Monday, October 23, 2017

Once under pressure, Willard now living in moment and enjoying success at Seton Hall

Kevin Willard was firmly on hot seat after a tumultuous fifth year at Seton Hall. Three years and a Big East championship later, an upward rise has changed not only his job security, but his approach as well. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)

NEW YORK -- Kevin Willard remembers when it almost came crashing down.

A second-half swoon to conclude the 2014-15 season turned a Top 25 ranking and promise of postseason play into what could have been, losses in nine of Seton Hall's last ten games and alleged locker room friction that led to then-sophomore guard Jaren Sina departing the program serving as a bitter memento of what was initially heralded as a new era in South Orange, as a five-pronged freshman class led by Brooklyn's Isaiah Whitehead was supposed to take the Pirates to greater heights. Instead, it placed Willard; who at that point had only one postseason appearance on his ledger since replacing Bobby Gonzalez in 2010, squarely on the hot seat in regard to his future on the sidelines.

"Going into my fifth year, I pretty much knew I was getting fired if I didn't win," he revealed at Wednesday's Big East Conference media day, held on the Madison Square Garden floor in which his career-defining triumph; Seton Hall's 2016 conference championship victory, took place. "Going into year five, I had sat down with my AD (Pat Lyons), and I agreed with him. I told him, 'you've given me enough time. It's either we get it done or you get rid of me,' and I agreed with him."

The determination to succeed at the highest level in college basketball is a slippery slope to navigate, no matter your credentials as a coach. For Willard, who learned from a Hall of Fame mentor in Rick Pitino before setting out on his own a decade ago at Iona, which led him to Seton Hall, the trademark intensity displayed by his former boss was on full display, exponentially manifesting itself in how he approached both his players and even menial decisions not related to the hardwood.

"It goes to your practice plan, it goes to if I don't shave, if I wear a red tie and not a blue tie," he divulged, sharing the lengths to which his drive to win would go. "You get to that point where -- my kids were nine and seven at the time, and you tell your kids, 'hey, we're moving' -- you get to that point and it's kind of weird. Once you realize, 'hey, life goes on, you're going be somewhere else next year, you're going to be doing something different,' it's a weird feeling."

Willard's players made sure their coach would not be done in by his own demons. A non-conference season highlighted by a thrilling overtime win over Wichita State was the precursor to a Big East slate that saw a resurgent Pirate squad win nine of its last eleven regular season contests to enter the Garden and the Big East tournament as a legitimate threat to league favorite Villanova. Authoritative and businesslike takedowns of Creighton and Xavier in the first two rounds, followed by an epic title win over Villanova, all paced by Whitehead running the offense from the point guard spot while Khadeen Carrington broke out in the backcourt and Angel Delgado dominated down low. And despite a crushing NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga, the deep drive into March changed the narrative of not only the recent fortunes of the program, but also of its embattled head coach, who gained vindication in a vow he made to Lyons before the season even began.

"I had confidence in that group, and that's what I told him more than anything," said Willard. "I said, 'Pat, we came real close this year, and obviously it was a debacle the way it ended. I'm not gonna deny that.' But I said this group is going to do something special if you stick with us, and to his credit, he saw it too where I think a lot of athletic directors might not have seen it. I'm not sure if he believed in me or he believed in this group, but he saw the same thing I saw, and that doesn't always happen."

"When you don't have that pressure on you, and you can just coach your team and have fun coaching your team, it's amazing, the difference in how much a better coach you are," Willard; now a seasoned veteran entering his eighth year at the helm of the Pirates, albeit still only 42 years of age, cheerfully proclaimed. "As my wife said, she enjoyed that year more than anything because she thought I was a better husband, a better father and a better coach because I didn't have the pressure of saying, 'well, I have to get this done someway, somehow.' I just went out there and I just concentrated on coaching my team the best I could and having fun with this team. When you do that as a coach, your players don't feel the pressure. They don't really worry about all the stuff that you're going through, and I think you become a better coach."

The weight of the world seemingly lifted after breaking through and reaching the NCAA Tournament, then following up with a second consecutive berth in the field of 68 this past March, Willard has undergone an evolution in not only the way he approaches a game, but also his demeanor as well. Gone is the tense scowl, for the most part, replaced by a much steadier outlook and more placid sense of direction that can be traced back to the revelatory moment he had in the summer of 2015.

"I think my guys will say that too," he said when asked if he coaches differently than he did at the start of his tenure at Seton Hall. "I haven't yelled at this group since their sophomore year. Practices are fun. I enjoy it so much more now that I've taken the pressure of 'I'm gonna get fired' -- when you have that on you, I just don't think you coach -- I don't think you do anything good."

"When you win a championship on this floor and you're walking off, the pressure is still there," he cautioned, "but you look at it differently. I look at coaching much differently now. I said to myself, 'why was I able to be a better coach?' And I realized that the pressure I put on myself, I was putting on my players, so I don't put that pressure on myself anymore because I don't want them to have that pressure. I want them to enjoy playing for me and I want to enjoy coaching them."

Friday, October 20, 2017

The dynamics of the pay debate in college basketball

Villanova's Jay Wright was one of many coaches this week who fielded questions about recent FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball and whether players should be compensated. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)

NEW YORK -- The Big East and Big Ten Conferences held their media days at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and Thursday, and the pay-to-play issue was more apparent than ever.

The elephant in the room was the FBI investigation into the bribery that went on with recruiting between assistant coaches at many schools and the sneaker companies, and resulted in the firing of longtime Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. This made it more apparent than ever that the players need to be paid and that college basketball is in serious need of reform.

