Feisty Calhoun Not About To Back Down
NEW YORK -- Anyone expecting Jim Calhoun to turn contrite and passive after his meeting with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions clearly hasn't met the man.
Less than a week after he went to Indianapolis for a hearing regarding major infractions within his basketball program, Calhoun took center stage at Wednesday's Big East media day at Madison Square Garden. The throng around Calhoun -- always enhanced by the Connecticut horde of media that follows him faithfully -- grew so big that he relocated from his table to the one reserved for West Virginia in the next session.
And Calhoun, feisty by nature and fearless by Boston genetic design, didn't disappoint.
"People who know me tell me the worst thing you can do is come after me,'' he said. "I'm much better coming out of a corner than when I'm on a pedestal.''
Because of a gag order imposed by the NCAA, Calhoun couldn't talk specifically about his hearing. But suffice it to say, he is not backing down on his assertion that he should not be penalized for what's happened to his program.
In its notice of allegations, the NCAA said Calhoun failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Both Calhoun and Connecticut have fought that charge vigorously.
"I know who I am and I know what I've done in college athletics and in my life,'' he said. "And I know how I've conducted my business.''
In a strange way, the NCAA's perceived attack has invigorated the 68-year-old coach. Those who know him well -- and more, have experienced his old-school ways of teaching -- thought the scrappy Calhoun wasn't himself last season.
"I don't think he had the same fire last year, the same intensity level,'' UConn point guard Kemba Walker said. "Last year he let little things slide, and that wasn't good for us.''
It would be easy to cite his health as the culprit (Calhoun missed seven games last season with an undisclosed illness), but the problem wasn't physical. It was mental.
Calhoun was exasperated. He figured with a team anchored by three seniors who had tasted both the Final Four and 17-14, he wouldn't need as much fire and brimstone.
Instead, he found a veteran team that confounded him more than any other he's coached. He pushed; they folded. He gave them an inch, they lazed for 10 miles to the tune of an 18-16 finish.
Now Calhoun is back in his comfort zone. The scrapper is an underdog. He has the ultimate foe in the institutional Goliath sitting in Indy and a roster that needs his tough love. The Huskies have just two returning starters and five freshmen that figure to see considerable minutes.
"I made an assumption with last year's team and I was wrong,'' Calhoun said. "Now we don't let anything go, not even the small things. If you want a drink of water while the other guys are in a full-court drill, you're not getting one. It's not going to be, 'Godd--- it, get out.' It's going to be, 'Stay in there and get it right.' There's going to be a commitment to everything we do.''
And oh by the way, the Huskies were picked 10th in the preseason poll.
Which is exactly how their coach likes it.
West Virginia Moving On From Banner Season
"Let's just get it over with,'' Huggins said.
Well, yes, but also vintage Hugs with a valid point.
The Mountaineers run to the Big East tournament title and national semifinal, fueled by heart-stopping finishes and heartbreaking endings (the image of Huggins consoling Da'Sean Butler still remains one of the most purely emotional I've ever seen in a game) was unforgettable.
And it's over.
Huggins, he of the treadmill of terror, isn't the sort of coach who would let his players rest on their laurels.
"Uh, no,'' WVU junior Kevin Jones said simply.
But the coach has been pleasantly surprised in the early part of practice. He's not the one issuing the sharp reminders.
"Our first practice wasn't very good,'' Huggins said. "And I was going to say something and before I could, Kevin Jones, who I didn't think could speak the first year and a half he was here, called everyone together and told them, 'Don't come in here just trying to get through the day. Come in ready to get better.'''
That was the mantra that Butler preached last season: Don't waste a day. That it is Jones who has picked up the message is every bit as important as the message itself. The junior finished second in scoring for the Mountaineers last season, but was an agreeable co-star to Butler and Devin Ebanks.
Joe Mazzulla has both the position (point guard) and the temperament (unfiltered and aggressive) to take the emotional lead of the Eers, but it is Jones who has to take the lead on the court. At 6-foot-8, he has both the ability to shoot the 3 (he knocked down 40 percent last season) and rebound with authority.
"We know if we want to get back to the Final Four, someone has to take over for Da'Sean,'' Jones said "Not just off the court but on the court. Last year was great, but it's done. It's time for us to start over.''
Rutgers Takes It Out On The Punching Bag
NEW YORK -- A punching bag hangs inside the Rutgers' locker room. It's covered with words.
"Nasty, mean-spirited things that you guys in the media say about us,'' Mike Rice explained.
A year ago Rice spent a season convincing his Robert Morris team that it belonged, that the Colonials were just as good as anyone else in the country. The evidence of the buy-in came during the NCAA tournament when Robert Morris scared the living daylights out of Villanova before losing 73-70 in the first round.
Fast-forward to this season and Rice is in charge of a Rutgers team that has chronically been told it doesn't belong, that it's not good enough. This time, Rice wants his team wallowing in the negativity.
So much so, in fact, that when the Big East preseason coaches' poll came out, Rice was ticked.
