Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mick Still King In Queen City

Flanked here by former colleagues Bobby Gonzalez and Fred Hill, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin is not only last man standing in this picture, but he also has Cincinnati ready for an NCAA Tournament return. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

Most of the buzz at last week's Big East media day came from St. John's and new Red Storm coach Steve Lavin. To a lesser extent, Seton Hall's Kevin Willard received a great deal of attention as well. Yet on the other side of the room, Willard's former fellow Pitino assistant sat at his own table at Madison Square Garden taking in the hoopla around him while quietly divulging details about his own team; one that after a longer hiatus from NCAA Tournament action that most fans would expect, is poised to make their Big Dance comeback.

At only 39, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin is one of the younger NCAA head men, and after coming to the Bearcats from Murray State four years ago with only one scholarship player on his roster, the reticent yet affable Midwesterner has his program on the cusp of success that was achieved throughout the 1990s and early 2000s under Bob Huggins, who of course is now at the helm of Big East rival West Virginia.

That was one of the reasons why I made it a point to seek Cronin out at the Garden last week, along with his humble personality and penchant for delivering a solid interview that hits on all the key points a media member looks for. Cronin admittedly enjoyed Cincinnati's surprising run to the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, and despite losing rookie sensation Lance Stephenson and senior leader Deonta Vaughn, still believes he can contend. In fact, so do the majority of Cronin's coaching brethren, who feel the Bearcats were injusticed by their 12th-place standing in the Big East preseason poll.

Cronin has never been one to worry about the rankings in any poll, and is relieved to return the core of his team this season. "If you replace returning guys with recruits, you better hope it's John Wall," deadpanned Cronin when asked how much of a difference there was between having a veteran roster and reloading with freshmen the way some other college programs are forced to do sometimes. Nonetheless, the transition to the top half of the conference won't be an easy one, not even for "one of the best teams in the league," as Cronin had hoped his team would eventually be considered when gauging his team's chances in the upcoming season.

The Bearcats enter 2010-11 on the heels of an NIT appearance, and get a marquee nonconference matchup on November 27th against reigning NIT champion Dayton. One month and one day later, the Bearcats open Big East play with DePaul at home before hosting Seton Hall on New Year's Eve. From there, Cincinnati makes their 2011 debut on January 6th against intra-city rival Xavier and head coach Chris Mack, who could pass for a Cronin lookalike in some circles.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New Arena A Yummy Appetizer For Cards

Louisville may have lost their top three players from last year, but there's still the same excitement around Rick Pitino's team thanks to the arrival of the Yum! Center. (Photo courtesy of

Even if Rick Pitino wasn't the head coach at Louisville; and even if the Cardinals hadn't historically been the class of Midwest college basketball before and after their move to the Big East, there would still be a buzz around the home of the twin spires around this time of the year. Throw in a new arena that drew a sellout crowd for an intrasquad scrimmage, and the anticipation reaches a crescendo normally reserved for a Final Four.

The Yum! Center is by far the biggest and main attraction to Louisville basketball this season, replacing Freedom Hall as the home of Cardinals hoops. Louisville will officially christen their new venue against reigning national runner-up Butler on November 16th; and according to Pitino, the arena is "the finest arena ever built." Always a firm believer in the fact that facilities were key to a major college basketball program's success, Pitino discussed the impact of the new building with me last week at Madison Square Garden when the coach was in the Big Apple for Big East media day. "It has parts of the Staples Center, the Charlotte Bobcats' arena, (the Time Warner Cable Arena) and Conseco Fieldhouse all rolled into one," proclaimed Pitino when addressing the new arena. Pitino gets to face his old team in his new building as well, as John Calipari and Kentucky invade the Yum! Center on New Year's Eve before former Pitino disciple Kevin Willard leads Seton Hall into the Bluegrass State on January 5th in what will be the Cardinals' Big East opener.