The dynamic in college sports right now is the establishment with the coaches who want it to stay the same and preserve their multi-million dollar contracts, while outsiders see the need for reform.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright said, "this is eye-opening to all of us, but there are a lot of great things going on in college basketball." Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said, "there's going to be 10 percent problems in every profession." Providence head coach Ed Cooley provided a counterpoint to Izzo's assertion, stating that "99 percent of the colleges in America do it the right way" in regard to corruption in the game, but weighed both the positives and negatives of paying student-athletes in such a way that he considered himself "caught in between" on the compensation issue.

Former UCLA and St. John's head coach and current FOX analyst Steve Lavin proposed a bank be formed for players with financial hardship and acknowledged the "ambiguity, contradiction, (and) irony" that is inherent in college sports. Former Knicks legend and new Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing said, "at some point, they're going to have to be able to pay them."

Below are their comments on the FBI investigation and reforming the system, and my take on their ideas:

Jay Wright, Villanova head coach: "We understand that. (the perception of a corrupt system) You can't hide from that. This is eye-opening to all of us, but there are a lot of great things going on in college basketball. We can't disregard it, we've got to work hard to change things, and I think all of us will. We'll all, all the coaches will work together, hopefully with the NBA and this new committee that gets formed. But then that's all we can do there. There's still a lot of great kids in college basketball, a lot of great programs, a lot of great coaches, and we've got to try to focus on that as we go through the season."

"Any time anything happens like this in life you take stock of your own program, yourself. It's one of the things we tell our guys all the time, any time something happens, the first thing you have to look at is yourself, what can I do? What can I do to improve? What can I do to impact the situation and then look outward? I think that's the first thing all of us did was make sure in our own program that we have everything buttoned up and running properly."

On what he wants the commission to attack and the one thing that can make immediate changes to the sport, Wright said, "I think there's just got to be an authenticity to amateur college basketball and pro basketball, both of them and I think they've got to be completely separate, in that, I would like to see the NBA invest in the G-League (formerly the D-League, but now with Gatorade, hence the 'G,' as sponsor) so young men that are talented enough to play professionally in the NBA or G-League can go right out of high school and make money. They need money, so they want to make money, but then guys that want to just go to college to play college basketball and they want to be in college and they want to go to class, they're the guys that want to play college basketball. They should have to stay three years if they want to make that commitment. I think that's a start. It's not going to solve everything, but I think that's a basic fundamental start that college basketball and the NBA have to work together on."

Schott's take: Wright is in an alternate universe making college basketball seem as if it's this little game played out in a barn somewhere like when James Naismith founded the sport. This is a multi-billion dollar industry at this point, and for him to make it seem as if there is no way these kids can get some money from all they bring to these schools is beyond absurd. The NCAA has contracts with CBS, FOX, ESPN, and Turner Sports that run into the billions, and he has the gall to float the idea that the G-League can pay the players. The G-League has teams in such hot spots as Fort Wayne, Canton, and Delaware. To show how big the then-D-League is, the Long Island Nets last year played their games at Barclays Center in the afternoon before Brooklyn Nets games, and drew maybe ten people. There is nothing "authentic" or amateur about college basketball with all the TV money being thrown around. Also, Wright talks about the classes they're taking. Yeah, Basket Weaving 101 is gonna really help these kids. That does not include all the classes some poor grad assistant is doing the work for these basketball players, who routinely have to play games across the country for some 9:30 p.m. FOX Sports showcase.

Steve Lavin, current FOX analyst, former UCLA and St. John's head coach: "The amateur story and amateurism is what appeals to college basketball and football fans, and Madison Avenue is aware. Networks and Madison Avenue are aware of the appealing aspect of the amateur narrative and the student-athlete that comes through a university competes on the various playing fields, graduates and you know moves in life better prepared, you know, to contribute and carve out something special. So, and that's why it's very challenging to find this happy medium, this amateur narrative and amateurism is protected so we don't lose college basketball and football fans, those that also follow religiously Olympic sports."

"Yet, we also have to balance that with, times have changed and we need to find a creative way to help those student-athletes that have real financial hardship, and that's why I've proposed through the years an idea of an NCAA Bank where families can qualify for those dollars based on their financial hardship."

On the commission: "The right amount of people putting their heads together from all different levels, I think within a year we'll see some changes, within two or three years more dramatic changes. I do think that there are certain junctures in our respective sports that events transpire and they serve as a catalyst for change in the paradigm, putting the new model in place that makes sense for the most parties involved."

On the public perception of college basketball, that it is a corrupt system: "I do think there's some ambiguity, contradiction, irony that is inherent in all billion-dollar industries, and so there isn't the sense of shock like a young person finding out there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. I think those that follow college sports closely, you know, are aware of how competitive industry and while it's imperfect and has its flaws, the good still outweighs the bad, and it's still a system that has a lot to offer and has been life-changing for the majority of student-athletes that compete in their various sports. But, with that said, it would be foolish to not continue to find better ways to both protect what's great about the game, but also be realistic about those that have real financial hardship and needs and a way to find a middle ground through real thinking and in a collaborative manner, and using vision and creative ingenuity to take that next step."

Schott's take: Lavin is right on the money that the story and the myth of "amateurs" that CBS and Turner trot out every March Madness is very appealing. It's as if the exploited players are acting out the part in their three-week drama. He is also very realistic in that college sports can be very beneficial, but the NCAA has a blind eye to the fact that kids don't have pocket change to get dinner and then have the nerve, as has been documented many times, to punish coaches that give a player ten bucks for dinner.

