Woodall was injured, missed 11 games and even when he came back, wasn't quite right.
Still, the uncharacteristically horrific seasons for both schools led to a lot of thinking, fretting and ultimately some soul-searching in each corner of the Keystone State.
Wright admits that there were more than basketball problems at play last season, repeatedly mentioning that his team and staff needed to recognize a need to recommit to their "core values."
When pressed exactly what those were, he said, "To play intelligent basketball, unselfish basketball and most important to play for the name on the front of the jersey and not worry whose name is on the back.''
That's certainly a not-so-veiled reference to the apparent chemistry problems that plagued the Wildcats a season ago. While critics might be quick to point the finger at the now departed Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns, Wright said he blames himself and spent this offseason with as much introspection as he has in years.
"I think you get so caught up in getting guys to come [to Villanova] and then when things start going well, it's easy because everyone wants to come,'' he said. "But then you stop doing your research. You stop asking, 'Why do they want to come?' That matters even more and we stopped asking that. Guys want to come because you're winning, but do they understand why we're winning. Have we explained that to them and I don't think we did a good job of that last year.''
Pitt hopes things are a little less complicated now that Woodall is back. The Panthers didn't really have a true backup point guard, forcing Ashton Gibbs to handle the role, which took him out of his scoring comfort zone.
"Look at what happened to the Chicago Bulls last year,'' Dixon said. "They lose Derrick Rose and all of a sudden they're losing a 1-8 seed series. Or North Carolina [after losing Kendall Marshall]. I thought they were the best team in the country and then everything changed. It all depends on if you have a guy in place and when you don't, it changes everything.''
Regardless of the approach, both sides of the state agree that nothing good will come from worrying about last year. While everyone else will be anxious to see if it was just a one-year funk or a more lingering problem, both teams have no intention of even thinking about last season's performances for a minute.
"You just have to put it away,'' Pitt's Dante Taylor said. "It's over.''
Mouphtaou Yarou echoed his cross-state rival's sentiments: "This season is a new journey. It's a new chance. We don't have time to worry about last year.''
Lavin returns, cancer-free and energetic as ever
The Steve Lavin comeback tour continued Wednesday, as the St. John's coach worked the room at Big East media day at the New York Athletic Club.
Lavin was absent from this event one year ago, after undergoing surgery to treat prostate cancer just two weeks before.
"Cancer-free, and feel 100 percent better than I did at this time last year," Lavin said Wednesday. "And probably 75 percent, in terms of where I'd like to be in terms of stamina. But that's natural -- that's a normal [amount] for this stage. It's pretty common."
Lavin missed almost all of last season -- returning for four games in November, but then stepping away again for the duration, feeling he had come back too soon.
The coach reflected on that decision Wednesday. "I wasn't gonna be able to coach the team, fully recuperate, and sign eight players," Lavin said. "So we chose two of the three that we felt would [best] move the program forward -- which was to fully recuperate and focus on my health, and then to focus on a strong recruiting class."
To read the rest of Kieran Darcy's story, click here.
Preseason Coaches' Poll
3. Notre Dame
10. St. John's
14. Seton Hall
Syracuse's Brandon Triche
Preseason All-Big East
Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick
One good thing
Cincinnati: "Our team is so much deeper this year and our big guys, they can do things that Yancy [Gates] couldn't do as well -- block shots, defense. But what they can't do, or they haven't had to do yet, is make that pressure shot in the last two minutes of the game. But this team is deeper, it's faster and we've got great, great guards.'' --Mick Cronin
Connecticut: "I think it's like how people can look at the same wall and see things differently. I don't look at this team and see instability. I see the same coaching staff, except for Coach Calhoun, the same president, an athletic director committed to basketball and players who are here because they want to be here. I don't see things the same as everyone else.'' -- Kevin Ollie
DePaul: "I think this is the year. I hope so. We were a little disappointed that it wasn't last season because we really thought we were turning the corner, but we had some injuries and that always makes it tough. Now we've got all those guys back and I'd be really surprised if it didn't happen for us this year.'' -- Oliver Purnell
Georgetown: "I'm not sure [if we're ranked properly], to be honest. The group we have here, we have to grow. But if we grow the way I think most people anticipate us growing, when it's all said and done I think we could be one of the better teams in this conference.'' -- John Thompson III
Louisville: "It's kind of a blessing and a curse [being picked to win the league]. You always want to be that team but then again, you have a bull's-eye. We just have to know that we can't go out expecting to win games because of our name, because of what we did last year.'' -- Peyton Siva
Marquette:: "I don't think you do replace those two guys. Jae Crowder was the Big East Player of the Year and Darius Johnson-Odom led the league in scoring. I don't even know if that's ever happened before with two different guys. It's going to be on all of us to replace them.'' -- Buzz Williams
Notre Dame: "Last year it couldn't have been much tougher, losing your best player [Tim Abromaitis], but I think we learned how to handle adversity and now we're better for it. It's maturity.'' -- Jack Cooley
Pittsburgh: "Last year? We've got to put it away. We can't dwell on it. It's out of control and there's no need to spend time worrying about things you can't control. We've moved on.'' -- Tray Woodall
Providence: "We've got seven who can play right now. That's the situation we have and while it's not ideal, I'm the most optimistic guy in the world because I don't see that. I really don't.'' -- Ed Cooley
Rutgers: "We're building. What wins in this league are pros and veterans and experienced players. We're getting to be where we have some experience, and we're getting to be where we have some talent. We've won some recruiting wars. Again, the next step is moving up the ladder, so to speak, in the win/loss column." -- Mike Rice
Seton Hall: "You lose two seniors, and you have a very young team, in this conference, you're gonna be picked down low [at No. 14]. It doesn't really mean anything." -- Kevin Willard
St. John's: "Every year our goal is to make the NCAA tournament. And that's the way it should be at St. John's. We're in New York City, we get to play at Madison Square Garden, and we have the resources to move our program forward." -- Steve Lavin
Syracuse: "It's difficult [to sustain success] because you have to have the players, the right players, you have to keep them happy and hope when their time comes, like it did for Scoop [Jardine] and Kris [Joseph] last year, they're ready.'' -- Jim Boehiem
USF: "We're going to have a different style than last year. Last season everything we did went through the post because we had such a great frontcourt. This year you're going to see more dribble penetration, more attacking guards. I like that. It's fun for me. I've been watching other teams, teams like Missouri that had to go small, and figuring out different ways to do things. It's a new energy.'' -- Stan Heath
Villanova: "I'm probably not as curious about my team because I've had a few weeks with them but I think I'm as excited as everyone else is curious. I like this group and I like the way we've recommitted to our core values as a team.'' -- Jay Wright
UConn's Shabazz Napier
Big East Preview Content
For a Blue Ribbon breakdown of all 15 Big East teams, click here.
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--Matt Fortuna profiles Jack Cooley's rapid rise at Notre Dame
--Adam Finkelstein ranks the Big East's top freshmen