NEW YORK – Eighteen is the magic number in the Big East this season.
The conference raised the number of league games from 16 to 18, and the move was the hot topic at the Big East media day on Wednesday. The Big Ten, which made the same move during the offseason, and the Pac-10 are the only other conferences with 18-game league schedules.
In an attempt to create more balance and a bigger TV contract, every Big East team will play each other at least once and face three opponents twice. The league also made a conscious effort, as it has done since expanding to 16 teams in 2005, to make sure the teams projected to finish at or near the top face each other twice.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been the most vocal critic of the new format. Pitino said he would have put together a less rigorous nonconference slate if he had known about the additional league games. The Cardinals, picked in a tie for first with Georgetown in the preseason coaches' poll, face arguably the league's toughest schedule. They have a home-and-away series against the Hoyas, Marquette (picked third) and Rutgers (15th), along with road trips to Connecticut (sixth) and Pittsburgh (fourth). They also play Purdue in Indianapolis, travel to Kentucky and UNLV and are in the Las Vegas Invitational field which includes BYU and North Carolina.
"If you study the NCAA Tournament, you know that high seeds have a much better chance of reaching the Final Four," Pitino said. "How are you going to get a high seed with this conference schedule? Personally, I think 18 is too much. I like 16."
The main concern is how it will affect the Big East's chances of getting as many teams as possible into the NCAA Tournament, especially after Syracuse went 10-6 in league play last season but didn't receive a bid.
"In my personal opinion, it makes it tougher to get more of our teams into the (NCAA) tournament," Connecticut's Jim Calhoun said. "I don't think it's the best way. When we were a nine-league team, we got seven into the tournament a couple of times. We aren't getting that (percentage) here."
Calhoun said having more league games may lead him to schedule easier nonconference opponents next season. This season, the Huskies play host to Georgia Tech, visit Indiana and are part of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament field which features Kentucky, Memphis and Oklahoma.
When Georgetown's John Thompson III was asked his feelings on the 18-game schedule, he let out a long sigh, ran his fingers across his forehead and took a big gulp of water before replying.
"It is brutal," Thompson said. "It was already a difficult schedule, and now it's even more difficult. There is no parity in the schedule. Some teams have an inordinate amount of Saturday and Monday games. Each coach could give you reasons why it is not fair."
There are some coaches who see advantages.
"I think it's probably a good thing in the end," Syracuse's Jim Boeheim said. "They say it hurts your RPI, but it's probably good to play everybody."
Syracuse finished at No. 50 in the Ratings Percentage Index last season, perhaps the biggest factor in why the Orange weren't invited to NCAA Tournament.
"The schedule has a lot of big hits and can be overwhelming, but I think there is a good balance there," Notre Dame's Mike Brey said.
Brey believes the old format hurt the Irish on the recruiting trail.
"With 18 games, we will come east more," Brey said. "That allows us to get more of a recruiting foothold in the east. Two years ago, it seemed like we didn't play many of the East Coast teams."
BIG EAST PROJECTIONS
Here's a look at the Preseason Big East Coaches' Poll, with first place votes in parenthesis.
Pitino doesn't anticipate any more disciplinary problems involving sophomore power forward Derrick Caracter, but he doesn't expect Caracter to be around next season, either.
"Derrick is probably going to make the leap to the next level after this year," Pitino said.
Pitino believes Caracter is poised for a breakout season after the five-star recruit made some major lifestyle changes.
Caracter showed up to school several pounds overweight last season, was suspended on multiple occasions and consequently missed 16 games.
"He was a very big distraction last year," Pitino said.
"I was either going to ask him to leave or change myself. I gave him more rope than any other player I ever coached, and he taught me a lesson that I should never give up on people. He's changed so much in one year. He's more caring and he's more mature."
The monster mash
Connecticut power forward Jeff Adrien's response to a question about the Huskies' national-championship hopes may best indicate how the atmosphere has changed around the program following a 17-14 season and a 6-10 league record. It was the first time since Calhoun's first season at UConn in 1986-87 that the Huskies missed the postseason.
"National championship? At UConn?" Adrien said with a surprising look.
"We were one of the last teams to get into the Big East Tournament last season. We have to prove ourselves."
The return of a bigger and more-developed Hasheem Thabeet, who averaged a league-high 3.8 blocks a game last season, will help with that.
Thabeet, a 7-foot-3 sophomore center, says he has gained nearly 15 pounds since last season and now weighs 268.
Thabeet spent time in the offseason working with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon and two former UConn big men now in the NBA: Emeka Okafor and Hilton Armstrong.
"I think Hasheem could be an offensive monster and a monster on the glass," Adrien said. "A year ago, he was struggling to make a hook shot. But he has become really hard to stop in practice. Now, it's just a matter of letting that monster out."
Don't sleep on the Friars
When asked about a dark horse in the league, coaches and players routinely mentioned Providence. The Friars return three juniors from an 18-13 team that reached the NIT, including two guards who averaged well into double-figures - Sharaud Curry (15.3 ppg) and Weyinmi Efejuku (14.1 ppg) - and versatile forward Geoff McDermott (9.1 rpg, 5.1 apg). McDermott was voted onto the league's 10-player preseason all-conference team.
"I think Providence is flying under the radar more than any other team," DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said. "They've been knocking on the door and been able to keep their nucleus together. They won't surprise us coaches, but I don't think America knows about them."
McDermott was leading the league in rebounding and assists at one point last season, but a knee injury slowed down considerably in the final weeks. He says he is healthy after offseason surgery.
"I wasn't as explosive, and I couldn't move as quickly or jump how I wanted," McDermott said. "The doctors say the knee is even stronger than before now."
Curry's healthy could determine Providence's chances of making a surprise climb up the league standings. He broke his foot in early October, and will likely miss the season-opener against Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
• Syracuse five-star recruits Jonny Flynn and Donte Green were voted the co-preseason rookies of the year. Both played for the American team at the U-19 World Championships in July. "It's exciting to watch them play," Syracuse junior guard Eric Devendorf said. "They are both poised beyond their years. I think playing overseas will be a big help in making the transition from high school to college."
• Many Pittsburgh players expect center DeJuan Blair to be in the mix for the rookie award. Blair, a 6-7, 250-pounder, has lost nearly 50 pounds in the past year and will be counted on to help replace departed 7-footer Aaron Gray. "I think DeJuan is going to be a great player," Pitt guard Keith Benjamin said. "He does things that wow me and the coaches. He tries to dunk everything he touches and tries to grab every rebound. He wants to be physical." That was apparent in a recent scrimmage, when Blair had 17 points and a team-high 17 rebounds.
New West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said the most difficult part of leaving Kansas State was telling Wildcats forward Bill Walker he was moving on.
Walker, a former five-star recruit, accelerated his academics to enroll at K-State a year early, but he tore an ACL and played in just six games.
"I spent an hour and 45 minutes talking with Bill that morning," Huggins said. "I read where he said he was mad his coach left, but happy his friend got to go back home."
Huggins, a WVU alum, said he never expected the Mountaineers' job to come open.
Big East bias?
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and many coaches remain upset about Syracuse's exclusion from the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
"I didn't say anything publicly at the time, but I didn't think it was right," Tranghese said. "Many of the coaches feel we are being arbitrated against. I've looked at it and studied it, but can't rationalize it. I'm hoping the (NCAA selection) committee made an error."
Tranghese won't remain quiet again if a similar situation arises: "If it happens again, we'll have a problem."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.