Lavin has the most informed view because he coached UCLA for years, then was an ESPN announcer before coaching St. John's from 2010 to 2015. He is not interested, like Wright is, in preserving a broken system that might threaten his multi-million dollar contract. However, he does not want to see self-interested guys like Wright bring down a system that can easily be reformed.

Patrick Ewing, Georgetown head coach: "I mean, at some point, they're going to have to be able to pay them. It's a lot of money in college sports, so at some point they're going to have to be able to pay these athletes."

Schott's take: It takes an outsider to say something so painfully obvious. Everyone is getting rich except the guys that actually play the games. Instead, it's all for the glory of the coaches.

Tom Izzo, Michigan State head coach: "You know, I think the biggest thing -- and not knowing everything that's gone on -- I mean what you read is -- no insult to you guys -- it isn't always 100 percent true. And what you see, what you hear, as it comes out, could be worse. But I think like every walk of life right now -- Jud Heathcote, rest his soul, used to always tell me about the 10 percent rule. There's going to be 10 percent problems in every profession, whether it be coaching, whether it be in business, whether it be writers. I guess you could go to policemen to priests nowadays to everybody, there's a 10 percent."

"So I wouldn't paint the brush over college basketball or football or athletics. But I do think we need to shore up some things, to be honest with you. I think there's just getting to be too many people involved with these kids in general where their circle used to be very tight. In the last 15 years the circle has grown. In the Twitter era, the circle has exploded. I'm not sure that's good for them or good for us or good for basketball."

Schott's take: In 2014, when college football players were looking to unionize, he said at Madison Square Garden that he hopes his kid doesn't ask for a later bedtime because of it. This showed how dismissive he is of the thought of paying the players. The fact he took a page from the Donald Trump playbook and blamed the media for their problems is a joke. What is the media supposed to do, NOT report on the FBI investigation? Izzo is in dream land, and the fact he coaches a state school and is the highest paid public employee in Michigan is cringe-worthy. Think any of the millions spent on his salary could have gone to keeping the water clean in Flint, Michigan?

Ed Cooley, Providence head coach: "I think it's an overreaction because it's such a punch in the gut. When you look at the amount of young men whose lives have been changed because of scholarships and the generations of lives that all change, not everybody is a rotten apple, and the ones that are spoil the bunch. And I will stand by that -- 99 percent of the colleges in America do it the right way."

On whether the college game is dirty, and whether it upsets him: "Well, it upsets us because we're part of it. And when you say the college game is dirty, we're all part of it, and that's not the truth. In any industry, there's going to be issues, there's going to be people that try to take shortcuts to success, and we're all not like that. Our job is to make sure we stay compliant, change young men's lives and give them an opportunity to give back somewhere else."

On whether players should be paid: "I'm caught in between on that because we, as coaches, profit from it -- the schools do -- but at the same time, ask student-athletes what they need. Our players are fed, they're educated, they're clothed, they travel first class. What do they really need, versus what they really want? There's a want and a need in that, and I think our players get what they need to be successful."

On whether players should be able to market themselves freely: "There has to be a happy medium somewhere, but to pay the athletes, I don't know. I really don't know, because we; as a college, are putting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources into them, and if it wasn't done in the past -- I'm caught on that one. We want them to have stuff and we give it to them, and the NCAA has allowed -- they've loosened the purse strings to allow them to eat as much as they want, how we travel. They get what they need to be successful."

On whether it makes him angry to see players and coaches paid under the table, a la Louisville: "Does it make me angry? Yes, because we're part of the madness, and we're viewed in a certain way. As I told these gentlemen here, 99 percent of us are doing it the right way. It's that one percent that puts a negative twist on this. Like I said, I'm gonna sleep great tonight."

Schott's take: Cooley is taking the glass-half-full approach to this, and going higher than Izzo, making an unprovable claim that 99 percent of schools are clean, and of course that includes his own. I bet Rick Pitino claimed his program was clean before he was fired too! It is also remarkable that he thinks these kids get a good education. The deal has been that the players get no pay and the school is supposed to provide them a solid education. That certainly is not the case at, to quote his figure, 99 percent of schools.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Big Ten Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- The festivities continued.

On Thursday, Madison Square Garden played host to the Big Ten media day. The conference will stage its postseason get-together at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” so it was natural to tip off the season in the storied edifice.
Commissioner Jim Delany opened the event, with remarks from the conference coaches following. Media also had the opportunity to interview coaches and players in breakout sessions. As expected, some responses fell into the category of scripted. The word “excited” was employed to the nth degree. There were meaningful opinions regarding the move to a 20-game conference schedule next season, as well as the week off between the conference tournament starting a week earlier.
Sometimes, these media days embrace a universal value or topic. This was certainly the case on this sun-drenched fall day. While the FBI investigations in college basketball were mentioned, there was another item, for the time being, drawing more attention: The opportunity to showcase the Big Ten Tournament at the Garden was something discussed by all coaches. And, it should be stressed, it was a subject talked about with a fervor suggesting the said coaches would hit the sideline in a New York minute. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo called the Garden the Mecca of basketball. He is not the first, but does have firsthand experience coaching on the big stage a number of times.  
There was a notable air of excitement among coaches of the self-proclaimed best conference in America, not a bit of surprise in that regard. The conference with over a century of history and midwestern roots is now headed east for its debut on Broadway.

