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October 21, 2010
A Conference in Transition
Big East Media Day Notebook

by Asher Fusco

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If Wednesday's 2010 Big East media day had a theme, it was uncertainty. The league replaced one-fourth of its coaches this offseason, lost a relatively large number of top players and, as a result, lacks a truly elite team.

Pittsburgh, one of the squads least ravaged by graduation, earned the top spot in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, and it's hard to argue with that assessment. Even so, Pitt and second-place pick Villanova aren't buoyed by the stars Big East fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Luke Harangody, Scottie Reynolds, Greg Monroe, Wes Johnson, Da'Sean Butler and others are gone, leaving the coming season to unearth the next wave of elite talents.

"The top has come down to the middle and the bottom has come up to the middle," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "Although it's easy to pick Villanova or Pittsburgh at the top, it's not like the past two years where you have a host of lottery picks at the top because it's the players that win. What you have is very good systems with Pittsburgh and Villanova."

Pitino has some hard figures to back up his assertion. According to Ken Pomeroy's calculations, the Big East returns fewer possessions than all but six conferences. The SEC and Big 12 are the only power conferences to bring back fewer contributors. Until that next wave of household names arrives, the Big East is a coaches' conference.

New Coaching Faces

Despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that Steve Lavin hasn't coached a college basketball game in seven years, the new head coach of St. John's was a big attraction at media day. Lavin has a unique opportunity in Queens even before his impressive 2011 recruiting class hits campus. This year's St. John's roster boasts 10 seniors. True, the class has neither made an NCAA Tournament nor finished better than 6-12 in a Big East campaign, but still: 10 seniors.

"We're just going to try to take the baton from Norm and continue the climb to try and move the program forward to a point where we can play in the postseason and have success in the postseason," Lavin said.

If Lavin can fix whatever Norm Roberts did to the Red Storm offense, the team could challenge for an NCAA bid or at least push .500 in the conference.

New Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard wasn't shy about distancing his program from the legacy of former Pirates' coach Bobby Gonzalez. He lamented the fact that "It's been tough to try to change what people think of when they first think of what Seton Hall basketball stands for."

Willard said the program's first step back toward success would be spending one or two years redeveloping a positive culture at the program to convince area high school coaches Seton Hall would be a good place to send players to develop on and off the court. Willard returns quite a bit of experience but said he was "looking long-term with this group." The Pirates play a tough slate of Temple, Cornell, Alabama, St. Peter's and either Iowa or Xavier in November.

Two bigger rebuilding jobs fall into the hands of new Rutgers coach Mike Rice and new DePaul coach Oliver Purnell. Though each has experienced success at different levels (Purnell in the ACC, Rice in the Northeast), the rebuilding processes at their new homes could take a while, considering the depths at which DePaul and Rutgers have languished for the past several seasons. Villanova coach Jay Wright, who nearly lost to Rice's Robert Morris team in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, said the style of Rutgers' new coach would fit the Big East well.

Villanova Goes Big

After riding guards Reynolds and Corey Fisher to back-to-back 13-victory Big East campaigns the past two years, Villanova is shifting its emphasis to the frontcourt this season in Reynolds' absence. Reynolds was consistently superb in his four-season, 136-start Villanova career, piling up some remarkable numbers on both a career and a per-possession basis. Without him, Fisher becomes the lead guard and the Wildcats become a little bigger. Villanova might replace Reynolds in the starting lineup with Maalik Wayns, a 6-2 sophomore who doesn't play a "big guard" sort of game. Longer guards such as Dominic Cheek (6-6), Corey Stokes (6-5) and Isaiah Armwood (6-7) should up their contributions in Reynolds' absence. Throw 6-7 freshman JayVaughn Pinkston into the mix with promising forward Mouphtaou Yarou and solid big Antonio Pena and the Wildcats aren't so little anymore.

"The core values always stay the same, but we can go inside more," Wright said of his team's size. "We can play a little bit more zone. We're bigger. We can do a lot of different things. We can post guys up."

One problem Villanova's small lineup (the Big East's 11th-biggest last season) posed was matching up one-on-one on defense against the conference's larger lineups. The Wildcats ended up near the middle of the pack in points allowed per possession but they could have fared much better if not for their tendency to commit loads of fouls (much more on this from John Gasaway is coming in the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 book). The problem wasn't just Villanova's big men, although Pena, Yarou and now-departed Taylor King did their fair share of hacking. Guards Wayns and Fisher each fouled too often, perhaps a side effect of playing alongside another small guard in Reynolds. Wright said a little more size could help the Wildcats avoid fouls.

