The Big East Conference has been widely projected to have a down year in college basketball this season. Now one year into the life of the ‘new' Big East, Seton Hall's Kevin Willard was one head coach that talked up the positive trends in the 10-team basketball-only league at the conference's Media Day this morning at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
"If you look at the league, I think the league is much better, I think people are sleeping on the league a little bit," proclaimed Willard. Seton Hall's boss cited the top-four teams in the conference's Preseason Coaches Poll as proof. "If you look at what Georgetown is going to bring back with Josh Smith now in the middle again, [Mikael] Hopkins, [D`Vauntes Smith-] Rivera. Obviously Villanova, you see what Lav has at St. John's, Xavier has [Matt] Stainbrook - you've got two great guards. I think the league is much deeper and better than what people think it is."
Outside of tangibles like NCAA tournament teams and wins and losses, Willard was very candid when speaking on less-measurable barometers like the cohesion of the ten Big East coaches and their respective schools as it pertains to non-conference scheduling, recruiting, and even personal relationships.
Despite the Big East's immediate sapping of talent through the losses of powerhouses like Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut, the conference has collectively sustained its recruiting bite. "If you look at the recruits we brought in last year, I think the league had 17 top-100 players, you go through the other five [power] conferences, you start dividing that up, I think that's pretty damn good for a 10-team conference," said Willard. "The summer recruiting, you're with these guys the whole time in the summer recruiting in July. I text Lav, Jay [Wright] - they text me, Wojo all those guys. When Buzz [Williams] was in the league I texted him all the time. When a guy gets a big-time recruit, that's great for our league. You might get beat out on a guy, but I'd rather have a great player in our league than not in our league."
But if high-level recruiting is to be sustained, Willard knows that winning on the court goes hand-in-hand, which is particularly relevant for Seton Hall at this juncture. It's also relevant to the Big East as a whole, which barely mustered four teams in last year's NCAA tournament, none of which lasted until the first weekend. On that note, Willard issued a battle cry of sorts on behalf of the conference.
"We need to play at a higher level, that's not a secret. We've talked what we need to do as a league, scheduling, recruiting, it's a different dynamic now. We're a much closer group - when we had 16 coaches, you didn't get to know the other coaches all that well. The ten guys that we have in the room now, we all know each other, we're all rooting for each other, we're all helping each other out."
Willard went as far as to compare the current Big East's status to that of the old conference's at the time of its inception in 1979. "I was only 7-years-old when the old Big East started - but it feels a lot like what the old original league was like. We're all trying to kill each other, but we're all trying to help each other at the same time."
As far as his program goes, which has yet to make an NCAA appearance since taking over for the 2010-11 season, Willard was vocal on the same standard of kicking it into another gear on the court. "It's important, we've needed to recruit at a higher level, which I think we've done, but we need to play at a higher level. And I think it's important for the league, we need to play better. I understand that. It's taken us a couple years to get in the position that we're at, it's probably taken me a little bit longer than I wanted to, but I think we're in a pretty good position now."
A third crucial aspect of establishing the Big East's new brand is tougher non-conference scheduling. Playing better teams before league play looks to have been implemented across the Big East board after just Villanova and Georgetown finished inside the top-100 of KenPom non-conference schedule strength last year while five schools - half the conference - ranked sub-200. Willard claims that this wasn't a decree handed down by the conference and FOX Sports, but that the coaches took it upon themselves to schedule tougher.
"It wasn't rocket-science, we lost six very good teams [through dissolving of old Big East] and your schedule changes dramatically," observed Willard ."Not just for the fact that you had to replace six teams, your non-conference schedule used to get you ready for those six teams at times."
Particularly for Seton Hall, their schedule is projected to get a substantial RPI/SOS boost compared to last season's KenPom ranking of 344th (SOS) and a RPI SOS of 317th in the country. "Now we're playing Wichita State, Georgia, George Washington, those three teams kind of replaced those [departed Big East] teams from an RPI standpoint ... You have to replace the RPI. You have to continue to do that by scheduling at a high level ... From top to bottom, I think our schedule is tremendous, I think we're really strong."
To close, a few assorted quotes from Kevin Willard:
Willard's thoughts on the Big East's relationship with FOX Sports after one season, and how they've improved preferable scheduling as it pertains to traveling, which he was a critic of last season:
"Val [Ackerman] and FOX and everybody there, they've done such a great job -- last year was a mess [Kevin had a harsher adjective that I've omitted] -- the league started and it had to really jump into it. They've done a great job with the schedule, they've done a great job with balancing out the TV. Every game is nationally televised, that didn't happen in the past -- it's a tremendous partnership and they've worked hard to understand the scheduling aspect.
"They've done a great job of understanding what we wanted and at the same time I think we've understood what FOX has needed."
On Seton Hall's progress as a program and university as it relates to recruiting: "It's taken us a while to get the infrastructure at the university to be able to bring a recruiting class like this in. We've come a long way in four years, from locker rooms to training rooms, staff, everything. We didn't have the infrastructure four years ago to recruit at this level. Pat Lyons, Dr. Esteban have done a great job of giving us the opportunity to be able to -- we're not above teams, but we're at par with everybody else, before we were so far below you'd bring a kid in and he'd go somewhere else and we couldn't even compete and we can compete now, that makes a big difference."
Look for two more stories from Big East Media Day dealing with Xs and Os later tonight and tomorrow morning. One will touch on Seton Hall's front court situation while the other deals more with the Hall's guard depth.