His Scarlet Knights were picked 15th.
He was hoping for last.
"I've been telling them all along how no one respects you,'' Rice said. "I wanted to be able to say, 'Not even the coaches in our league respect us.''
Rice, who speaks a mile a minute, is intense and passionate and unapologetic about both. He expects his team to be the same.
He's injected that passion into the recruiting trails, where Rice has made inroads not seen at Rutgers in years, building a bright future for a program that has long looked dim. The 2011 class is already in the top 15 in our ESPN recruiting rankings.
But Rice, of course, doesn't want his players to view all that positive news necessarily as a good thing. He wants them to twist it, to interpret it as people paying attention to next season and already writing off this one.
The twisted approach so far is ringing as true with the Scarlet Knights as the inspirational method worked at Robert Morris. The charge that Rutgers was too soft ranked atop the myriad of charges lobbed at the Knights last season and the players are welcoming a little fire.
"We punch the bag when we feel like it, when we feel like people are down on us,'' senior Mike Coburn said. "A little anger isn't a bad thing.''
Orange You The Leader Now?
Boeheim merely smirked and reminded everyone that he'd been saying all along how good his Iowa State transfer was going to be.
So what's the mad scientist of central New York going to foist on the unsuspecting masses this season?
Who is the mystery man?
"It's Kris,'' SU point guard Scoop Jardine said, referring to his teammate Kris Joseph. "People have seen what Kris can do in flashes, but now they're going to get it for the full 40 minutes.''
Joseph isn't an entirely unknown commodity. He earned the conference's sixth man award last season, giving the Orange a huge spark off the bench with his 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.
But there's no denying that Johnson was the star and earned much of the defense's attention, allowing Joseph more freedom to move.
So the mystery isn't Joseph, per se, but how will he handle going from sixth man to the man?
"No question, a lot of the shots that he got were shots that were available because of Wes and Andy Rautins,'' Boeheim said. "That's not going to be the case now, but he's ready.''
Actually, Joseph is more than ready. He and Jardine relished their roles off the bench last season, reworking the glory that typically is afforded the starters to suit their needs.
"We always said, you don't have to start the game to finish the game,'' Joseph said.
But he admits that he looks forward to hearing his name called (though he was quick to add that he doesn't care who the starters are, which may be because his coach sat just two chairs away) and that the idea of filling Johnson's shoes inspires, rather than intimidates him.
"You know growing up, everybody dreams about hearing their name called on that national stage, on Big Monday, whatever,'' Joseph said. "I know people are going to key on me, but that's been happening since high school. You just have to find a way to score."
Georgetown Guards Will Lead The Way
NEW YORK -- John Thompson III played for Pete Carril. He coached with Pete Carril. And Pete Carril predicated his offense around the center.
Which puts Thompson in an interesting quandary. He doesn't really have one center to build around anymore now that Greg Monroe has moved on to the NBA.
So will Thompson scrap the Princeton offense that has been his bible?
"I don't think we'll reinvent the wheel,'' he said. "We'll make adjustments and a tweak here and there, but that's it.''
And why not?
Thompson may not have the dominant big man that has been part of the Georgetown legacy, but he does have plenty to work with. Austin Freeman, the preseason player of the year in the conference, Chris Wright and Jason Clark make up a backcourt trio that is as talented as any in the guard-centric Big East.
Together, the trio averaged more than 41 points per game last season, allowing the Hoyas to play a far speedier version of Carril's masterpiece.
Expect more of the same this season.
"We'll play the way we always play,'' Wright said. "But maybe pressure more defensively, try to get out for more transition buckets.''
That Georgetown will switch its strengths is no secret -- "Everyone in this room knows how well we do will begin and end with these guys,'' Thompson said, referring to Wright and Freeman, who flanked him at the table in New York -- but how well those strengths shine remains the question.
The trio certainly was able to put up impressive numbers last season, but that was in part due to the attention paid Monroe and his abilities as a deft passer.
Now it will be up to the guards to create for themselves, while everyone is watching.
"This is a chance for Austin, Jason and myself to really showcase our abilities and have fun with it,'' Wright said. "We have a lot of responsibilities on our shoulders, but we're also very capable of making big plays. We just need to go out there and have fun with it."
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon
Big East Quotable
Cincinnati: "Once you get to year three, there's pressure. That's the reality of this job. In this league, you come in with all of these Hall of Fame coaches, you're under pressure to win. You're crazy if you think you're not.''
-- Coach Mick Cronin
Connecticut: "He's a lot harder on us than he was last year and I love it. It takes time to get used to it, so I'm always pulling the young guys aside and telling them, 'I know you're [angry], but you gotta try and not be. He's not telling you things to hurt you, even if they do. He's telling you to get you better.''
-- Kemba Walker, on educating the young Huskies on Jim Calhoun
DePaul: "I think it should be a motivating factor, the fact that we're picked in the bottom of the league. A couple of our players feel there's no way we finish there.''
