Change Is Gonna … Change Is Finally Here!
For Big East Basketball, the past few years have solidified a caste system of basketball, a list of regular haves and have-nots.
The narrative, summed into bullet points:
- Rutgers is hopeless.
- St. John’s has seen its best days of basketball.
- Perhaps DePaul should move to a lower league.
- Providence is too small to compete.
- Seton Hall suffers from the same size problem.
- South Florida is in the Big East for football, mainly.
- The top of the league is too hard to break into for the little guys, especially without football money.
But this offseason has seen a number of these schools make changes to try toward respectability. Providence made a change two years ago. South Florida showed some life this year. The three New York area schools made changes around the same time (again). Is this the beginning of a change in the heirarchy Big East? Is 2010 the year of the big shake up?
It seems daunting. Scoffable. The last ten years have seemed static. The Big East has at least 4 coaches who are in or will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and a number of other coaches who have enjoyed great and constant success. The teams at the bottom and the middle have a huge leap to make in terms of game coaching and recruiting.
But also consider that DePaul made the NCAA tournament with Dave Leitao in 2004.
Louis Orr made the tournament with Seton Hall in 2004 and 2006.
The Providence Friars made the tournament in 2001 and 2004.
St. John’s went in 2002. Obviously, this is an indictment of the lower half of the league’s general lack of success, but it’s also evidence that good coaching and solid players can get a team into the tournament. And in the 1990s, West Virginia wasn't worth a damn, Villanova was mediocre, and Pittsburgh was struggling to stay relevant in basketball.
The coaches in the league are better than they were a few months ago. Bobby Gonzalez’ risk taking in his roster and volatile personality didn’t come together for wins - and ignoring defense sure didn't help. Norm Roberts and Fred Hill had real trouble coaching consistently competent offenses (and good defenses), especially in conference play; both had player retention/ continuity problems as well. Jerry Wainwright was a truly terrible recruiter, along with an inability to coach his team to stop anyone on defense in conference play (take a look at the conference defense in his last 3 years - teams put up silly numbers against the Blue Demons).
In many ways, these coaches did not show the ability to build a contender in the Big East. With the exception of St. John's, they made their predecessors look pretty good. And so the schools made changes:
Oliver Purnell likes rebuilding jobs, and this sure is a rebuilding job. DePaul cannot be as bad and uncompetitive as the Blue Demons were the last two years. While his style might wear players down by the end of the year, it can also produce surprise wins, and is exciting for players to play. He doesn’t need top talent to compete, but Purnell is an experienced recruiter who coaches a fast-paced, defensive-minded brand of ball.
Of course, with so little Big East talent on the roster, he needs to make some recruiting inroads. But once he starts snagging mid-level or top Chicago-area players, that might affect the ability of schools like Marquette, Big Ten teams, and perhaps Notre Dame, who both recruit Chicagoland. Purnell will be a breath of fresh air.
Steve Lavin comes to New York with many years away from the game after his UCLA years. Other fans may scoff, but his results at UCLA were solid. He is already talking to recruits at a higher level than the Red Storm have seen in years, and he has positive head coaching experience, not to mention a list of players he has sent to the NBA. People forget that even 8 years ago, St. John’s was competitive in the Big East, and was a recruiting destination for top-100 players.
Lavin is looking to bring in athletes from all over, including the New York metropolitan area, where many other Big East schools have their recruiting hooks deeply embedded. If St. John’s can be relevant again, they can snag players that would have gone to West Virginia, Louisville, Villanova, and Pittsburgh. He'll have a lot to live up to in relating with the media. Norm Roberts built a reputation as a classy guy that the media and coaches rooted for, even if that didn't help bring in the players to get him over the top. But competing for coveted recruits will be a real positive change.
Kevin Willard is a former Rick Pitino assistant, working in both the pros and at Louisville. And his father is a longtime coach at Holy Cross and Pittsburgh. So the new Seton Hall coach certainly knows a little about high-level basketball and the Big East. And he has orchestrated an impressive advance in Iona basketball from a 2 win season to a 21 win season. He knows the area, knows how to build a program, and has built connections to some of the better programs in the area.
Seton Hall has an opportunity to share or even dominate the New Jersey recruiting area, with some of the top players in the country who routinely go to Villanova, Pittsburgh, Duke, and West Virginia. Willard's turnaround of Iona and his scouting experience will help the Pirates fill the talent gap when they can't get all the NJ talent they might like.
Mike Rice makes a big leap from the Northeast Conference to coach at Rutgers. But he’s well-connected from the Hoop Group camps, has had gaudy win totals (and very good defenses) at Robert Morris, and has the approval of the top coaches in New Jersey, the Hurleys. He had a nice game in the NCAA Tournament, matching wits with Villanova’s Jay Wright.
He will need to get into the recruiting game, and soon; his current team seems to have Dane Miller, James Beatty, Mike Coburn, Jonathan Mitchell, some bigs who languished on the bench, some freshmen, and not much else. The Scarlet Knights don't seem to have anyone who can create shots. But if Rice can get some impact players to camp like Fred Hill did, he’s guaranteed to win more with them than Hill did. Former coach Hill made a pair of top-50 players look like raw, scattershot players. That's hard to do; it takes a measure of anti-talent.
Meanwhile, despite recent roster troubles, Providence does have some impact players coming to campus to play with some decent returnees. And South Florida had a decent season last year, and brings in some junior college transfers to help Anthony Crater and Gus Gilchrist replace Dominique Jones.
Fans love to think of basketball in a state of suspended animation. The team that was good 10 years ago will never be good again. The team that is on top now will only be challenged by the current rivals. But that's not so, not exactly. There are blue bloods in the sport who have periods of hard times, up and comers who suddenly remain relevant for years. It happens all around the country, and it can happen in the Big East
I’m not saying the "hopey-changey stuff" is coming next year, that the league will become topsy-turvy. But the Big East is coming closer to parity every year, with hungry coaches who want to win and change the culture of the schools they have recently taken the helm of. The league can’t remain static; if a few recruits play at different schools, or if the upper-level schools fall off in their recruiting, a couple of teams can leap up and bite them in the tail.
I am excited to see where the changes take Big East basketball fans. Shake it up, coaches, shake it up.