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April 19, 2010
Big Apple Carousel
Coaching Comings and Goings

by Asher Fusco

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While Butler was busy dispatching teams from the Big East, Big 12 and Big Ten (and almost the ACC) in the late stages of the NCAA tournament, madness of another kind was making its way through the greater New York City area. The region's Division I programs have played musical benches for the past few weeks, leaving nine of the 13 teams with or in need of new coaches as of April 18.

It's hard to say what all this means for hoops in the area, although it's not a good sign that none of the region's squads made the field of 65 and only two managed NIT berths. Of the nine departing coaches, only three were leaving for greener pastures. The other six either resigned or were dismissed. Big Apple basketball runs the gamut from the Big East to the Northeast Conference, and each of the offseason shakeups included different variables.

Over the next couple days I'll take a look at what's happened to New York-area hoops since the beginning of the 2009-2010 season. Here's part one.

Seton Hall (19-13, 9-9 Big East): 72 KenPom, -0.01 conference efficiency margin
Out: Bobby Gonzalez (66-59 in four seasons at SHU), fired
In: Kevin Willard from Iona (45-49 in three seasons)
What went wrong? Context-free, this is a real head-scratcher. The departed Gonzalez won more than he lost over four seasons in the Big East while his replacement, Willard, lost more than he won over three MAAC campaigns.

Context included, however, the move makes a lot more sense. As detailed in a New York Times story, Gonzalez was not particularly well-liked by some ex-players and officials throughout his career, and was notably hot-tempered in sideline--and apparently many other--settings. A 9-9 conference ledger and an NIT berth in 2010 were not enough to save Gonzalez, who was fired by Seton Hall along with a statement from the university saying that its coaches "are expected to treat everyone they interact with, whether officials, the press or our students, with the utmost respect, maturity and professionalism."

Setting aside his reportedly unfriendly demeanor and some players' legal problems, Gonzalez's stint at Seton Hall was not a complete failure. He improved or plateaued his record each season and engineered a 7-3 finish to the 2010 season (including the Big East Tournament) that at least put the NCAA tournament within arms' reach. He coached talented-but-ball-monopolizing wing Jeremy Hazell and reeled in several promising players in juniors-to-be Jeff Robinson and Jordan Theodore. Two of Gonzalez's undoings might have been the decisions to bring in Missouri transfer Keon Lawrence and New Mexico State transfer Herb Pope. Lawrence was charged with DUI for his part in a wrong-way highway accident before the season, and Pope showed flashes of his once-enormous potential but was disqualified from the Pirates' NIT loss for delivering a low blow to a Texas Tech player.

What now? Seton Hall is banking on fast-rising Iona departee Kevin Willard to give the program a push into the NCAA tournament. Willard isn't overly experienced, but his short head coaching resume looks pretty darn good. He took over an Iona program reeling at 2-28 and transformed it to a 21-9, third-place MAAC finisher in three seasons. He did it primarily with defense at Iona, something that may be tough to do with his current roster at SHU.

Hazell has been the keystone of the Pirates' last three teams, which ranked 154th, 116th, and 122nd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. He's a gunner, and the team has followed in his footsteps, playing last season at the nation's 32nd-fastest rate while allowing tons of offensive rebounds and failing to turn opponents over. If Willard has his way, the Hall could play slower, force a few more mistakes, and win a few more games.

St. John's (17-16, 6-12 Big East): 67 KenPom, -0.05 conf. EM
Out: Norm Roberts (81-101 in six years at St. John's), fired
In: Steve Lavin (145-78 in seven years at UCLA), from ESPN
What went wrong? Everything, slightly. St. John's was steadied by Roberts' hiring, but didn't make the NCAA tournament, finished above .500 just twice and earned only one NIT bid under the Bill Self protege. The year before Roberts came on board, St. John's was rocked by scandal, fired Mike Jarvis and finished 6-21. Roberts steered clear of trouble during his tenure but just didn't win enough to stick at the city's most storied basketball school.

The Red Storm was never bad, per se, under Roberts. It just wasn't as good as its conference. Although wing D.J. Kennedy blossomed into a legitimate do-it-all star, Roberts was more often than not recruiting and coaching the Paris Hornes of the world while his competitors recruited and coached the Scottie Reynolds types. Dismissing Roberts after a 17-16 season and a Big East tournament victory against Connecticut was a surprise to some, but apparently St. John's knew it could land a big fish in the coaching pond.

The St. John's players will undoubtedly expand their vocabularies under Lavin, who was a veritable thesaurus, synonym-machine, and master of interchangeable verbiage as a broadcaster at ESPN. Everything else is up in the air.