Louisville heads into the new season having lost Samardo Samuels to the NBA and starting guards Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith to graduation, and their former backcourt partner Preston Knowles is now not only the team captain, but also Pitino's lone senior on a young team that will showcase guards Kyle Kuric and Mike Marra much more than last year, when each showed flashes of brilliance against Syracuse on two separate occasions. Pitino also hinted that sophomore guard Peyton Siva could also play 30 minutes a game. Up front, the Cards got an added boost when freshman center Gorgui Dieng was cleared by the NCAA for immediate eligibility. Dieng will team with Terrence Jennings in the post, with Jared Swopshire the likely candidate to become the next productive Louisville wing, something Pitino has been searching for since Terrence Williams was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 2009.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Irish Eyes Smiling On Old Notre Dame

With Luke Harangody now in the NBA, it's up to Tim Abromaitis to lead Notre Dame back to NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

The Big East is usually the best conference in college basketball from top to bottom, and somewhere in the middle exists Notre Dame. In fact, the Fighting Irish have probably been the best middle-of-the-road team in the conference in recent memory. Led by Luke Harangody, Kyle McAlarney, Tory Jackson, Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland, Rob Kurz and many others over the years, the Irish have consistently been a postseason participant. All of those players have since graduated, leaving head coach Mike Brey to start fresh with a group led by last year's breakout star Tim Abromaitis.

Abromaitis has become the latest scoring wing to showcase his talents in South Bend, and will have to return to last year's form to replace what Brey called a "heck of a class to lose" when talking about last year's seniors at Big East media day last week. So far, the team has adjusted to life without Harangody, Jackson and Jonathan Peoples, but the challenge is "doing it long term over short term," insisted Brey; whose replacement for Jackson is freshman Eric Atkins, a point guard who the coach believes to be "intellectually and mentally ahead of the game."

Brey has a number of teams to jockey for position with as far as an NCAA Tournament bid is concerned, with the likes of St. John's, Seton Hall and Cincinnati standing out among others. Two nonconference games are highlighted in the ledger for the Irish; starting with their collision with Kentucky at Freedom Hall, an arena in which Brey mentioned the "Big East-type atmosphere," calling it a "quality win" if Notre Dame was to pull it out. It doesn't get any easier for the Irish immediately following their battle with John Calipari and his latest batch of recruits, as Gonzaga invades the Joyce Center three days later.

Notre Dame opens its Big East schedule at the arena where they have enjoyed a clear homecourt advantage in recent memory as they host Georgetown on December 29th before heading to the Carrier Dome on New Year's Day as they ring in 2011 against Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. UConn and St. John's come into South Bend from there, with the Johnnies of course led by new head coach Steve Lavin.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Feeling The Wrath Of UConn

Despite having his share of off-court happenings, Jim Calhoun hasn't lost focus of what lies ahead with his retooled UConn team this season. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

When you mention the Big East and its history, one of the first names and schools that comes to mind if you're an avid fan is Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame head coach who built Connecticut from the ground up and took the Huskies to national championships in 1999 and 2004. Yet as we enter this 2010-11 Big East campaign, there is something very different about UConn, something that has been present on the court for the Huskies for most of the last decade: Size on the front line.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the venerable and well-respected Calhoun this past Wednesday at Madison Square Garden when the UConn head man was there for Big East media day, and Calhoun mentioned that this year's Huskies would be an outside-oriented team instead of the usual "inside-out" style UConn has employed in its near-two-decade run at the top of the Big East. The change in style was dictated by not just a smaller UConn squad, but also from a rather young group of players as well. Only three seniors grace the Huskies' roster this season, and the only other player not in his freshman or sophomore year for Calhoun is all-Big East guard and New York City product Kemba Walker, who continues to evolve as he enters his junior campaign.

Calhoun also welcomes back sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi, not to mention a six-pack of freshmen led by swingman Roscoe Smith and point guard Shabazz Napier, who will most likely learn the ropes from Walker this season before potentially moving into the starting lineup next year if Walker chooses to enter the NBA draft. All in all, there's a different aura around Storrs this season, and their veteran leader recognizes that.

"I don't know if we're going to be a giant," said Calhoun when I asked whether or not UConn would be this year's sleeper Big East team, a role played by at least one conference team in every season. "If we're just really, really good when it's all said and done, then I'll be happy," remarked the coach, whose squad will be battle-tested early with nonconference games on the road against Texas and at home against Tennessee that will give the Huskies a slight break (if one wants to call it that) from the Big East slate. Depending on how UConn fares in the Maui Invitational, Calhoun's young charges could also face two-time defending Final Four participants Michigan State, and the Spartans are again viewed as a serious title contender as guard Kalin Lucas returns for his senior season.

Said Calhoun of UConn's ledger this season: "We'll have opportunities to find out who we are." Only time will tell whether or not the Huskies will be among the handful of Big East teams playing in the NCAA Tournament, which despite the new on-court look of his team, is still a goal of Calhoun's that can easily be attained. "Every single year, given what we have to go through, there's no question in my mind," stated Calhoun on the ability of the Big East to draw seven, eight, or even nine teams into what has now become the field of 68. "I just hope we're one of those seven, eight or nine."