The Big Ten with the official welcome in the Madison Square Garden lobby:
Some of the players in attendance, entering the Garden:
Two legends exchanging pleasantries: Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and Hall of Fame writer Dick Weiss, the longtime national columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and New York Daily News:
The ever-present concourse bar, not open for business on this day:
The nerve center of the day's activities, the media work room inside MSG's theater lobby:
Rutgers forward Deshawn Freeman strikes a pose:
A discussion panel between Minnesota players and head coach Richard Pitino, live on the Big Ten Network studio set:
The aforementioned Richard Pitino, fielding questions in the media breakout session:
Ray with Big Ten rookie Michael "Mex" Carey, the longtime former athletic communications director at Georgetown who made the move to Michigan State in the offseason:

Seton Hall ranked No. 23 in preseason coaches poll

Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez pose at Big East media day, where Seton Hall was picked second in league just before No. 23 ranking in preseason coaches poll. (Photo by Chris McManus/

Seton Hall already received high praise from the coaches in the Big East Conference on Wednesday, when the Pirates were picked second in the league's preseason poll, securing a first-place vote from Providence's Ed Cooley.

Just over 24 hours later, national plaudits have made their way to South Orange, as Seton Hall will begin the season ranked as the No. 23 team in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The preseason ranking is the first for the Pirates since the 2000-01 season, when Tommy Amaker brought a tenth-ranked squad into battle alongside the likes of Andre Barrett and the late Eddie Griffin, among others. It is the first time Seton Hall has been inside the Top 25 since March of 2016, when they were ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll and 21st in the Coaches Poll following their victory over Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game. The preseason AP poll will be released at the end of the month.

Seton Hall is one of three Big East teams to be ranked in the Coaches Poll, and one of six receiving votes in some way, shape, or form. Conference favorite Villanova enters the year as the sixth-ranked team in the nation while Xavier, a West Regional finalist in last season's NCAA Tournament, begins the 2017-18 campaign at No. 17. In addition, Butler, Providence and Creighton garnered support from the coaches who comprise the poll.

The Pirates begin the regular season on November 10, when they host Fairleigh Dickinson at the Prudential Center to begin a four-game homestand.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Big East Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- Everyone begins undefeated.

The slate is unblemished. Media day is upon us, and it often turns out to be somewhat of a feel-good get-together. Coaches, for the most part, are upbeat. Optimism is the order of the day. Quotes, many times scripted, are dutifully recorded.
This Wednesday morning saw the Big East Conference festivities held once again at Madison Square Garden, fitting since the men’s conference season ends on this Garden floor. Why not let it start at the same storied locale? The media day showcases the men’s programs in the morning. The women have the  floor in the afternoon.
An introduction by commissioner Val Ackerman was followed by panel discussions among the coaches before a breakdown into smaller groups. Coaches and selected players of the ten schools spoke of their aspirations and hopes for the upcoming campaign. Again, all are still undefeated. A highlight for the men’s session was Patrick Ewing discussing how he arrived in  our nation’s capital as the new Georgetown coach. Interrelated was Chris Mullin of St. John’s remarking that Georgetown-St. John’s with Ewing on the opposing bench is “kind of surreal.”
After the obligatory break for lunch, a time to relax and socialize a bit in a relaxed setting, the women were up. Camera, recorders and notepads were primed for the proceedings. Defending champion Marquette topped the preseason poll. Coach Carolyn Kieger harbored no concern about being the favorite. The Marquette mentor even expressed the notion that having pressure means you are good.
Media day, as previously noted, is not a pressure-filled affair. That will come soon enough when the teams are competing in earnest. For now, the mood is decidedly more relaxed. As Big East senior associate commissioner John Paquette said, “media day, to me, starts the season.” To those partaking in the day’s festivities, it certainly does.

Big East mascots provided a special greeting for the media in attendance:
The official welcome from the Madison Square Garden jumbotron:
The obligatory photo op of men's basketball coaches with commissioner Val Ackerman:
Villanova's Jay Wright, holding court during a breakout session:
MSG ushers made sure coffee was out in full force:
Ray with Steve Lavin, the former St. John's coach who is now an analyst for Fox Sports:
The women's basketball coaches with commissioner Val Ackerman:
Providence head coach Jim Crowley fields inquiries from the throng in attendance:
Seton Hall's Tony Bozzella meets the media:

Seton Hall senior class ready for its last ride

From left to right: Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado meet media at Big East media day Wednesday morning, where Seton Hall was picked second in league's preseason poll behind Villanova. (Photo by Thomas Chen/Seton Hall University Athletics)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

NEW YORK -- Second place.

That’s where the Big East coaches predicted Seton Hall will finish in the 2017-18 season at Big East media day on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, higher than they’d been picked in the league since 2001 and behind only perennial conference contender Villanova.

The overwhelming reason, of course, is a core of seniors that most coaches would kill to have. For Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo, the Pirates’ four returning senior starters, this year represents their last in Seton Hall blue and white, the capstones on storied careers that have seen them go from talented, wide-eyed freshmen trying to make their mark to hard-nosed veterans now trying to cement their legacy. Such a case makes for a different feel entering this season.

“We want to just leave it out on the floor,” Carrington said. “Not that we don’t do that all the time, but it’s a different mindset knowing that there’s no next year.”

Despite that, the Hall’s senior class has already achieved much. As sophomores, they won the Big East Championship, the school’s first since the halcyon days of the early 1990s. Last season, they made a return trip to the NCAA Tournament despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the NBA. But in the process, their improvements haven’t just been made on the court.

“We’ve gotten more mature,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve learned a lot the last few years and we’re looking forward to being leaders for this team and having a great season.”

