Originally Published: October 17, 2012

A final stand for old Big East

By Dana O'Neil

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.

[+] Enlarge
Michael Okoniewwski for SU Athletic CommunicationsThe Carrier Dome, hallowed ground for the Big East, won't host any Big East games after Syracuse moves to the ACC.

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

By Dana O'Neil

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.

[+] Enlarge
Jim O'Connor/US PRESSWIREPitt coach Jamie Dixon thinks things will be much different for the Panthers this season, especially with a healthy Tray Woodall.

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.

Ollie, both Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright said, still yells but there is, Boatright admitted, "a whole lot less cussing."

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

By Dana O'Neil

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.

Check that.

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

By Kieran Darcy

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.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?