Fans in Connecticut will concur, and so too will Huskies fans across the Northeast who will now have the opportunity to see their team more often throughout the season thanks to UConn's agreement with SportsNet New York. (You can see my perspective on the UConn/SNY partnership by clicking here)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bulls Return To Big East China Shop

USF coach Stan Heath has reason to smile after leading Bulls to NIT last season, but will need to effectively replace Dominique Jones to return to postseason play. (Photo courtesy of

At Big East media day last year, I had the pleasure of speaking with South Florida coach Stan Heath for a few minutes, and not just because he was easily accessible. The affable Heath had discussed at length with me how USF had built respect in recent years with their upset of Syracuse and near-upset of UConn in overtime, and the respect multiplied just a few months later when the Bulls participated in the NIT. One year later, I was unable to gauge Heath's opinion of the upcoming season, but I am sure there is still optimism emanating from Tampa as the Bulls prepare to open their 2010-11 campaign on November 12th against Southern Mississippi.

USF has undergone a makeover since taking the court for the last time back in March, as Dominique Jones was selected in the NBA draft after deciding to forgo his senior season. Without Jones, a core of young and talented players still remains for the Bulls, including twin towers Jarrid Famous and Augustus Gilchrist, who Heath considered to be the Big East's best frontcourt in an interview with college basketball insider Jon Rothstein of MSG and 1050 ESPN Radio in New York. Although picked 13th in the Big East preseason poll, USF also returns former Ohio State transfer Anthony Crater to the backcourt, which gets a new arrival in Coach Heath's oldest son Jordan, a freshman who becomes the first Big East player to play for his father since current Michigan coach John Beilein's son Patrick was a reserve for West Virginia in the early 2000s.

USF's nonconference schedule features a matchup against NCAA Tournament team BYU the day after Thanksgiving, as well as a possible meeting with Sweet 16 participant St. Mary's the following day should the Gaels defeat Texas Tech. December 12th marks a homecoming of sorts, as the Bulls travel to Kent State, a school Stan Heath led to the Elite Eight back in 2002. The Bulls open their Big East season on the road against Seton Hall on December 28th before heading to Gampel Pavilion to face UConn on New Year's Eve.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rice Takes Rutgers Into Pressure Cooker

Mike Rice has hit the ground running since taking over at Rutgers, but real challenge begins this season for Scarlet Knights when they tip off against Princeton on November 12. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

The contrast between former Rutgers head coach Fred Hill and his successor Mike Rice is a stark one that is very easy to see; and if nothing else, Rice's vision of what the Scarlet Knights can become should serve as reason enough for fans to believe that excitement and meaningful basketball will soon return to Piscataway.

Rice shared his vision of the program and the new brand of Rutgers basketball he intends to unveil this season when addressed by the media this morning at Madison Square Garden, where Big East media day was held. The coach stated to me that his biggest challenge will be "turning around a program that hasn't been relevant in the Big East," not to mention one that has been decimated by the transfers of star guard Mike Rosario and role player Patrick Jackson. Rice only has nine scholarship players on his roster this season, led by forwards Dane Miller and Jonathan Mitchell.

If anyone can turn it around for Rutgers, Rice is the guy. Having taken Robert Morris to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two years; including a near-upset of Villanova last year when the Colonials were seeded 15th, Rice told me that there was a similarity between Robert Morris and Rutgers despite their conference affiliations (Big East and NEC) being two different worlds. "Neither school had been to the NCAA Tournament in two decades," said Rice of the correlation between Pittsburgh and Piscataway.

As far as what you can expect to see from the Scarlet Knights this season, Rice proclaimed that Rutgers will play an "aggressive, intense style" of basketball that "focuses on teamwork over talent." In the rough and tumble Big East, intensity is the name of the game, and Rice was quick to point that out in his media session this morning.

Rutgers doesn't have it easy early, as they play home games against MAAC favorite Fairfield and ACC mainstay Miami after their season opener at Princeton on November 12th. The Knights get even more of a test later on as they face North Carolina on December 28th at Madison Square Garden before opening the Big East slate and 2011 on the road against Villanova on January 2nd at The Pavilion.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Kim We Trust

If any coach around the country defines underrated, it is surely St. John's women's basketball leader Kim Barnes Arico, who in just nine years has taken a virtually nonexistent Red Storm team and built it into a national powerhouse. (Photo courtesy of

St, John's University has unfortunately been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big East conference in recent years; that is, the men's and women's basketball programs have received little or no respect from the rest of the country. That has changed gradually over the last few years; and while the men are starting to regain credibility with the hire of new head coach Steve Lavin, their counterparts on the women's side have been much quieter on their uphill road to success, led by a coach who was lightly regarded for years until finally breaking through in a relatively short amount of time.

