NEW YORK – Georgetown coach John Thompson III doesn't mind that his Hoyas were picked seventh in the Big East's preseason coaches' poll. That's because Thompson knows there are teams picked behind his that are capable of winning it all.
"You could take the teams picked first, second and third and they could finish seventh, eighth and ninth," Thompson said at the Big East's annual media day at Madison Square Garden. "The teams picked seventh, eighth and ninth could finish first, second and third and that wouldn't surprise any coach in this league. When you look around the league, it's all about a magnification of small differences."
The league's preseason poll made that much clear. Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh were picked first, second and third, respectively, and each received at least three first-place votes. Notre Dame, picked fourth, also received a first-place vote. Those four programs combine to return 16 starters.
Georgetown, Syracuse and West Virginia were picked seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively. The Hoyas return three starters from a team that won the league regular-season title and racked up 28 wins last season. The Orange return four starters and get two injured standouts back from a team that narrowly missed out an NCAA bid. West Virginia brings back five players – including double-digit scorers Alex Ruoff (13.8 ppg) and Da'Sean Butler (12.9 ppg) – who were part of a rotation that led the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16.
Villanova and Marquette are fifth and sixth. The Wildcats return all five starters from a squad that also advanced to the Sweet 16. Marquette also returns all five starters from a team that reached the second round of tournament.
Even Providence, picked 10th, returns five starters.
The league boasts an extraordinary amount of talent and experience. Ten of the top 11 rebounders and 13 of the top 18 scorers return.
"We had a vision of what the league could be when we expanded (in 2005-06), but in our wildest dreams never thought it could be quite like this," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who already has announced he will step down in June. "There is no more difficult conference in the country to compete or to coach in."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who began coaching the Orange in 1976-77, three years before the Big East formed, said, "This is the best I have ever seen the Big East – by far."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who coached in the league's glory days in the mid-1980s at Providence, believes the talk of the Big East sending what would be a record nine teams to the NCAA tournament – it set the current mark with eight twice – is actually selling the league a little short.
"I think we are going to get 10 teams in," Pitino said. "I really do. There are 12 teams with a legitimate chance.
"Obviously, a lot depends on how much we beat each other up."
Pitino touched on what is the underlying fear among the league's coaches and administrators: A handful of quality teams could be hovering around .500 in league play, and in turn endanger their chances of landing an at-large NCAA bid.
"The problem is will the league records be devalued if someone goes 9-9 or 8-10?" DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright. "That's why we need to approach our non-conference games like Big East games."
THABEET GOES ON
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun believes 7-foot-3 junior center Hasheem Thabeet can be better than the Big East Player of the Year. Calhoun believes Thabeet could be in the mix for national player of the year awards.
That would be quite a leap for Thabeet, a native of Tanzania. He was a tremendous force defensively last season, ranking third nationally with 4.5 blocks per game. But he was just the fourth-leading scorer on the team, averaging 10.5 points per game.
"In my opinion, he has a chance to have the greatest impact on the game of any player," Calhoun said. "(North Carolina's Tyler) Hansbrough is the greatest scorer, but he doesn't make the kind of difference Hasheem does defensively. He turns the paint into a red zone and makes it very difficult to go in there."
Calhoun also said he believes UConn can beat out the heavily favored Tar Heels for the national title and listed a number of factors that need to happen for the Huskies to win it all.
"We need (guard) A.J. (Price) to fully mature into the A.J. of last season," Calhoun said. "We need Hasheem to be dominating. We need (forward) Jeff (Adrien) to be the warrior he's been in the past and we need the freshmen to contribute."
Price has been practicing and is expected to fully recover from a torn ACL suffered in the Huskies' first-round NCAA loss to San Diego. He will have some help in the backcourt with the addition of freshman Kemba Walker, a five-star recruit. Walker was one of the top players at the U-18 World Championships this past summer in Argentina, where he led the Americans to a silver medal.
Calhoun says he plans to play Price and Walker together, pointing out that point guards Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore co-existed well enough to lead the Huskies to the 1999 national title.
"I like to have two guards run the team," Calhoun said. "I think it makes it easier."
BIGGER TOURNAMENT EQUALS HAPPIER COACHES
All 16 teams will qualify for the league tournament this season – only the top 12 had qualified since the Big East expanded to 16 teams in 2005-06 – and the move has drawn rave reviews from coaches.
Since Jamie Dixon took over at Pitt five seasons ago, the Panthers haven't finished lower than seventh. But Dixon may be the biggest advocate of the new rule.
"I know the Big East office wasn't for it, but I don't understand their view," Dixon said. "I was concerned about the format, but the seeding was made very simple. The top eight teams play the same amount of games. Only four teams are at a disadvantage because they have to win one more game to win the tournament.
"But that one game could help them get into the NIT or even the NCAA this year because I believe that ninth team will be fighting for an NCAA bid. All in all, I think it's a complete positive."
Wainwright and some of the coaches who are used to finishing near the bottom can better appreciate the expansion.
"From a purist perspective and the perspective of the fans, it's great to have to fight for those 12 spots," Wainwright said. "But it's not best for the student-athlete. The players that don't go don't get the gifts that the league hands out to every player that does. That's not right. Everyone in this league should experience the best it has to offer, and the league tournament is the best experience."