“I feel like I’m a grown man now. I feel like I’m old- I have to stretch more,” Delgado quipped with a smile. “But being a senior, you have to be a leader, and lead the guys to do better things, on the court and off the court. I try to make sure they’re doing well in class and outside of basketball- not just in the gym. They say ‘it’s like you’re my dad,’ but I’m just trying to be a great leader and a great teammate.”

Delgado was the story of the offseason, coming off of a year in which he was the nation’s leading rebounder and one of the top post players in the entire nation, with AP All-American honorable mention, First Team All-Big East and Haggerty Award hardware (given to the top player in the New York metro area) to prove it, he had a choice to turn pro or to return to South Orange. He chose the latter, and his coming back to the Hall was not a decision made solely on emotion.

“I was really proud of how Angel matured as a man,” head coach Kevin Willard said of his All-American. “He went through the process, he listened to the people that were closest to him. And as we got the information, we realized coming back that he’s going to be one of the best players not only in this conference, but in all of college basketball and that he’s going to have a chance to probably improve his status.”

“It was tough, but at the same time it was easy,” Delgado added. “I didn’t feel good thinking about leaving. It was easy when I made the decision- (I felt) more calm and relaxed and more excited. So when I told coach, he said ‘let’s get to work,’ and that’s what we’re doing.”

Expectations for the Pirates are therefore at a high that they have not seen on campus in a generation, evidenced by their high pick in the preseason poll, and it’s because of the seniors that their head coach loves to praise.

“You look at winning the first Big East Championship in 23 years, being picked as high as we have,” Willard said. “You look at the way they represent the program- you have five guys who are going to graduate on time. They’ve done it on the court, but I think I’m most proud of how they’ve done it in the classroom, with community service… they’ve represented this university at the highest level both on and off the court, and that’s what I’m extremely proud of.”

On the court, Carrington sets the bar high for his team.

“I don’t think winning one game (in the NCAA tournament) is enough,” he said. “I think making a deep run- that’s where we’re going to set our goal. I feel like we can win a Big East championship- I think we have the talent to do that as long as we are on the same page, listen to coach and play hard like we usually do.”

In years past, Seton Hall has made defying expectations and finishing ahead of where they’re predicted to finish in the preseason a regular occurrence. This year, the senior core will be in a position they’re unfamiliar with- trying to live up to the expectations set ahead of them. Delgado wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re not only going to be brothers in school, we’re going to be brothers in life,” he said. “I want to make history with them, I want to finish with them, I want to walk across the stage and get our degrees together. I’m really excited to be with these guys one more year.”

Despite mid-pack predictions, St. John's maintains NCAA Tournament aspirations

Chris Mullin fields questions from throng at Wednesday's Big East media day, where his St. John's team was picked sixth in league's preseason poll. (Photo by Doug Feinberg/Associated Press)

NEW YORK -- The Big East Conference placed seven teams in the NCAA Tournament last season, proving that the national championship won by Villanova in 2016 was not the aberration some had suspected it may be.

If a similar fate is to come to fruition this year, St. John's will be among the field of 68 as suggested by their sixth-place standing in the Big East's preseason coaches' poll, and despite the significant jump that would come from a 14-19 record one year ago to hearing their name announced on Selection Sunday, such an uptick is right in line with the program's mindset as the Red Storm enters year three under head coach Chris Mullin.

"When you're a freshman, everything is fast-paced," said sophomore point guard Marcus LoVett when describing the biggest takeaways he gleaned from his first campaign at the collegiate level. "You're just running, not really knowing what everything is. The fact that I know what everything is now will make it much better. Now I know what Big East play is, and I think all of that, the maturity and everything, has to factor in."

"Last year, I feel like we made a big improvement," senior forward Bashir Ahmed said amid a gaggle of media inside Madison Square Garden, site of the Big East's annual media day. "Over the summer, all the guys on the team have been working hard, Coach (Mullin) has really been pushing us, and I feel like this year, we're pretty confident with all the new pieces that we've added. We're just looking forward to it."

Chief among the new pieces Ahmed speaks of are Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, the pair of transfers who sat out last season while learning the offense on the corner of Union and Utopia. Simon, a guard who arrives by way of the University of Arizona, is a combo guard whose defense will cause mismatches while also freeing up LoVett and Shamorie Ponds to play off the ball, while Clark, the 6-foot-8 forward who comes in from Michigan State, will be a refreshing complement to Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe in the paint.

"Justin is a guard we didn't have," said Mullin of Simon and his inclusion into what could be among the best backcourt in the league. "We had two really dynamic guards but on the smaller side as far as stature, so it's nice to fill them in with a guy you didn't have. And then Marvin is a physical, versatile forward, a body type we didn't have on our roster."

"He's 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, and he can really move," LoVett chimed in when discussing what Simon brings to the stable of guards, moments before lauding Clark's size and ability to pop out for a mid-range shot. "He's long, he has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, so he's a great defender as well. You've got Shamorie, who could score the ball; me, who facilitates, it's a lot to deal with in the backcourt, but it's great for us."

In addition to the two transfers, freshman Bryan Trimble joins the Red Storm, a 6-foot-3 guard who turned down overtures from Florida State to sign with St. John's, and although his youth tends to get lost in the shuffle amid the experience, his presence has paid dividends.

"He's been great," said LoVett. "He's a freshman, so he's still learning the process of everything, but we've been helping him out through it all. He's a good shooter, and he's definitely going to be a help with the minutes he will play."

