NEW YORK – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey walked into Big East media day at the New York Athletic Club, saw the table with a large card bearing the school's name and faked a sigh of relief.
"I thought we would be in a closet," Brey said Wednesday, anticipating the reaction to Notre Dame announcing last month it was leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. "I thought they would put us where Pitt and Syracuse were last year."
This was the last Big East media day for Pittsburgh and Syracuse, who announced last year they were leaving for the ACC.
West Virginia left after last season for the Big 12. Pitt and Syracuse go after this season and Notre Dame could go after 2012-13 or wait one more season before leaving.
Conference movement is a way of life in college sports. Schools are playing in leagues whose names don't make sense anymore — by numbers or direction.
"The Big East is a committed group of schools," said new commissioner Mike Aresco, a former television executive. "I'm no prophet but we think expansion has subsided and we have a solid core. TV is a hugely important issue. It provides financial stability for the conference, confidence for conference membership and also exposure in a wide variety of platforms for the schools."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim let everybody know right away all questions Wednesday would be about the Big East and this season alone.
"They knew we were going last year," Boeheim said when asked about how the other fans in the league might treat the Orange in their last conference visit. "I just hope we have the same record as last year on the road (9-1 in true road games). They've never liked us since I've been here anyway."
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said he thinks the Panthers playing their last season in the Big East is "something to be written and talked about."
"The Big East has gone through so many shifts with teams coming and going," he said, referring to the 17 schools that have joined (and some left) the league since seven charter schools began play in 1979-80. "Players play. Coaches coach. There are six teams in the ACC that are Big East teams. ... The Big East is the best conference and it has been over the last several season. We're leaving a great place and going to a great place. It's not a big change. What it is is beyond our control. College athletics the way it is today is money, TV and all those things factor in. But for coaches and teams they just want great basketball conferences to play in."
When the talk about teams going and coming (UCF, Houston, Memphis, Temple and SMU join next season) slowed down, there was plenty to go over about the upcoming season.
Louisville, which has three starters back from last season's Final Four team, was the unanimous choice for first place in the coaches' preseason poll.
The Cardinals, who won the Big East tournament last season, received 14 first-place votes and Notre Dame got the other, obviously from Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
"There are probably 40 schools right now that have a chance in college basketball the way it is today," Pitino said. "Last year Duke, Connecticut and Pittsburgh were all ranked in the national preseason Top Ten. Duke lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Lehigh. Connecticut lost to Iowa State in the first round and Pitt didn't even make the tournament.
"You've got to be a great defensive team to make it to the Final Four and we are a great defensive team. We're not there yet with some things but we certainly are a good defensive team. ... We could have the best 10 players in America. We have 10 really good guys."
Syracuse, coming off a school-record 34-3 mark, was second and Notre Dame, which returns all five starters, was third.
Cincinnati was fourth followed by Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Marquette, USF, Connecticut, St. John's, Rutgers, Villanova, DePaul, Seton Hall and Providence.
Connecticut faces one of the biggest changes in the country following the retirement of Jim Calhoun, who will be remembered for turning a regional program into a national power in his 26 years in Storrs. He won an NIT championship in 1988 and national titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011. His teams won 10 Big East regular-season championships and seven Big East tournament titles.
Kevin Ollie, the man replacing Calhoun, used to run the offense for him as a point guard and also played relentless defense for the Huskies before heading off for a 12-year NBA career. Ollie's first season will be one that will end without participation in either the Big East or NCAA tournaments over academic shortcomings by the program.
"You see the NCAA tournament coming and you can get dejected and I have to control that," Ollie said. "We have to accept it, face it and get over it. I would be lying to you if I said it didn't hurt."
Shabazz Napier, a member of the 2011 title team, said there's nothing the team can do about the postseason ban. Still, Ollie has been working them harder than the previous coach did at this time of the preseason.
"It's been tough. Coach is a guy who will make you work and will keep pushing you. He's all about being in great condition," the junior guard said. "He fills in the void of Jim Calhoun and he's really good."
He was asked to compare the two coaching styles.
"As of right now there's not as much yelling but he'll get there. He's energetic," Napier said. "Coach Calhoun would yell at you and get on you for making a mistake. Coach doesn't do that yet."
Peyton Siva was selected preseason player of the year, the first time a Louisville player received that honor.
Joining Siva on the first team were Jack Cooley of Notre Dame, Vincent Council of Providence, Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati, Gorgui Dieng of Louisville and Otto Porter of Georgetown.