"You don't have to trap as much, you don't have to open up the floor as much," he explained. "When you're playing aggressively, some officials misinterpret being aggressive as fouling. (With size) you don't have to be as aggressive in the open floor."

Moving in Opposite Directions

Jim Calhoun, coach of the Big East's reigning 11th-place squad, drew substantially more media attention than did Jamie Dixon, coach of the league's preseason favorite. That wasn't completely surprising given the interesting off-season Calhoun and his program have had, but it's apparent Connecticut and Pittsburgh could diverge even further in the coming season.

Calhoun's team, which he referred to as "the most unknown team in the league," earned 11th place in the Big East preseason media poll, a ranking Calhoun said he understood.

"If we were twelfth, it would've been OK. I won't tell my players that, certainly because we are Connecticut and we have won a couple games," Calhoun said. "But right now, the folks beyond Kemba (Walker) and certainly Donnell Beverly and without question Alex (Oriakhi), you don't know and nor would I expect you to know."

The group of freshmen and less-experienced veterans behind Walker, Beverly and Oriakhi is heavy on freshmen, including three Calhoun mentioned as having the potential to make immediate impacts. Guard Shabazz Napier, along with wings Roscoe Smith and Niels Giffey each earned praise from their coach. Meanwhile, Pitt returns four starters from a team that finished 13-5 in the Big East last season after losing three stellar players. Pitt, one of the conference's shortest teams, still managed to limit opponents' open looks and haul in a fair number of rebounds. Dixon pointed to senior post Gary McGhee as a big reason for that and touted him as one of the conference's best defenders.

"We want Gary to be the best defensive center in the conference," Dixon said. "I think the word is getting out on him and I how good he is defensively and how important he can be."

In addition to McGhee, the Panthers bring back breakout guard Ashton Gibbs, distributor Brad Wanamaker and versatile forward Nasir Robinson.

On Conference Realignment

Despite the fact most of the conference realignment talk (and actual conference realignment) this past offseason came from the Midwest and West, the topic still wove its way into conversations at Big East media day. Louisville's Pitino raised an interesting point when asked about the possibility of the league losing or gaining teams.

"We're one of the few conferences, if not the only conference probably, that doesn't make decisions based on college football," Pitino said. "We make it more on the total package."

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the current 16-team Big East came into existence because of the machinations of college football, Pitino's point is valid. Basketball holds relatively little cachet in a league like the Big 12, despite its reputation for fielding elite teams. The Big East is different in that its status as a 16-team basketball powerhouse is worth as much, if not more, than its status as a BCS football conference. If the Big East changed format because of football, it would be expanding, not contracting--although that wouldn't be great either, according to the Louisville coach.

"We're all hoping Villanova makes the decision to play football so we don't have to expand at all," Pitino said.

The brand-name value of Big East basketball could ensure the conference avoids falling victim to poaching from other leagues. Villanova's Wright said he was confident in the value of the league's brand and that of his own program, despite the threat of conference realignment.

"You're always concerned about it because you hear it," Wright said. "But once basketball season starts, you're in Madison Square Garden, you're looking at this media attention and you're thinking about all these schools playing basketball against each other and then you think, 'Who would ever do anything to break this up?' This is so special."

News and Notes

Memphis transfer Roburt Sallie will not play at Louisville this season. According to Pitino, Sallie "didn't make it academically" by failing to graduate from Memphis ... Pitino heaped the following movie trailer-worthy praise on his program's new home, the KFC Yum! Center: "mind-boggling," "unbelievable," "the best of everything," "the finest arena that's ever been built, pro or college." ... Lavin credited former St. John's coach Roberts for leaving him with a roster full of players "earnest and eager to learn as a group." ... Seton Hall will play mostly man-to-man defense with some 2-3 and 3-2 zone schemes mixed in to keep its starters fresh, according to Willard. ... Notre Dame coach Mike Brey noted that his Fighting Irish squad might have fewer players that fit into the mold of specific positions like forward Harangody, point guard Tory Jackson and shooting guard Ben Hansbrough did. ... Calhoun jested after arriving late for the proceedings: "I want to apologize for being late. I know in Jim Furyk's case they disbarred him from the tournament. I asked could I be disbarred from doing this and not play in the tournament ... unfortunately they said I still had to play. So here I am."

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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