All told, the middle-of-the-road projection may cause some skepticism among fans, but the prevailing opinion around the team is that the three-year rebuild started when Mullin was hired to replace Steve Lavin will culminate in the ultimate payoff.

"The tournament is where we're going to get to," a confident LoVett stated. "That's what we've all been talking about, and the potential is crazy in the practices, just how everybody has been operating. We have a lot of athleticism, it's scary."

"They can expect a show coming soon," he proclaimed, offering fans a glimpse of what they can count on seeing once the ball is tipped. "They should be happy they have this group of young men going into battle. We're going to show them what we're all about."

Seton Hall picked 2nd in Big East preseason poll, St. John's 6th

Kevin Willard has reason to smile after Seton Hall was picked second in Big East preseason poll. St. John's added to optimism among locals with their sixth-place prediction. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

If last season's success carries over to this coming year of Big East basketball, both local teams should be setting an NCAA Tournament appearance as their respective bars.

Seton Hall, shooting for their third straight inclusion into the field of 68, fared the better of the two in the conference's annual preseason coaches' poll, being picked second among ten teams while St. John's is not far behind, having been predicted to finish sixth as head coach Chris Mullin continues to resurrect his alma mater. Villanova, the Big East regular season champion in each of the past four years, was once again the unanimous pick to win the league, followed by Seton Hall, Xavier, Providence, and Creighton rounding out the top five. St. John's, Marquette, Butler, Georgetown, and DePaul complete the 2017-18 prognostications. For Seton Hall, who received a first-place vote, it is their highest preseason speculation since the 2000-01 season, when the late Eddie Griffin was the Big East Rookie of the Year.

Both the Pirates and Red Storm possess multiple all-conference selections entering the season, with Seton Hall boasting a pair of preseason first team honoree in senior forward Angel Delgado and fellow senior guard Khadeen Carrington. The 6-foot-10 big man received first team all-Big East recognition last season en route to averaging 15.2 points and a nation-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, and captured the Haggerty Award this past April as the best player in the New York metropolitan area. Carrington enters his final season in South Orange as the Pirates' point guard, becoming the primary ball handler following Madison Jones' departure while reprising his role as the leading scorer for head coach Kevin Willard. Their senior classmate, Desi Rodriguez, garnered an honorable mention. Rodriguez, whose highlight-reel dunks helped contribute to an average of 15.7 points per game, will once again be counted on to be a dynamic source of offense on the perimeter.

Villanova's Jalen Brunson was named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of former teammate and current Los Angeles Laker Josh Hart, who was last season's recipient. The Wildcats also snagged Freshman of the Year billing with 6-foot-9 forward Omari Spellman, who makes his long-awaited debut this season after being declared ineligible last fall. Brunson, Delgado and Carrington were joined on the first team by Creighton's Marcus Foster and Xavier's Trevon Bluiett.

St. John's talented sophomore backcourt was lauded by the Big East coaches for ranking among the best in the conference, as both Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett landed second team accolades. A somewhat controversial snub for Freshman of the Year following a rookie season that saw him average a team-leading 17.4 points per game as the Red Storm improved six wins from an 8-24 mark two years ago, Ponds joins LoVett, who averaged 15.9 points per contest as a redshirt freshman last year.

Both Seton Hall and St. John's open the season at home on November 10, with the Pirates ushering in-state rival Fairleigh Dickinson into the Prudential Center while the Red Storm roll out the welcome mat for New Orleans inside Carnesecca Arena.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

2017-18 Big East award predictions

The nation's leading rebounder as a junior last season, Angel Delgado will look add to his haul of accolades before calling it a career at Seton Hall. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)

Big East media day takes place Wednesday morning on the Madison Square Garden floor, and in anticipation of the annual get-together at the home of the conference's postseason tournament, we will offer several pieces of content throughout the week. The run up to media day began with our conference preview, where Villanova is highlighted as the team to beat as the Wildcats shoot for a fifth straight regular season championship, and continues on with this set of predictions on who the league will bestow its awards upon at the conclusion of the season in March:

Player of the Year: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (2016-17 stats: 15.2 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 54% FG)
The 6-foot-10 big man led the nation in rebounding as a junior en route to honorable mention All-American recognition and the Haggerty Award, presented annually to the best player in the New York metropolitan area. Delgado's impact was so noticeable that he tested the professional waters this offseason and looked to be headed for a professional career before a change of heart in May, opting to return to South Orange for one more season. With three of his fellow seniors alongside him for a last go-round at winning an NCAA Tournament game and making a deep run into March, Delgado will only burnish his legacy this season, and will ultimately be recognized as the best player in the conference before he walks off the floor for the last time.

Freshman of the Year: Omari Spellman, Villanova
The 6-foot-9 dynamo was a highly touted recruit for the Wildcats last season, and looked ready to contribute to a team fresh off a buzzer-beating national championship victory before being declared ineligible. The Cleveland native retains all four years of eligibility, and if absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, he will instantly be revered on the Main Line as he steps into the shoes of Darryl Reynolds as Villanova's rim protector.

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Paschall, Villanova (2016-17 stats: 7.2 PPG, 3.8 PPG, 51% FG)
Once upon a time, Paschall was at Fordham, a former Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year who became the latest in a long line of Tom Pecora recruits to prove his mettle on the collegiate stage. Pecora's dismissal in March of 2015 opened the door for the Westchester native to take his talents to a higher level, and after getting in shape and taking on a role off the bench for Jay Wright, Paschall has become a different player, in essence. With the talent around him, it is not necessary for him to be the gunner he was as a freshman at Fordham, and his more complete game has already blossomed in the Big East. Now a redshirt junior, expect a similar impact in a reserve capacity, one that will enhance the Wildcats' already impressive credentials.

