So I got the honor of going to Media Day at the Garden for WSOU, and I came away impressed, not only by the spread afterwards (delicious), but by the answers that I got from several coaches that I talked to.
Here are some of the particulars:
- Seton Hall was picked 11th in the preseason coaches' poll; Jeremy Hazell makes All-Big East Preseason First Team
While nearly every coach I talked to dismissed the poll as irrelevant, this is very shocking to me. Seton Hall has practically the entire team back from last year's squad that was an OT win or two away from the NCAAs. The Big East values its seniors very highly (evidence- St. John's was picked 6th), and therefore its even more surprising that one of the conference's more veteran teams was picked that low. Both Jeremy Hazell and Jeff Robinson (who attended the event) agreed that it would be motivation for them throughout the year.
I can understand 8th (which would make SHU a bubble team). That would be a fair preseason assessment. But 11th? That shows a lack of confidence in Coach Willard and the team's ability to come together. I believe that the reason that Seton Hall didn't finish higher in the standings (or win those OT games) was because of Bobby and his lack of touch with his team. Apparently the coaches have forgotten that.
I sort of knew Hazell would be picked where he was, but he was quick to credit his team for getting him the ball in a position to make shots and garner this honor. He has matured a lot this offseason, and it was evident in the way he acted today (more on that below).
- Kevin Willard cares about defense.
This is perhaps the understatement of the day, other than "Mike Brey is the conference's resident Master of the Mock Turtleneck." While Willard praised Seton Hall's ability to score, he also said that the defense last year was "a nightmare," and to a point, he's spot- on. With every breath, this guy preaches defense. Hazell and Robinson backed up his statements that he has been getting on the team every single day in practice to take pride in their defense, spending most of it on playing proper defense. In particular, Willard said that he's been working with Hazell on becoming a more rounded player, including using his length to play defense like he's capable of. This guy will live with mistakes on the offensive side. But he's going to demand defense on every possession, something that Gonzalez never did.
(Side note: Hazell spoke and carried himself today like he "gets it." He struck me as a leader of a team today. We will soon see if that carries over to the season, but from what I saw today, all the talk of him being more rounded seems like it could happen- not only as a player, but a senior leader. You can bet I'll be following this closely throughout the year.)
- Jay Wright wants local kids to stay in the Big East
For the brief time I was able to see Wright today, he was in a lengthy discussion with a group of reporters on how it's a shame and it "breaks his heart" that kids from New York/New Jersey/Philly choose to go elsewhere. He was pretty animated about it, too. It really was the best part of the day, interview-wise for me.
- Buzz Williams once again is preaching 'team, team, team'
I asked him who would fill the leadership role left by Lazar Hayward's graduation, and he told me that there were in fact several leaders on his team last year. The Golden Eagles played so well last year as a team that I believe him. He also said that everyone needs to step up, not just one or two players. Came away with some good feelings there- he definitely gets it as a coach. (He has a bit of a southern accent, too. I do believe that is unique to him in the Big East).
- Mike Rice = Bobby G?
I kid you not- I interviewed Rice not knowing what to expect. He sounds remarkably, almost scarily, like Bobby Gonzalez. Same tone, same raspy voice that sounds like he's a yelling-type. He used the word "versatile" a lot when describing what his team will be. Sound familiar? We did have a nice discussion about Dane Miller, though, that made me think that he's not a total psycho like Bobby was. I like Rice as a coach, and I know no one can be Gonzo except Gonzo. But he's awfully close.
- Mick Cronin has confidence in his team
Cincinnati was picked one spot below Seton Hall in the polls, and when I talked to Cronin, he basically confirmed what I had said in my preseason power rankings- that his team is a team that will play together. He singled out Yancy Gates (picked as a Big East Preseason Honorable Mention) and Cashmere Wright when talking about guys who will have an impact. He also thinks Dion Dixon will have a good year. Cronin walks/speaks softly and carries a big stick, so to speak. What he's done at Cincy is great, and with a coach like him, he should continue to do so for years to come.
-Keno Davis is upbeat despite last season
Davis is optimistic. All the time. He believes that his team was not as bad as its record last season, and despite having not many players of consequence back, he is still energetic about the season. I don't know whether this is really who he is or something he put on for media day, but he is definitely on the hot seat coming into the year. You might say I'm rooting for him this year, because after interviewing him, it would be a shame to lose someone like him from the Big East.
- Mike Brey looks good in a mock turtleneck
He does. Really, he does. No one else in the conference could pull that look off. Well, maybe Bob Huggins. Brey did say that you have to have "a certain shape" to wear the mock t-neck.
I wasn't able to talk to every coach (under half, in fact) due to time constraints, but the conference is once again loaded and ready for battle. Let the games begin!