HOYAS GROOMING NEXT STAR
Big East coaches did not vote for a preseason rookie of the year, as they have in the past, but Georgetown freshman big man Greg Monroe may be the silent favorite. Monroe, the No. 8 prospect in the class, likely will start in place of departed 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who was a first-round draft pick.
"Greg has God-given skills, but he doesn't have the luxury of time," Thompson said. "We need him to contribute and contribute at a high level."
Teammates already are taken with Monroe's game and the way he handles himself on and off the court.
"I'm impressed with Greg," said Georgetown junior forward Dajuan Summers, one of 10 selections to the preseason all-conference team. "He's gotten a lot of hype, but I've yet to see him indulge any of those things and you often see that from young guys who come out of high school with so much attention. He's got a real level head and is very mature. He's also a very dynamic big man and has a phenomenal basketball I.Q."
Marquette promoted former assistant Buzz Williams, 36, to replace Tom Crean - who left for Indiana - in one of the more puzzling hires of the offseason. That notion doesn't seem to have gotten lost on Williams.
"My first feeling when I got the job was just being grateful," Williams said. "It's not easy to get a job today, and it's very tough to get a job as a head coach. To get one at one of the most storied programs in this kind of league is very humbling."
Williams, who joined the Marquette staff last season, has only one year of head-coaching experience – a 14-17 campaign at New Orleans in 2006-07 – and inherits a program built for a deep NCAA run. Marquette returns four starters from a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. That includes three senior guards – Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews – who make up arguably the nation's top backcourt.
McNeal says the team was relieved to find that the school did not go outside the program to find its next coach.
"We have such a mature, older team that to bring in someone new with a different style and different offense would have been wrong," he said. "We needed someone who was on the same page."
Much of Williams' past two months on the job have been spent trying to help freshman center Chris Otule deal with a severe case of homesickness.
"I would say a month ago Chris was living the most miserable existence of any student-athlete," Williams said. "He's 18 and 1,200 miles from home and suddenly going to study hall three hours a day at one of the nation's top academic schools. In the last 30 days, he has progressed faster than any other freshman I've been around. He's growing a lot more comfortable with everything."
Marquette may need Otule, who Williams says has "great growth potential," to develop faster than originally expected because sophomore forward Trevor Mbakwe informed Williams last Friday that he was transferring to a junior college. Williams did not object to the move.
"Trevor called me and said, 'My people have decided I need to go to a junior college.' I told him, 'If that's what your people are saying then that's what you need to do,' " Williams said. "I don't want guys that aren't committed."
MORE COACHING MAGIC?
Providence's Keno Davis, the only other new coach in the league, already sounded like a Big East coach who feels the pressure to win immediately. Davis led Drake to a shocking 28-win season in his first year as a head coach last season, an 11-game improvement from the Bulldogs' previous campaign.
"We're trying to speed things up," Davis said. "What we did in four to five years at Drake we are trying to do in four to five months here."
Davis plans for the Friars to create more fast breaks and play a more aggressive brand of man-to-man defense while also mixing in some full-court pressure. The team returns all five starters and gets back point guard Sharaud Curry, who only played one game last season. Curry averaged 15.3 points and 4.4 assists in 2006-07.
Another change will include moving point forward Geoff McDermott off the ball and into the post more. That's just fine with McDermott, who has been a playmaker his entire career. "I get to focus more on one thing, so that will make things easier," McDermott said.
TO BE ELIGIBLE OR TO NOT BE ELIGIBLE
One of the hottest topics at the media day was how the NCAA should handle hardship waivers for transfers seeking immediate eligibility. Seton Hall has applied for one for Herb Pope, a former five-star recruit who played at New Mexico State last season. So has South Florida for big man Gus Gilchrist, a four-star recruit who was enrolled at Maryland but never played for the ACC school.
"It's very possible that Gus could be playing by December, and it's very possible that Gus may have to wait until next year," USF coach Stan Heath said.
USF sophomore guard Dominique Jones, who averaged 18.2 points in league play last season, had some bold statements when it came to the possible impact Gilchrist could make.
"I'm not predicting anything, but if we get Gilchrist, we are going to be one of the better teams in the league," Jones said. "He's got a unique case, and the NCAA is trying to determine what's in the best interest of the student-athlete. We are all anxious to find out."
The Bulls know they are getting at least one transfer in mid-December. Former Georgia guard Mike Mercer, who was a five-star recruit, must sit out the fall semester.
"Mike is explosive," Heath said. "He plays above the rim and can really make a lot of things happen."
Louisville guard Andre McGee has lost between 15 to 20 pounds and now weighs close to 170 … Marquette's Williams says he has read all the books written by Big East coaches, including Calhoun's "A Passion to Lead" and Pitino's autobiography, "Born to Coach." … West Virginia forward Da'Sean Butler spent part of the summer in Taiwan playing with Athletes In Action … Davis, whose father, Tom Davis, was the former Boston College coach when the Eagles were in the Big East, gives the league its second ever father-son coaching tandem. The first was the Thompsons at Georgetown.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.