Friday, October 21, 2011

Lasting Impressions: Big East Media Day

Some of the highlights in Wednesday's Big East media day came from Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, shown here preparing for an interview on BigEast.tv with my friend and colleague Ralph Bednarczyk. (Photo courtesy of Big East Conference)

This "lasting impressions" feature will focus on reviewing some of the events and games throughout the season, while also offering analysis of what happened and a potential preview of things to come in some instances. For games, it will replace the former "postgame shootaround," and will simply be a reaction piece for events like the one currently being profiled, this past Wednesday's Big East media day at the New York Athletic Club in Midtown.

  • All realignment, all the time.
Realignment wasn't just a story two days ago, it was THE story. Not a single coach of the ten I interviewed was able to dodge questions related to the speculation surrounding conference shuffling and stability, and some coaches used this to their advantage. I'll mention some of the quotes later on in this piece; but for a complete recap of the realignment chatter, take a look at my most recent column on Johnny Jungle.

  • Rick Pitino had a lot on his mind regarding realignment.
The Louisville head man has seemingly become a voice of protecting the investment, so to speak. On his personal blog, Pitino has spoken out against what the Big East is trying to do to save itself; and was his brutally honest self once again on Wednesday. Pitino cited the Big East's failure to bring in football programs during the conference's last expansion as a tactical error this time around, saying that "ten years ago, we just thought basketball, basketball, basketball." Pitino also gave the first of many "money" quotes during the day when he revealed that his problem was with Pittsburgh and Syracuse making the decision to jump to the ACC within a two-day time span. Moreover, Pitino emphatically stated that "this was not a football decision," but rather a "basketball decision to strengthen the ACC," which is looking to reclaim its status as the premier basketball conference in the country.

  • Mike Brey is a broadcaster's and writer's dream to interview.
The Notre Dame coach is always among the most accessible in functions like this; and right away you will tend to feel at home with him because he takes an interest and appreciation in every question he is asked. Not only that, he legitimately enjoys talking to us media members. Brey brings his "A" game every time out, and actually came out with "interview of the day" honors if such a distinction was officially presented. Brey handled realignment very confidently, stating that although Notre Dame would land on its feet wherever it went, he did not want to lose the Big East. The coach surmised the situation better than any analyst I have heard to this point, saying that leagues, much like professional athletes, are listed "day-to-day" now in light of all the rumors. On the court, he mentioned that it would be a three-man race between Joey Brooks, Jerian Grant and Alex Dragicevich to determine who the fifth starter would be for the Irish. When I asked about his early-season scheduling, Brey imparted this nugget: "How smart am I? Three neutral site games: Missouri, (in Kansas City for the CBE Classic) Maryland (in Washington, D.C.) and Indiana. (in Indianapolis) I've got to get my head checked." Brey also likes the prediction of ninth in the preseason poll, saying his team has "been there, done that."

  • Jim Calhoun drew the biggest crowd.
As expected after UConn's miracle run to the national championship, all of us within reach of Calhoun's table flocked over to it as soon as he came into the room, an hour late in fact. Calhoun thought the event started at 11am, and was stuck in traffic after leaving Storrs at 6:30 that morning. Nonetheless, the Hall of Fame coach kept a strong poker face regarding UConn potentially joining the ACC, saying "we're in the best basketball conference in America. That's where we want to be." Calhoun also drew parallels between last year's squad and the team he brings back, stating that although he has a good team this time around, he has no one as magical as Kemba Walker at the moment.

  • The second session started by catching up to two all-around nice guys.
The first was Tony Luftman, the new voice of my employer RedStormSports.com. Luftman, once a team manager for St. John's coach Steve Lavin while attending UCLA, is a broadcaster on the rise; having served most recently as the studio host for the Portland Trail Blazers before coming to the Big Apple for his new role as the voice of the Johnnies. He and I hit it off instantly through recollections of Dick Enberg doing NFL football on NBC in the early 1990s and how his duties with the San Diego Padres limit him from doing as much as he normally would. He also enjoyed hearing about the famous "landline game" I called on WSJU back in 2009. Simply put, I'm really looking forward to working with him. The second was USF head coach Stan Heath, who is by far the nicest and most friendly of all the coaches I have ever interviewed. I feel bad for Heath in a way since USF has never really been able to get over the hump since joining the Big East, unless you count the NIT appearance the Bulls made two years ago. Heath admitted to me that his team really wasn't ready for life without Dominique Jones last season, and is really confident with what he has this year. Augustus Gilchrist and Ron Anderson return up front while the Bulls bring in two transfers named Blake Nash and Victor Rudd to help them out. Throw in Shaun Noriega and backup point guard Anthony Collins, and you may have a sleeper team in the Big East that you can't help but root for given their affable leader.

  • Heath is atop the list of nice guys, but...
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin is a clear second. Cronin walked up and shook my hand before the event officially started, proving that he still remembers me and the fact that I am among his biggest supporters. In what is now my fifth year covering Cronin, his personality has fortunately never changed even in the midst of his program returning to its success of the past. His Cincinnati team should be one of the best incarnations of Bearcats hoops in recent memory, led by senior forward Yancy Gates. Cronin believes Gates will have a big season after putting it together and maintaing consistency down the stretch last year, and also expects big things from sophomore guard and White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick. Always an underrated interview, Mick summed up realignment with an honest quote, stating that there are people who "probably never felt so powerless in their lives."

  • It's really surprising that Buzz Williams' table is never crowded.
I just don't get it. Marquette is perennially good, and Williams is one of the best coaches and personalities in the conference. Somehow or another, he never draws a crowd on the third Wednesday in October. This lack of attention enabled me to get a one-on-one with Buzz for the third consecutive year. The coach was confident that guard Darius Johnson-Odom could be an all-American if he improved on defense, and continued to believe in point guard Junior Cadougan. Each of Williams' four newcomers brings something different to the table, and his continuity up front will ease some of the pressure on the familiar three-guard rotation the Golden Eagles play. If I saw it before media day, I would have definitely asked Williams about his rendition of "Sweet Caroline" from Marquette's midnight madness; but I didn't see it until later that night, and if you haven't yourself, you can now.


  • Everyone is going to love Ed Cooley.
The new guy was afraid of nothing and no one in his first Big East media day, embracing the challenges presented by his dream job in his home city of Providence. Cooley calmly shared his vision of the Friars with us in front of a greater media presence at the Providence table than in any of the previous three conference media days I had attended during the Keno Davis regime. Cooley had a message for his coaching brethren, saying he understands the history of the head men; "but they're in the same league with Ed Cooley, too." The coach also had what I consider to be one of the best lines related to realignment when he said "it is a little wild, but that's what makes it great. I think we all need wild in our life. Keeps it spicy." This man truly is a great guy, just like everyone had told me when he took the job; and you cannot help but root for him to succeed. To all the media members that have not yet met him and will be covering Providence this season, I will say this and only this: You will love him.

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