-- Coach Oliver Purnell
Georgetown: "There's no doubt we're going to be putting a lot more on Julian Vaughn this year and he's prepared for that. A lot of it is a natural progression. He's a senior and he played alongside Greg Monroe. But just because he played alongside doesn't mean we expect him to replace him. No one guy is going to do that.''
-- Coach John Thompson III
Louisville: "It's been difficult. We were hit hard on the academics and then with the injuries, but I like the guys we have. We don't have quantity, but we have quality.''
-- Coach Rick Pitino
Marquette: "We're a little bigger inside. We're a little bigger on the perimeter. We've been small over the floor, including me.''
-- Coach Buzz Williams
Notre Dame: "Luke Harangody has been the face of basketball at Notre Dame and rightfully so. But he's with the Celtics now, so it's our turn.''
-- Guard Ben Hansbrough
Pittsburgh: "We think we have some of the elite players in the country, but for whatever reason we never get that recognition. We want to prove to people that they're wrong. I'm not sure why that happens. Maybe it's because we're not as highly as recruited, but that's why we still have a chip on our shoulder even though we were picked No. 1 in the league.''
-- Guard Brad Wanamaker
Providence: "Kids want to win and go. We're able to go. Now we need to win.''
-- Coach Keno Davis on the recruiting strategy he's using at PC
Rutgers: "People talk about how I haven't won a game in the Big East. Well, that's true. They talk about how we haven't been to the NCAA tournament in two decades. Well, that's true, too. My job is to create a buzz and an energy for this program.''
-- Coach Mike Rice
Seton Hall: "I did a little bit, but sometimes it was just me taking shots that were bad. But when I shoot the ball, it tends to go in. So it's hard for me not to take shots sometimes.''
-- Guard Jeremy Hazell on whether he felt pressure to shoot last season
South Florida: "We always are underappreciated. I told everyone that Dominique Jones was going to be really, really good last year and no one believed me. Now we've got Gus [Gilchrist], our leading scorer, back and we're picked 13th. Am I tired of it? I'm this close to being tired of it, but I also know we have to earn our respect.''
-- Coach Stan Heath
St. John's: "As I was leaving this morning, I looked at my wife and said, 'Well, here we go.' It's been 14 years since my first Pac-10 Media Day and seven years since my last one. So there is sort of that first-day-of-school feeling here.''
-- Coach Steve Lavin
Syracuse: "All Fab [Melo] and Moussa Baye have to do right now is rebound and play defense. Anything else we get from them is a bonus.''
-- Coach Jim Boeheim on his freshman big men
Villanova: "When he came in here as a freshman, Corey Fisher was the least prepared to be a leader. Right now he's the most prepared and that's because he played under Scottie Reynolds and he looked up to guys like Mike Nardi. He's such a student of the game. He watches the NBA, he sees what leaders do. He's ready for this.''
-- Coach Jay Wright
West Virginia: "[The Final Four] was just a great experience for us. It was amazing but when we lost to Duke, we couldn't wait to get back there. Now we know what it's like, but we also know what it takes.''
-- Forward Kevin Jones
Villanova guard Corey Fisher
Big East Preview Content
For a Blue Ribbon breakdown of all 16 Big East teams, click here.
More Big East coverage:
• O'Neil's "Five Things I Can't Wait To See" in the Big East
• Chad Ford's breakdown of the Big East's top NBA prospects. (Insider)
• Mike Hume's five key questions for the conference (Insider)
• Former Ohio State player Mark Titus previews the Big East from a unique point of view ... the end of the bench (Insider)
• Profiles of the league's four new head coaches: Oliver Purnell (DePaul), Mike Rice (Rutgers), Steve Lavin (St. John's) and Kevin Willard (SHU)
• ESPN New York's Kieran Darcy on Lavin, who the stole the show at Big East Media Day
• For more Big East coverage in the Nation blog, click here
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey
Best Of Big East Media Day
Best boast: "We have the best frontline in this conference.''
-- South Florida coach Stan Heath on Gus Gilchrist and Jerrid Famous.
Best fashion critique: "How good does Hugs look? Look at him in the double-breasted suit, the vest. He tells me before the game, 'When I lose 40 pounds, no one will be talking about how you look.''
-- Jay Wright about Bob Huggins
"It's true. I did say that.''
Best math: "Half of our team is old and half of our team is new. But half of the old guys are really still new.''
-- Marquette coach Buzz Williams
Best underrated rivalry?: "I think we have the best rivalry in the conference."
-- Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell on the SHU-Rutgers rivalry, which is hoping to soon get the relevance to match the intensity
Best description of the Big East: "I can remember two years ago, we played three freshmen and we went and played a top-15 team in the country on the road and we won. Beat them pretty badly and I'm sitting on the bus, eating my Jimmy John's sandwich, ready to watch the video and see how well we played. My assistants come by my seat and dump 12 DVDs in my lap. I said, 'What's that?' 'They said, 'We play Pitt on Monday.' That's how this league is.''
-- WVU coach Bob Huggins
Brennan's Big East Wind Sprint