Lavin last coached in 2003, a 10-19 season that bookended a successful career at UCLA. In every season but his last, Lavin reached the NCAA tournament, and he advanced to five Sweet 16s between 1997 and 2002. The one-time boy wonder kept his name in the news by moving on to ESPN after his seven-season stint in SoCal. As a native Californian and former Purdue assistant coach, it's unclear what ties Lavin might have to New York or what recruiting ins he might possess, so from the outside the hire is if nothing else an eyebrow-raiser.

The new coach takes over a squad that romped through non-conference play at 10-2 before losing eight of its first 10 Big East contests. The Red Storm returns five senior starters, 13 letter winners and 94 percent of its scoring, so as long as Lavin can manage the Xs and Os, things shouldn't get any worse immediately. Kennedy is one of the Big East's "best players nobody's heard of," posting above-average shooting, scoring, rebounding, passing, ballhandling and defensive numbers for a 6-6 wing. If the Red Storm stands to improve in any one facet, post offense would be the place. St. John's' tallest starter last season was 6-8 Sean Evans, wand the team ranked 307th nationally in free throw rate.

Rutgers (15-17, 5-13 Big East): 156 KenPom, -0.17 conf. EM
Semi-out: Fred Hill Jr. (47-77 in four seasons at Rutgers) in the midst of a messy firing/settlement
In: TBA.
What went wrong? Rutgers has never fared very well with Hill at the helm. Hill also gave the school a seemingly easy out when he reportedly violated the principles of his contract by storming onto the field to yell profanities at the Pitt baseball coaching staff at a game earlier this month.

The kind-of former coach led the Scarlet Knights to a tenure-best five conference victories in 2010, including mid-season triumphs over decent squads such as Notre Dame and Georgetown. The biggest recruiting splash of Hill's Rutgers career came two seasons ago when he brought St. Anthony (N.J.) guard Mike Rosario to Rutgers, but the McDonald's All-American was not able to carry the weight of the program on his 190-pound frame. He was granted a transfer earlier this month.

What now? The coach who takes over at Rutgers won't get Rosario. The university granted his release after stalling for a few days reportedly planning to file tampering charges against USC for its possible role in Rosario's decision to leave.

Also gone is Hamady Ndiaye, who exhausted his eligibility. Ndiaye was the nation's third best shot blocker on a per-possession basis and made 58 percent of his (rare) attempts. Rutgers will presumably retain the services of senior-to-be Jonathan Mitchell, a well-rounded 6-7 forward who can rebound and provide some offense.

Fordham (2-26, 0-16 Atlantic 10): 306 KenPom, -0.25 conf. EM
Out: Dereck Whittenburg (69-112 in 6+ years at Fordham), fired
In: Tom Pecora from Hofstra (181-130)
What happened? Pretty much everything went wrong from the start of the '08-'09 season to the unceremonious end of the Whittenburg era five games into this past campaign. After finishing 3-25 (1-15 A-10) in 2009, the coach started off on the wrong foot last December. First, Jio Fontan, heralded St. Anthony (N.J.) product and Fordham's 2009 possession-usage leader, quit. Fordham dropped the ax on Whittenburg the next day, just five games (1-4) into the season. The Rams won their next game before losing 21 straight to end the season under interim coach Jared Grasso.

What now? "We felt that we needed a new direction for the basketball program at this time," said Fordham athletics director Frank McLaughlin, in a December 3 release announcing Whittenburg's firing. "It's a priority of the University to have a successful program in the competitive Atlantic 10 Conference."

Two-plus months later, the school followed through on McLaughlin's statement, announcing the Board of Trustees had approved significant budget increases for the men's basketball program. Interesting and seemingly encouraging. But Fordham's men's basketball expenses, as of 2009, ranked ninth of 14 in the A-10 and 96th nationally, according to BasketballState.com. The Rams haven't been swimming in funds, but the program has been chewing through more money than more competitive programs such as Richmond and Charlotte. During Fordham's 3-25 2009 campaign, the program spent $861,733.69 per victory, third worst in the nation. Fordham used that new capital to ink former Hofstra coach Tom Pecora to a five-year deal worth $600,000 per season, according to the New York Daily News.

Perhaps the problem was recruiting. Fordham, located in the Bronx, finished the 2010 season with two New York natives on its roster, the same number of Empire Staters as out-of-town Atlantic 10 counterparts Xavier and Temple. Maybe the solution could be the newly-hired Pecora. In nine seasons at the helm of Hofstra, another NYC team, Pecora won 55.2 percent of his games and picked up a reputation for recruiting the area hard. Six of 13 players on his final team at Hofstra hailed from New York City proper and five more came from other areas of the state or from neighboring Connecticut.

Assuming he retains the players from last year's Fordham squad, Pecora might not have "winners," but he will have young players with a good deal of experience. At 6-7, forward Chris Gaston is the most accomplished of the bunch, having grabbed 12 percent of available offensive rebounds and used 31 percent of Fordham's possessions last season.

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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