Published November 05, 2010
NEW YORK – Rick Pitino carefully debated his vote in the Big East coaches' preseason poll. He considered Pittsburgh and Villanova — the two teams that sit 1-2 in the conference poll.
He would have looked smart with either team.
Instead, he took a gamble that could label him a basketball genius or seriously question his hoops IQ. Pitino, who still has an apartment in New York, selected the team that often plays in his old stomping grounds, Madison Square Garden. The Louisville coach went with St. John's — a program that hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 2002.
"When a new coach comes in with a new brand of basketball, there's an excitement behind it," Pitino said.
If a new coach equals excitement, then the Big East should be buzzing with energy entering this season. Stuck in the bottom half of the Big East, four teams decided it was time for turnover.
Three of the new coaching faces in the power conference will battle in the same fertile tri-state area recruiting ground. Steve Lavin put down the headset at ESPN and took over at St. John's. Mike Rice is in at Rutgers and Kevin Willard takes over Seton Hall. Oliver Purnell completes a new-look foursome after leaving his job at Clemson to try and resuscitate DePaul.
"With a conference this big, you hate to say it, but there will probably be changes consistently," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "That's college basketball at this level. You have to win or there will be change."
Years of losing or prickly personalities — or in some cases, a combination of both — forced the changes. All four coaches know what a tough challenge and potentially lengthy rebuilding job awaits, as they try to shape their programs into the next Pittsburgh, Villanova, Syracuse or Georgetown.
"I'm not a patient man," Rice said. "It's going to be done hopefully sooner or later, but there certainly needs to be some remodeling for the program."
Rice, Willard and Purnell all left secure jobs for a shot at the marquee games, national TV exposure and better opportunity at landing top recruits provided by the behemoth Big East. Lavin gave up a comfortable gig at ESPN that he thrived at after a disappointing end to his UCLA career. He still was able to travel, watch big games and enjoy all the perks of the sport without ever taking a loss.
"I wasn't in any rush to get back," Lavin said. "But after 5 1/2 years, I could start to feel the itch to get back on a college campus. I was missing the teaching, the coaching, the competition. Then it was whether or not the right fit would present itself."
Lavin, who spurned N.C. State in 2006, found the fit in New York. He took over for Norm Roberts, fired after an 81-101 record over six seasons. The Red Storm went 17-16 last season and lost in the first round of the NIT.
The Red Storm, picked sixth in the Big East coaches' preseason poll, show more promise than any of the other four schools with new coaches. They return 10 seniors, and the bulk of their scorers and starters.
"We're pleased with the progress we've made, but I'm a realist," Lavin said, "While we have optimism in terms of the future, we keep a realist approach at the work we have to do."
No coach might be more accustomed to immediate success than Rice. His three years in his first head coaching job at Robert Morris produced one NIT, then two straight NCAA tournaments. The Colonials pushed Villanova to the brink before losing in overtime in last year's tournament, making Rice one of the hottest coaching candidates of the spring.
The Scarlet Knights, picked 15th in the poll, are counting on Rice to lead them to their first winning season since reaching the championship game of the NIT under Gary Waters in 2004.
Fred Hill resigned under pressure after a shaky 15-17 season ended with an incident at a Rutgers baseball game that put the embattled coach in the position of being fired. He and the university eventually settled on a buyout. Rutgers hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1991.
Rice was wildly successful at Robert Morris at plucking talent out of the Philadelphia area and he won't need a GPS to find players to sign at Rutgers.
"I'm not national, I'm not international, I'm 95 corridor," Rice said. "There's a lot to sell about staying home and playing basketball in the metropolitan area. We're going to sell it. You've got to put your arms around the city and make it yours."
Sounds like a plan for Willard, a former assistant under Pitino. Willard is being counted on to bring some rationality back to the bench after four stormy years under Bobby Gonzalez. Gonzalez was fired after he brought in some questionable players and it blew up last season when two were arrested. Coupled with Gonzalez's antics on the court, it led to his dismissal after a 19-win season.
Willard, who left Iona for the South Orange, N.J., campus, makes his debut next Friday at No. 22 Temple.
"You've got to recruit and represent the university at the highest level," he said. "That's something our staff and I understand and that's something we're going to do. It's about getting the local community to buy into Seton Hall basketball."
While Lavin, Willard and Rice battle for wins and recruits in the metropolitan area, Purnell has vowed to make DePaul "Chicago's team" again. He stunned Clemson when he bolted for a program that has all of one regular-season Big East win the past two years. Purnell, who replaced interim coach Tracy Webster, has an 0-6 record in the NCAA tournament.
Just making the tournament for the first time since 2004 would be a success for Purnell at DePaul.
"We have more raw materials here at DePaul on this great urban campus, in the city of Chicago, in the Big East than in any program that I've ever thought about taking over," he said. "That obviously excites me."
Fair or not, the foursome will be lumped together and judged together over the course of their careers. For Rice, it's not besting the other three newcomers that matters, as much building a Big East contender and an NCAA tournament regular.
"If I'm looking at some of the teams that aren't in the top four, then I don't have my sights set on the right teams," he said. "Right now, Rutgers can't look at them. It has to look at teams have had success in the last four years."