Most Improved Player: Tyrique Jones, Xavier
The vacancies down low for the Musketeers open the door for the 6-foot-9 sophomore to make a greater name for himself after a freshman season in which he averaged over four points per contest while starting 13 games. Kerem Kanter and Sean O'Mara will also see large roles in Xavier's 1-3-1 scheme, but expect Jones to provide just as much of a contribution for Chris Mack, with the uptick in minutes allowing the opportunity to make the most of his time on the floor.

Defensive Player of the Year: Khyri Thomas, Creighton
One of the winners of this award in a rare three-way split last season, the homegrown talent stands to be an even greater piece of the puzzle for the Bluejays this year. Already heralded by the Omaha media for his skill set when the ball is not in his hands, Thomas will make even longer strides on that end while also developing into a primary scorer alongside Marcus Foster in a junior season that is certain to garner him all-league recognition.

Coach of the Year: Chris Mullin, St. John's
While some conferences present this award to the coach who wins the regular season championship, the true meaning of a coach of the year is one who does the most with what is perceived to be the least. Mullin will not be picked near the bottom of the league with St. John's this season, but the Red Storm did finish eighth in the Big East one year ago, and possess the upside to make them a dark horse to contend and perhaps make the NCAA Tournament for the third time this decade, which should be enough to win this honor over the likes of Jay Wright, Kevin Willard and Chris Mack, all of whom have established programs under their watchful eyes.

All-Big East First Team (in alphabetical order)
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Shamorie Ponds, St. John's

All-Big East Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Kyron Cartwright, Providence
Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Markus Howard, Marquette
Khyri Thomas, Creighton

Honorable Mention All-Big East (in alphabetical order)
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Marcus LoVett, St. John's
J.P. Macura, Xavier
Kelan Martin, Butler
Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall

Big East All-Rookie Team (in alphabetical order)
Makai Ashton-Langford, Providence
Theo John, Marquette
Naji Marshall, Xavier
Aaron Thompson, Butler
Omari Spellman, Villanova

Previewing the 2017-18 Big East season

Regular season champions in each of the four seasons since Big East was restructured, Villanova seeks to maintain its stranglehold on league, which sent seven teams to NCAA Tournament last year. (Photo by Newsday)

Since the Big East Conference was restructured following the 2012-13 season, two things have been made quite clear to both the casual and vested fan alike.

First, Villanova has been, and will continue to be until proven otherwise, the unquestioned standard-bearer in the perennial powerhouse league. The Wildcats have claimed each Big East regular season championship following the exodus of the football schools that helped shape the identity of the titanic conference, and are once again the heavy favorites to win a fifth straight title that Jay Wright and the 2016 national champions hope to supplement with a third Big East tournament victory in four seasons. Villanova loses senior mainstays Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, plus the imposing interior presence of Darryl Reynolds, but the Wildcats should boast the Preseason Player of the Year in junior point guard Jalen Brunson, who anchors an offense that will return Mikal Bridges to the starting lineup while also getting increased contributions from Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall, not to mention freshman Omari Spellman, who should be the preseason choice for Freshman of the Year honors after being declared ineligible last season. Native Philadelphian Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is the other frontcourt newcomer to the Main Line, while Phil Booth is also back after missing his junior season due to injury.

Secondly, any remaining aspersions cast on the Big East and its long-term survival were put to rest in emphatic fashion last March, as the conference sent seven of its ten teams to the NCAA Tournament one year after Villanova brought the league a third national championship this decade. With a majority of last season's star power returning this fall, it is not inconceivable to think at least five or six teams will hear their names announced on Selection Sunday once again. One thing remains certain, though: The quality of the league from top to bottom is deeper this season than last, and the challenges to usurp the throne from the Wildcats will come from a bevy of hungry competitors.

On the heels of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Seton Hall comes into the 2017-18 season with a chip on its shoulder, seeking to erase the bitter aftertaste of opening-round exits from the field of 68. A quartet of seniors returns to South Orange for one last hurrah, led by All-American candidate Angel Delgado, the consensus best forward in the conference and strong contender for Player of the Year honors. Khadeen Carrington will need to be equal parts scorer and facilitator for the Pirates this season in the absence of Madison Jones, while Desi Rodriguez brings his slashing playmaker style back to the wing and Ismael Sanogo continues to be the lockdown glue guy in Kevin Willard's lineup. After a promising rookie campaign, Myles Powell is on the precipice of an even bigger breakout as a sophomore, and if Michael Nzei can become a productive backup to Delgado, the potential for The Hall having a season to remember will be limitless.

Fresh off a surprising run to the West Regional final just weeks after they looked dead in the water and bound for the National Invitation Tournament, Xavier enters the season with momentum and renewed enthusiasm for their usual consistent success. Seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura anchor the backcourt for head coach Chris Mack while point guard Quentin Goodin prepares to develop further as a sophomore after inheriting the keys to the offense in the wake of Edmond Sumner's torn ACL last season. Up front, the Musketeers have several big men to help anchor the 1-3-1 zone defense, including graduate transfer Kerem Kanter, who will team with Sean O'Mara and Tyrique Jones. Kaiser Gates should be a force inside as well, with highly touted freshmen Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs being counted on to pay immediate dividends in Cincinnati.