At just 40 years old, Kim Barnes Arico may be a young leader, but her experience and record truly belies her age. After inheriting a team that went 3-24 before taking the job in 2002, Barnes Arico has managed to get the job done one year at a time, including guiding the Johnnies to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in just her fourth year, losing to eventual national champion Maryland in 2006. Two years later, Barnes Arico's team pulled off the biggest win in program history at that point with a home victory over top 10 team and Big East rival Notre Dame at Carnesecca Arena, one that I was on hand to call for WSJU Radio.

However, that wasn't good enough for Barnes Arico or St. John's, who followed two consecutive WNIT appearances with a year to remember in 2009-10, which included yet another upset win over the Fighting Irish, as well as the school's first-ever top 15 ranking and a return to the "Big Dance," where the Red Storm fell a basket short of the Sweet 16.

While being praised by fellow Big East coach Geno Auriemma among others, Barnes Arico has deflected the credit from herself and passed it on to her players, who have progressively become better and helped enable St. John's to be a national player in recruiting. There was a time when Angela Clark and Kia Wright were the only recognizable faces of the St. John's program. All that has changed, as Barnes Arico has managed to turn standout high school players into future stars in college, with players such as Da'Shena Stevens, Sky Lindsay and Shenneika Smith all thriving under her system; not to mention former productive scorers the likes of Monique McLean and Kelly McManmon, as well as rebounding specialists Joy McCorvey and Tiina Sten.

This year, the Red Storm return the bulk of last year's team as they look to continue their upward movement. McCorvey and McManmon are gone, but Lindsay and Smith remain backcourt anchors, along with sophomore Nadirah McKenith, who told me at St. John's annual tipoff event this past Friday that she expects a big year from Coco Hart, who returns for her senior season and will likely start alongside preseason All-American candidate Stevens up front.

Regardless of who St. John's sends out to the hardwood, one thing remains certain: They have garnered everyone's respect along the way, and it would not have happened without the coach who, although still not a household name, has managed to do more for her program than some of the legends of the game.

Hummel Robbed Again Due To Injury

Robbie Hummel, shown here high-fiving a Purdue fan, is done for year and possibly career before this season could even begin, as the senior tore his ACL in a tragic practice accident. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

After a torn ACL ended his breakout junior season and crushed his dreams of potentially playing in the Final Four behind his hometown fans, Purdue forward Robbie Hummel is experiencing deja vu, as the Boilermakers' star suffered the same injury in practice yesterday. The heartbroken Hummel will miss the entire season; and since he is a senior, the injury could be career-ending unless Purdue is interested in obtaining a medical redshirt for their star player.

Hummel, along with fellow seniors JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, had all come back for their final seasons in the hopes of potentially bringing the school's first national championship to West Lafayette, Indiana; and the Boilermakers were viewed as a legitimate title contender before Hummel's tragic injury. Upon hearing of his unfortunate circumstances, college basketball media members and coaches from across the country were immediately saddened, and Purdue coach Matt Painter described Hummel by saying that the team would miss "some of the basic things that don't show up in a box score."

Nonetheless, Purdue remains a top 25 team without Hummel, but the road to the Final Four is unfortunately no longer the smooth and peaceful one Boilermakers fans envisioned at the start of the season.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Another Legend Storms Into Queens

Gene Keady, long associated with Purdue, has a new home at St. John's as a special assistant to coach Steve Lavin, who was an assistant under Keady for the Boilermakers in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Baltimore Sun)

All year, St. John's has made a name for itself since bringing Steve Lavin back to the sidelines after seven years as an analyst. Earlier tonight, the Johnnies added one more man to the program as Lavin reciprocated a favor that was done to him over two decades ago by hiring former Purdue coach Gene Keady as a special assistant.

Keady will not coach on the floor per NCAA rules, but his presence around Carnesecca Arena will no doubt add color and experience to an already versatile Red Storm staff. Keady already made a strong impression at his introductory press conference about an hour ago, Keady thanked Lavin and his staff for the opportunity while hailing his new boss as having "talked about this regularly for several years" when asked about Lavin's desire to return to the coaching fraternity.

