Stu Jackson addresses state of Big East at conference's media day Wednesday morning at Madison Square Garden. (Photo courtesy of Jason Schott)
By Jason Schott, Associate Contributor - @JESchott19
Former Knicks coach and top NBA executive Stu Jackson is now the Senior Associate Commissioner for Men's Basketball with the Big East Conference.
Jackson was on hand for the Big East Conference's Media Day at Madison Square Garden, and I caught up with him on various topics such as coaching, the best players of the Big East and paying college athletes:
What are the exciting themes of the Big East coming into this season?
Jackson: I think we have a lot of storylines. One is our players, we've got both of of our returning Players of the Year in Ryan Arcidiacono (of Villanova) and Kris Dunn (of Providence) coming back. If you look at our Preseason All-Big East First Team (Arcidiacono, Georgetown's D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Xavier's Jalen Reynolds, and Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones from Butler), it's comprised of players that had great years last year, so it speaks to the strength of our players and some of our teams. The second theme is that, you know, we're alive and well. Looking forward to a great, exciting season. We think the strength of our league top to bottom, since the league has reconfigured (in 2013), is the strongest that it's been. We do have some teams preseason that I think will be top teams nationally, but more importantly, we probably have two or three teams by January that are going to develop, when you look at Providence or Marquette, teams like that, that have been re-tooled, but will be stronger come conference season.
What do you think of St. John's? They underwent a major overhaul with new head coach Chris Mullin.
Jackson: St. John's is an X-Factor. You know, no one really knows, but what you do know is that when teams have that many changes that early on in the season, it'll take some time until they get their sea legs, but the proof with St. John's will really sort of be towards the middle and going into the end of the year, have they gotten better and then started to gel?
By "middle of the season," you mean when Big East play begins, because St. John's has always played a rather easy non-conference schedule, and that Big East play will be the real gut check?
Jackson: That's exactly right, because then they've had two months to really sort of get themselves galvanized as a unit, you know, offensively and defensively, and that'll be a truer indicator of who they are, not in the beginning of the season.
Going back to the strength of the Big East, two years ago, people had some doubts about it being only a ten-team conference after losing schools like Syracuse, Connecticut, and Louisville, but being here today feels like old times.
Jackson: "Old times" meaning that what is still intact is you got the seven schools from the old conference (St. John's, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova,Marquette, DePaul) and three new ones (Butler, Creighton, Xavier), all of whom have added great value to the league, but you're starting to develop the rivalries you had in the old days. For me, when I look at the schedule, yeah, it's funny, some of those rivalries have changed, like I'm actually really looking forward to Butler-Georgetown or Xavier-Villanova, those are very compelling games. The ten-team league really gives us the advantage of truly getting an indicator of who the true champion is, because you play everybody two times.
Is that because the style of plays match up well? For example, Xavier is tough in the mold of Georgetown, and Creighton shoots from the outside like a Providence would.
Jackson: There's no question, if you look at the way Xavier plays, they're very creative offensively, and you put them against someone like Georgetown, whose offensive system has been proven over the test of time, and that's a very compelling matchup. The job that coach Greg McDermott does at Creighton, I think you're really going to see this season because they've gotten a little more athletic than they have been during their transition into the Big East, in part because they've had to, so they're going to be a little different. There's different styles, different type teams, but the one rock bottom common denominator is this league has some great coaches, and that's always been the history of the Big East.
Any surprises, like will this be the year Seton Hall stays at the top all the way through?
Jackson: I think Seton Hall is going to be as good directly proportional to their ability to come together as a team and mature. If they do that, no one questions their talent level because they have it. When you talk about (Angel) Delgado and (Isaiah) Whitehead and (Khadeen) Carrington, they're legitimate, talented players and, if they can really galvanize themselves, they're heading for a terrific year. Again, they're one of the teams, like in January, let's see where they are, and if they continue to get better, with their talent level, they're going to be a formidable team.
How are you liking your work personally at the Big East?
Jackson: I'm enjoying it, I mean, I'm enjoying the challenge. You mentioned it, people sort of said the Big East was going away, I get the hair up on the back of my neck when people say that. The challenge is to make sure we stay out there relevant, that we're getting our message out there, that the broadcast is good, that we continue to recruit well, retain good coaches, and any way that I can help in that is great, and it's been a lot of fun.
You bring a wealth of knowledge to this, having been a coach in this building (with the Knicks) and experience in the NBA league office, how has that helped you get to know these coaches?
Jackson: It's helped me get to know them. I knew most of them personally before I took the job, but it's just helped me understand from their perspective the pressures that they're under, the concerns that they have. Having been a coach before, we're all crazy, right, and we should be, because you have to be crazy and passionate about trying to accomplish what you want to on the court and that takes a real singleness of purpose and I get that, I understand that. My job is to understand that, and yet, incorporate the conference initiatives and hopefully meet their needs.
How do you think Chris Mullin will do at St. John's?
Jackson: I've personally known Chris Mullin for longer than I care to acknowledge (said to laughter), and I know him as a person and he's a very smart individual, his passion about the game, but more importantly, my sense with him early on here at St. John's is that he's trying to do it the right way, in that he's building a culture and an expectation level for his players that will sustain itself, and that's the way he has to do it. I'm glad that's the approach he's taking and, in time, he'll get there.
You coached Mark Jackson with the Knicks and he was linked to the St. John's job, could you see him coaching again in the NBA or college?
Jackson: I think Mark will get another opportunity in the NBA, without question. The Golden State Warriors won the championship last year and there's no one that can really ignore Mark Jackson's contribution to that team. He established a defensive mindset with the Warriors that carried over to Steve Kerr. Steve Kerr made it better by offensively tweaking them and making them the most efficient NBA team on both sides of the ball. Mark will get another opportunity and I think that's probably where he sees his home.
This summer, there was a lot of progress with regards to paying athletes, and that it is generally accepted that conferences will give student-athletes the "cost of attendance" in addition to their scholarships. Will he Big East adhere to this?
Jackson: We absolutely are, particularly with respect to men's and women's basketball. I know we say this, but we really mean it, when it comes to basketball and the Big East, the name is synonymous and we're going to do everything we can with respect to basketball. We're in this for the long haul.
I talked with Clark Kellogg of CBS Sports, who has kids that play college sports, this past March, and he was adamant that conferences should provide the cost of attendance, that this should be the resolution.
Jackson: It should be, and the climate is right, and frankly, it's the right thing to do for college athletics and these student-athletes.
Do you think the one thing with these players coming in that they're a little more savvy, that they see FOX Sports here covering this conference, and they're aware of contracts and how much money is made off of them?
Jackson: There's no question, from my own experience, the level of education, savvy as you call it, and knowledge of the world around them, you know, us old-timers can sit around and tall about how smart we were, it doesn't compare to these kids today - it just does not. You can't pull the wool over their eyes, they understand at some level the business of professional athletics and the business of collegiate athletics. They understand that they have a lot of skin in the game as a student-athlete, a lot of hours working at their athletic craft and a lot of hours, obviously, academically, and it's demanding, but they have a knowledge of what's going on around them. I think that's a positive.