This season fully 25 percent of the Big East's head coaches are new to their positions. In the offseason four of the conference's programs decided to pull the trigger and bring in new talent:
1. DePaul hired Oliver Purnell away from Clemson.
2. Rutgers tapped Robert Morris coach Mike Rice as their new man.
3. St. John's lured former UCLA coach Steve Lavin away from his duties as an ESPN analyst.
4. Seton Hall Hall brought in Iona head coach Kevin Willard.
In the parlance of "Poll Position," these teams want to get into the polls for a change. You don't need me to tell you that these programs have all faced difficult times recently, of course, but if anything the task facing these four new head coaches is even more daunting than it first appears.
Each program is in close geographic proximity to a tremendous pool of recruits -- either New York City or Chicago -- and so it's widely assumed that a Big East team with that natural advantage "should" be good. But it bears repeating at the outset that these four programs have all been located where they are for a long time now, and to date it hasn't done them much good.
None of these teams has been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 -- in fact Rutgers hasn't been to the tournament since 1991 and hasn't won a game there since 1983. Since Seton Hall reached the Sweet 16 under Tommy Amaker in 2000, the Pirates, Blue Demons, and Red Storm have gone a combined 3-6 in tournament play. And in Big East action the past three seasons, our feckless four has posted a 57-159 record. If these programs "should" be good, they sure haven't shown it lately.
Then again dramatic turnarounds do happen. Look at Baylor. If Scott Drew can make that happen in Waco, Texas, of all places, what are the chances that any or all of these rookie Big East coaches can pull off a similar miracle? Let's take a look at each situation.
The Blue Demons are a Mike Stovall jumper away from not having won a Big East regular season game in two full seasons. Stovall's game-winning shot in the final seconds against Marquette last January 20 gave DePaul the "1" in its 1-17 conference record, following a 0-18 campaign in 2009. The good news is there's no Big East bylaw that says this program has to be bad. As recently as 2007 DePaul went 9-7 in conference play. To reach that level of respectability once again, Purnell will want to start with the offense. The Blue Demons weren't world-beaters on either side of the ball last year, of course, but it was the offense that was truly extreme, posting the Big East's lowest number for points per possession (0.97). Add to that the fact that the main problem on offense was an inability to make twos (the Blue Demons made just 44 percent of their attempts inside the arc against the Big East) and hopes for an instant turnaround are likely to go unanswered. As indicated by his team's five-point loss at home to a young Western Carolina team Tuesday night, it's going to take Purnell a while to fix what's broken at DePaul. In the very early going the new coach appears to be running his offense through his backcourt, where junior Jeremiah Kelly and freshman Brandon Young have thus far taken the bulk of the shots.
Like DePaul, Rutgers presents a case where sheer manpower is the most important and telling statistical category. New coach Mike Rice has just five scholarship players available, and this season he figures to ride with a big three (if you will) of Dane Miller, Jonathan Mitchell, and Mike Coburn. The good news is that Rice has already been busy on the recruiting trail, landing high-profile prospects for next year like Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears. Before that help arrives, however, the Scarlet Knights will continue to struggle. So far this year they've lost in OT at Princeton and won easily at home against Fairfield. The prospect of an already thin Rutgers roster facing its toughest competition late in the season is not a pretty one.
The Red Storm lost by five on the road to a young Saint Mary's team early Tuesday morning (or late Monday night Moraga time), but compared to the likes of DePaul and Rutgers Steve Lavin's new team is a swaggering behemoth. You can't swing a cat in the SJU locker room without knocking over five seniors. Even with all this experience coming back the St. John's administration made the decision to dismiss former coach Norm Roberts, on the stated grounds that recruiting the next generation to replace all those seniors was a job best entrusted to a yet-to-be-named new guy. Certainly Lavin has already proven himself equal to that task, putting together a 2011 recruiting class that ESPN has ranked as No. 3 in the nation. The question in the here and now is how good can the present senior-heavy edition of the Red Storm be? I say "pretty good," and, if someone besides D.J. Kennedy can start knocking down some shots, maybe even just plain "good."
In this group of four rather downtrodden teams the Pirates constitute something of a dynasty. After all, for much of last season there was a real possibility that the Hall could make the NCAA tournament -- something teams like Rutgers and DePaul could only dream of. And so we find that where our other three Big East programs dismissed their former coaches more or less for a simple lack of winning, the decision at SHU was a little more complex. Ex-coach Bobby Gonzalez compiled a borderline respectable 23-31 record in Big East play over the past three seasons, but his abrasive style won him few friends in the upper reaches of the Seton Hall administration. Enter the much more soothing and serene new guy, Kevin Willard, a former Louisville assistant fresh from a three-year stint at Iona. On paper Willard has a pretty good inside-outside combo in Herb Pope and Jeremy Hazell. That's also a combo of seniors -- and Eniel Polynice, Keon Lawrence, and Jamel Jackson are all also in their final seasons. Where the Big East's other rookie coaches are clearly building for the future, Willard could well do better in his first season than in his second. Not exactly "the future is now," but SHU's new coach may want to carpe diem. If that's possible in Newark.
John praises the Scooby-Doo where the gang visits Newark, Newark! casino on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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