The Big East will undoubtedly be loaded this upcoming season as the pre-season top 25 figures to be filled with teams from that conference.
However, to listen to the way Louisville coach Rick Pitino talked at the Big East media day last week in New York, it might not just be the best conference in the nation this season. Pitino believes the 2008-09 Big East might be the greatest compilation of teams ever in one conference.
The Big East retuns 13 of its 18 leading scorers from last season, 10 of its top 11 rebounders and the top nine finishers in assists. Furthermore, Notre Dame forward Luke Harangody is back after winning the conference's player of the year award a year ago. Not surprisingly, he is the pre-season pick to repeat that honor.
"In my 33 years of coaching I can honestly say I think this will be the finest league in the history of college basketball in terms of its depth and in terms of the number of returning players," Pitino said. "I've never seen a league with 11 teams that could be ranked in the top 30. I think any speaking of rankings in this conference can be thrown out the window. It will be very interesting to say the least."
Proof of just how loaded the Big East is came when the conference released its preseason coaches' poll at media day and Villanova was picked to finish fifth in the league. The Wildcats went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA touranment last season despite having no seniors on the roster.
"In most leagues, a team like us could be one or two," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But I really thought we might be as low as eight and I would have been fine with that."
The Big East had a record eight teams make the NCAAs last season but some coaches worry so many strong teams might cannabilize each other in the regular season and cost the conference bids to the big dance come March. That is why West Virginia coach Bob Huggins could sympathize with Wright, whose team might be better this season but end with fewer wins than the 22 it posted last season.
"Fortuantely, being older and having a little more job security, I think it is going to be kind of fun," Huggins said of coaching in a loaded conference. "But man, if you are young and trying to build something, it can be brutal. I mean, take a team like Villanova, for instance. They have everybody back from a Sweet 16 team and in any other league would be picked as one of the favorites. Yet, in this league, I've seen Villanova picked as low as seventh or eighth in some publications. How can that be? It is just an unbelievable league."
Connecticut was picked to win the conference in the coaches' poll but veteran Huskies coach Jim Calhoun realizes that won't be an easy task. He believes a 12-4 record might be good enough to finish first while some other coaches claim they could envisionn a team with a mark as low as 10-6 winning the conference.
"If you look most of the magazines' top 25 or 30s, you come up with eight ranked teams," Calhoun said. "That doesn't include West Virgnia or Providence. The teams from 10 to 13 in our conference could be second or third in the Atlantic 10. The bottom line is there are really almost too many good teams."
The depth of the conference means there are almost no easy marks in January and February. Thus, the wins against cupcakes are far and few between.
"The best I ever remember this league is when we had five top 15 teams out of nine. Think about that, five top 15 teams out of nine but we had three teams at the bottom who weren't very good so at least you got six wins out of them and that made life a little easier," Calhoun said. "Now, there isn't a bad team in the league, not one team that you can just show up and beat. Not one. The league is better than it's ever been. That's a fact."
More Fallout Over Hill Deal
As expected, the revelation that Kansas State assistant coach Dalonte Hill is making $420,000 this season as part of a five-year, $2.08-million contract he signed last year when coach Huggins left the Wildcats for West Virginia and assistant coach Frank Martin was promoted to head coach, has caused a stir. Hill will earn more this season than Kansas State president Jon Wefald.
The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group representing 56 major-college faculty senates, said in a statement last week that "higher education should quickly rethink the merits of this professional athletics model before it becomes a benchmark for the next round of athletic budget escalation and further separation of athletics from academics."
Hill is most noted for being a summer-league coach of Michael Beasley in the Washington, D.C. area. Beasley helped lead Kansas State to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996 last year then left for the NBA.
COIA called Hill's salary "a reward for recruiting a player who spent one athletically successful year at KSU before leaving the university for the NBA."
Kansas State athletic director Bob Krause told USA Today that he felt COIA's statement was unfair.
"To characterize it as simply (for recruiting) one player, those are other folks' words," he said. "Yeah, it's important to recruit but his compenstation is for responsibilities that include game preparation, recruitment, bench coaching, scouting. It kind of does him a disservice. He's a rising star and I can tell you now he's turned down job offers that were equal to or greater than his current situation"
- Minnesota senior forward Damian Johnson is expected to miss six weeks with a broken left hand. He averaged 7.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 22.6 minutes a game last season while ranking 21st in the nation in percentage of steals (4.7) and 74th in percentage of blocks (7.6).
- Georgia Tech senior guard D'Andre Bell will miss the season because of spinal stenosis but hopes to return next year following surgery. Bell averaged 6.6 points and 24.8 minutes a game last season.
- Cincinnati sophomore forward Kenny Belton (swelling of the spinal cord) and freshman guard Cashmere Wright (torn ACL in left knee) are out for the season. Belton averaged 1.6 points and 6.7 minutes last season.
- Iowa State sophomore guard Lucca Staiger will have arthroscopic surgery to determine the cause of inflammation in his right knee and is out indefinitely. Staiger was forced to sit out last season and forfeit a year of eligilibity after the NCAA determined he played for a professional team in Germany. Though Staiger did not get paid, the NCAA penalizes players who participate on teams in which any member is compensated.
- Northern Iowa senior guard Carlton Reed will miss the season with a ruptured tendon in his left knee. He averaged 3.5 points and 11.4 minutes a game last season.
Odds and Ends
Richard Williams, who guided Mississippi State to the Final Four in 1996 but has been out of coaching since 1998, has been hired as the director of basketball operations at Alabama-Birmingham … Tommy Wade, who coached Oklahoma City to the NAIA title last season, was hired by Oklahoma State as director of player development … CBS plans to hire Greg Anthony as a game analyst and main studio analyst for the NCAA Tournament, replacing Clark Kellogg, who takes over as the primary game analyst following the retirement of Billy Packer … Central Michigan coach Eric Ziegler dismissed senior center Marcus Van from the team for rules violations. Mann averaged 5.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 17.2 minutes a game last season while ranking 20th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (14.8), 75th in defensive rebounding percentage (22.4) and 87th in percentage of blocks (7.0) … Clemson freshman center Catalin Banks has been suspended for the first five games of the season by the NCAA for playing for a professional team in Romania.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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