Among some of the other things Keady was asked was how Lavin would resonate with recruits, to which he once again lauded his former protege. "He looks them in the eye and teaches them the right things," said Keady of Lavin's demeanor toward prospective Johnnies. Yours truly also asked the former Boilermakers leader about how far he felt Lavin had come since arriving on the bench in Indiana as a kid in his early twenties. "Light-years," responded Keady after I asked his opinion on Lavin's evolution. "He's learned from that experience at UCLA. He's got the character traits to be a very successful coach. I hope I can help him."

Fans of the Johnnies feel that he already has just by coming along for the ride.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

They're Connected Down Providence

Providence coach Keno Davis has already beaten a top-ranked team, but now his Friars have an even bigger challenge of climbing back into the top half of Big East this season. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Post)
Two years ago, Keno Davis was seemingly on top of the world after guiding Drake to a surprise top 25 ranking and an NCAA tournament appearance. His success led him to Providence, where soon after, his Friars established themselves as a force to be reckoned with after their home victory against then-top-ranked Pittsburgh. One year removed from a 12-19 campaign that ended with an exciting Big East tournament game against Seton Hall; one in which the Friars trailed by 29 points before almost coming back to beat the Pirates in the final minutes, Davis is back on the sidelines in the Ocean State with a young and deceptively talented squad that could surprise some critics in the Big East this season.
Despite losing breakout star forward Jamine Peterson and veteran guard Sharaud Curry, the Friars return everyone else from last year's group, including eight freshmen as they look to mount a comeback to the world of postseason play. Aside from senior Mrashon Brooks, (the lone senior of Davis' pupils) Vincent Council returns for his second season as Brooks' backcourt partner after an impressive debut last season. Providence also gets help up front with returning sophomores Bilal Dixon and Ray Hall, but the Friars remain relatively undersized after that.
Nonetheless, PC will look to prove their critics wrong as they attempt to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004 with a favorable start to its schedule that is highlighted by a trip to Boston College in December before starting the Big East slate at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. After the Orange, Providence gets two home games; the first being a New Year's Day tilt against St. John's and new Red Storm coach Steve Lavin, as well as a matchup with Pitt, who returns to the Dunkin' Donuts Center for the first time since Providence's 81-73 upset of the then-No. 1 Panthers on February 24, 2009. In fact, the Friars nearly knocked off Pitt last year at the Petersen Center also, but fell short by the final of 73-71 as Ashton Gibbs hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave the Panthers the victory.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exorcising The Demons

DePaul looks to right the ship after two consecutive subpar Big East finishes, and Blue Demons will now look to junior forward Devin Hill to pick up where Mac Koshwal left off before turning pro. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

More often than not in life, you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. I experience that feeling in the broadcasting industry, and DePaul University is undoubtedly going through the same feeling as they look to return to their once-dominant form after capturing just one regular season Big East win over the last two seasons. The Blue Demons, the first team to be profiled in-depth as both the college basketball season and Big East media day draw closer, have made wholesale changes since the last time they took to the court in the Big East tournament against South Florida. Head coach Jerry Wainwright was dismissed halfway through the season and interim boss Tracy Webster was not brought back. Instead, former Dayton and Clemson head man Oliver Purnell has taken the reins in Chicago, and his first task will be to improve a front line decimated by the loss of Mac Koshwal, who decided to take his talents to the professional level; as well as to replace the outside threat and productivity vacated by shooting guard Will Walker, who graduated this past May.

Purnell inherits forward Devin Hill, now in his junior year; as well as fellow junior Jeremiah Kelly, whose long-range ability can stifle opposing defenses on any given night. Ohio State transfer Eric Wallace is also back, as well as big man Krys Faber and senior swingman Mario Stula. Baltimore native Cleveland Melvin headlines a solid group of incoming freshmen that will, if nothing else, serve to give DePaul a core of young players that Purnell and his staff can build around while recruiting for the future.

DePaul's non-conference schedule isn't what older fans of the Blue Demons were accustomed to seeing in the days of Ray Meyer and Pat Kennedy, but it does include a potential meeting early in the season with Virginia Tech, who returns guards Malcolm Delaney and Dorenzo Hudson among others. The Blue Demons will also play home-and-home series in the Big East with West Virginia, Cincinnati and USF, while being one of the first teams to travel to the new Yum! Center in Louisville when they square off against Rick Pitino's Cardinals on February 5th.