If anyone has shown the ability to fly under the radar and deliver results year after year in the Big East, it has been Ed Cooley. Champions of the Big East in 2014, his Providence Friars put together another NCAA Tournament berth last season after being picked in the second half of the preseason poll, and return all five starters from that squad this season. Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock are surefire all-conference selections entering their senior seasons, with Jalen Lindsay, Alpha Diallo and Emmitt Holt more than capable of carrying the team on either of their respective backs on any given night. The addition of Makai Ashton-Langford, a Top 100 recruit who spurned UConn to sign with Providence, only makes the Friars deeper and much more dangerous on a roster that sees nine of its top ten scorers back in the Ocean State.

Chris Mullin's second season at the helm of his alma mater, St. John's, went much better than his first voyage, which yielded just one conference win and an 8-24 overall record. With more weapons in the arsenal this season, the Red Storm possess the upside that has been indicative of a postseason contender over the years, and look to be hitting their best stride at the most opportune of times. Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett come off a freshman season in which they guided the Johnnies' backcourt to the best defensive turnover rate in league play last year, and the sophomores will be looking to break into their patented transition game at every turn this season. Transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will be integral pieces to a lineup that can use Bashir Ahmed as the center in a smaller attack, but also as a wing man when Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens are on the floor in a bigger outfit on the corner of Union and Utopia. Another team with tremendous upside is Creighton, which possesses a pair of qualified scorers in Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, the latter of whom should be one of the most lethal two-way players in the Big East this season. The arrival of Kaleb Joseph by way of Syracuse gives Greg McDermott's Bluejays a proven floor general to step into the shoes of Maurice Watson, Jr. without missing a beat in Omaha.

Marquette, one of the seven NCAA Tournament teams in the conference last season, should be able to reprise its role again this year in a deeper and more efficient composition this year for Steve Wojciechowski. Now a sophomore, Markus Howard is still only 18 years old, and the sharpshooter stands to become a household name with his uncanny eye for smart shots and long-distance daggers. Newcomers Theo John and Harry Froling will not have it easy in replacing Luke Fischer, but the duo will lighten the load on Sam Hauser and fan favorite Matt Heldt in Milwaukee, making the transition easier for the Golden Eagles. Butler welcomes a new coach in alumnus LaVall Jordan after Chris Holtmann left for Ohio State, but the Bulldogs are still a sleeper thanks to seniors Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman, not to mention burgeoning sophomore point guard Kamar Baldwin. George Washington expatriate Paul Jorgensen is eligible once again, and provides instant credibility to the backcourt, while incoming freshmen Aaron Thompson and Christian David; both of whom reaffirmed their commitments even after Holtmann left Indianapolis, make their presence known early and often.

DePaul ushers in the opening of Wintrust Arena with a group eager to make strides under Dave Leitao. Junior swingman Eli Cain becomes the face of the Blue Demons with Billy Garrett, Jr. having graduated, and will count on Oklahoma transfer Austin Grandstaff to lead a supporting cast who must step up soon to expedite the rebuilding process. Finally, Georgetown replaces John Thompson III with program icon Patrick Ewing, creating a palpable buzz on the Hilltop after a handful of subpar seasons. However, the hill to climb has become steeper for the Hoyas, who will have junior center Jessie Govan leading the way in what the former national champion and Olympic gold medalist hopes will be a year highlighted more for fleeting moments of glory than humbling defeats.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Villanova - The road to a conference championship goes through the Main Line until proven otherwise. Not many teams have the ability to look stronger than the previous season in the wake of losing three starters, but Jay Wright and the Wildcats have an elixir for success that becomes stronger and more formidable with each passing year.

2) Seton Hall - The Pirates have been building for a banner year in each of the past two seasons, starting with March 2016's Big East title run before winning seven of their final nine regular season contests last year to erase any prospect of being on the bubble going into Madison Square Garden. The fever pitch has now reached a crescendo, and with a Top 25 outfit going into battle in South Orange, Kevin Willard has his best chance to knock the kings of the conference out of power.

3) Xavier - This could very well be Chris Mack's deepest and most talented team. The question now becomes one of whether or not the Musketeers can get over the hump and win a conference title.

4) Providence - The Friars are not the trendy pick to make noise this season, as the majority of last season's NCAA Tournament team comes back for Ed Cooley. If Providence knocks on the door to the top, chances are they will break it down sooner rather than later.

5) St. John's - Expect at least 18 wins and no worse than a National Invitation Tournament appearance for the Red Storm this season. Chris Mullin's team has the pieces to put it all together, and with a strong non-conference season, the Johnnies could very well have enough left in the tank to go dancing for a third time in eight years.

6) Creighton - Khyri Thomas will be no worse than a second team all-Big East selection this year, and Marcus Foster should be a Player of the Year contender. Those two, plus Kaleb Joseph and a deceptively strong freshman class, will keep the Bluejays in the thick of things throughout the year.

7) Marquette - The Golden Eagles are a victim of the middle of the league being wide open, but they should still be a postseason team barring a cataclysmic meltdown. Markus Howard might end up being the conference's leading scorer by the time March rolls around.

8) Butler - Losing Andrew Chrabascz will be hard for the Bulldogs to overcome, but senior leadership and an intriguing group of freshmen will mitigate any trouble spots for LaVall Jordan in his first season at the helm.

9) DePaul - The Blue Demons should be able to escape the cellar this season, but Eli Cain has a lot more to prove as the leader as opposed to being Billy Garrett, Jr.'s sidekick last season.

10) Georgetown - It's not going to be easy for Patrick Ewing this year, but the Hoyas will gain valuable experience that will serve them well for seasons to come on the Hilltop.