October 25, 2007

Big East picture unclear after top two

NEW YORK - Big East coaches seem to agree on two things heading into the season: 1.) Georgetown and Louisville are the teams to beat. 2.) Any one of a number of teams comes next.

The Hoyas and Cardinals split the 16 first-place votes in the coaches' preseason poll. The Hoyas return four starters from last season's Final Four team, and the Cards bring back their top seven scorers from a 24-victory squad.

"I think the way they picked Georgetown and Louisville makes sense," Marquette coach Tom Crean said at the league's media day Wednesday. "I think the rest of us are trying to catch up and trying to get into that realm. They have the most experienced starters."

Crean's Golden Eagles, who return three of the league's top guards, were picked to finish third. Pittsburgh, which has finished no lower than fifth in the past four years, came next, followed by Syracuse, Connecticut, Villanova, Providence, Notre Dame and West Virginia.

"I agree with the top two, but after that I'm not so sure," UConn's Jim Calhoun said. "The whole order could be shaken up."

DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright agreed.

"I don't think there is much difference from three to 10," Wainwright said. "You could put them in a box, shake it up, and they would come out different every time."

UConn and Syracuse may be the toughest to analyze. Calhoun had one of his youngest teams last season and the Huskies stumbled to a 17-14 record that included just six league wins. They missed the postseason for the first time since Calhoun's first season with the program in 1986-87.

The Orange will field a young but talented squad. Freshmen Jonny Flynn and Donte Green (both five-star recruits by Rivals.com) were voted the league's co-rookies of the year. Never before have two players from the same team split the award.

Providence has been labeled as a sleeper. The Friars return one of the league's top guard tandems in Sharaud Curry (15.3 points per game) and Weyinmi Efejuku (14.1 points per game) and versatile forward Geoff McDermott, who was voted to the 10-player preseason all-league team.

Other observers like Notre Dame and West Virginia better. The Irish return three double-digit scorers from a team that had a better record than Louisville (24-8, compared to 24-10). WVU's new coach, Bob Huggins, who has 590 career wins and the sixth-highest winning percentage (.737) among active coaches, has four players who averaged between 10 and 11 points per game last season to work with.

"I'm shocked that Providence was eighth and West Virginia was 10th," Crean said. "Notre Dame ninth? I think that is crazy."

The predictions didn't bother Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team was predicted to finish 11th last season. The Irish finished fourth at 11-5.

"We are not a sexy pick," Brey said. "None of our players were on the preseason team. I love it. It keeps our guys' motors running in South Bend."

The next group of teams at least think they are capable of making a move up the league standings. DePaul was picked 11th, followed by Cincinnati, Seton Hall, St. John's, Rutgers and USF.

"I think teams from the bottom of the pack can go out and beat middle-of-the-pack teams," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said.

Providence's Tim Welsh echoes Gonzalez's sentiments. "The depth of the league is its strength," Welsh said. "You could make a case for a lot of teams to have good seasons."

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who coached in the Big East with Providence from 1985-87, also is struck by the number of quality teams. "This is the deepest I've seen the Big East in quite some time," he said.

Penalty box

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese raves about his head coaches' credentials. All 16 have been a head coach or an assistant in the Final Four.

"I know I'm biased, but I think they are the best group of coaches in any league," he said.

It's the coaches' behavior that Tranghese has a problem with. Twice last season, the league issued memos calling for better decorum on the sideline and criticizing coaches for berating officials.

"It's more than a few that were out of control," Tranghese said. "It's got to change."

An NCAA memo sent out earlier this month should help get the message across. The memo emphasizes that any coach leaving the designated coaching box will be assessed a technical foul without a warning. Coaches are allowed to exit the box only to deal with injured players, stop fights or handle scoring or timing issues.

Many of the Big East coaches, of course, expect to have a difficult time adjusting.

"They want us to be robots," Calhoun said. "All the colorful characters in this sport helped make the game a lot of money. Now they want us to be robots.

"I won't be a robot."

Tip-ins

  • Louisville fifth-year center David Padgett didn't play in any 5-on-5 scrimmages this past offseason, instead focusing on individual work in an effort to avoid injury. Padgett's career has been marred by a series of leg injuries. "For the first time, I was waking up this summer and not wondering which leg was hurting today," Padgett said. "It's a great feeling."

  • Villanova coach Jay Wright said despite the Big East adding two more league games (from 16 to 18), the Wildcats will continue to play the other members of "Philadelphia's Big 5" (LaSalle, Penn, St. Joseph's and Temple) each season. "We have made a commitment to the Big Five and Philadelphia basketball," he said. "I just hope if we don't make the NCAA Tournament one year, our alumni will say, 'I like Jay's loyalty to the Big Five.' "

  • Marquette coach Tom Crean plans on using a four-guard lineup at times, a move that would force 6-foot-5 guard Wesley Matthews to guard players that are 3 and 4 inches taller. However, Matthews welcomes the mismatches. "It's fine with me," he said. "I have to guard power forwards, but they have to guard me and deal with my quickness on the other end. That's how I look at it."

    Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.




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