February 10, 2010

Big East Power Poll Part One: Thoughts on DePaul, Connecticut's future, Mick Cronin, South Florida's resurgence, and why I'm sticking with Mike Brey

Well, football is over, so it's time for a Big East power poll!! Here's how I'd break the 16 Big East teams down from bottom to top. Due to length, I'll break this thing up into two parts. Part two is right here if you're looking ahead.

16) DePaul- RPI 157 Pomeroy 162

DePaul is approaching futility almost unheard of in Big East history. They went 0-18 in the Big East last year and are currently sitting at 1-10. Looking at their schedule, I'd say their ceiling on wins this year would be 4. That could add up to something along the lines of 3-33 in their last two years in the Big East. What is the point of even having a program in this conference if you can't hack it??

If I was the brass over at the Big East headquarters, I'd tell DePaul that they either need to get their act together and become relevant or hit the road to the Conference USA or the A-10. A school like Memphis would love nothing more than to become a part of the Big East, and they actually have football to offer to the table. At least Memphis is committed to being a championship basketball program. Right now, DePaul is not. They don't have an on-campus facility, they are 2nd to last in spending on the program, and their minimal presence in the Chicago area is outweighed by the fact that they've been the worst program in the league for three years with no sign of hope on the horizon. Plus, they don't have any other exceptional teams in nonrevenue sports to the best of my knowledge (looks like women's softball might be the exception...yippee), so I don't see the point in keeping them around if they can't cut it in men's basketball. DePaul is taking money out of the Big East pot without putting any money back in.

The sad thing is that DePaul basketball could be great if they made the investment. They could be THE TEAM in Chicago and pluck gems out of that area every year like Villanova has done in Philly and Georgetown has done in the DC area. All it takes is a vision. These basketball-only schools have an advantage in that they are the only big time sport on campus, which might be attractive to BMOC recruits. If you spend the money, you can make it happen. Nova and Gtown spend double what DePaul spends on their program. It's not some coincidence that they are successful and the Blue Demons are not.

Memphis spent $8 million last year on basketball. DePaul spent $3 million. Memphis should be a part of this expanded Big East. They have a good recruiting base, good support from the locals in the Memphis area, and a big time financial commitment. I would hold the Memphis carrot over everyone in the Big East (much like the NFL does with the city of Los Angeles) to force these bottom feeders to get their acts together.

15) Rutgers -- RPI 127 Pomeroy 160

Speaking of a program in the doldrums, nothing really tops Rutgers these days (and we lost to them...ugh, that game will haunt us). Here are their conference win totals the last four years:

2007 - 3-13
2008 - 3-15
2009 - 2-16
2010 - 2-9

When does football start?!? Rutgers fans might as well put all their eggs into the Greg Schiano basket at this point. Rutgers hasn't even been to the NIT since 2005-2006, and that was during the Gary Waters era (who might be the most underrated basketball coach in America).

Just so I'm clear, what happened with Gary Waters at Rutgers?? Why did he resign?? I don't remember that. He led Rutgers to the finals of the NIT that year (which is probably the high point for Rutgers basketball in the last 20 years), and suddenly he's resigning?? Did he get in NCAA trouble or something?? If Rutgers actually forced him out, that is straight-up malpractice on the part of their administration. He was probably the best thing ever to happen to that program, and is doing an unbelievable job at Cleveland State.

14) St Johns - RPI 90 Pomeroy 94

Bring back Mike Jarvis!!! No?? He's actually starting to turn around Florida Atlantic. Maybe he'd throw the Johnnies back on probation, but Uncle Phil can coach and recruit. At least he'd make them relevant. Or how about Lou Carnesecca?? Is he still ticking?? Throw a sweater on him and get him out there.

Last trip to the NIT for St. Johns was in 2003. Could you imagine waiting 7 years for an NIT birth?? Brutal. No wonder they're averaging under 6,000 fans a game.

It all comes down to recruiting. If you can't get the players, you can't win in the Big East. Villanova comes into Jersey and NYC and Philly and just grabs one stud player after another. Same with UConn and Syracuse and all of the ACC schools. They grab the best guys, and then SJU and Seton Hall and Rutgers grab the rest. You need to get the 5 star horses out of the NYC area, and St. Johns doesn't get them. They did once upon a time (remember Felipe Lopez??), but guys like Jay Wright and Jim Calhoun have an iron fist around that area for the best talent these days. Not going to be an easy task going forward for SJU to start landing those studs again.

13) Providence -- RPI 108 Pomeroy 85

I took a peek at Providence's schedule coming up and almost fell out of my chair. How would you like to be Keno Davis staring at this schedule the next month??

Georgetown (#8)
at Nova (#2)
West Virginia (#6)
Syracuse (#4)
at South Florida
at Pitt (#21)

Brutal. They'll be lucky to win one of those games. Life in the Big East. If you don't take care of business against the meaty middle, the bottom can fall out quickly once you start running into the big dogs. Providence is not a bad team, but they probably need to spring a couple upsets just to get to 6-12 in the league. We can build on this! Yikes. If there's any good news, they are really really young with mainly freshmen and sophs doing the heavy lifting. And they have a Rivals Top 50 guy coming in next year, so maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Providence hasn't been to the dance in 6 years. Man, that's tough. It's like being a Milwaukee Brewers fan or something. The best you can hope for is that you make the postseason once or twice a decade.

The Big East is a nasty, nasty league. The money must be really good for these teams to want to take this punishment every year because I don't know how their fans can stand it. I get grumpy when ND misses the tourney in back to back years, and we hardly have it the worst in the league. If I was a Providence fan, I'd probably be throwing in the white flag and begging for the A.D. to get us into the A-10.

12) Cincinnati -- RPI 55 Pomeroy 73

If there was an award for "most disappointing team" and "worst coached-team in the league," I think Cincy would probably run away with both those awards. Cincinnati is in a tailspin, and it's about to get a whole lot worse. I'll go on record and say that they win one more game this season and finish 6-12. Their schedule is brutal, the team looks like it has packed it in, and the fans are really starting to get restless with Mick Cronin. Bad vibes down there at the Shoemaker Center. Fans were booing Mick at the end of the Syracuse game, and it's looking more and more like he is not the long term answer for that program.

Before the year, I think you could look at Cincy and project them as a team that would have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. UC actually has talent this year. Vaughn is a talented player, they have size down low with Gates, and now they have Lance Stephenson as a phenom out on the wing. But UC is probably the most undisciplined team in the league, they fold on the road, and they self-destruct at the worst possible times. When you watch them play, they just look like a team that isn't in sync, doesn't care, and tunes out their coach.

Mick Cronin will always have some backers because he’s a decent guy and a UC graduate. But he's just not winning games, and it's overwhelmingly obvious at this point that he is not cut out to be a head coach in the Big East. Year after year, UC wilts in the second half of the season and packs it in to the point where even the NIT is questionable. Isn't that coaching?? At what point do you just pull the plug?? If he can’t get UC to the Dance this year, when will he ever do it??

Then again, for all the "basketball school" talk, I'm not sure how committed UC is to this program other than the fact that they will let in anyone with a pulse to play basketball. Seems like UC and the fanbase are more focused on the football program these days, which might turn out to be a mistake now that Brian Kelly is gone. I know UC fans are starting to dump their hoops tickets and invest their money in the football program, but basketball has always been where the program’s bread is buttered. If you go all in on football and Butch Jones isn’t the answer, suddenly you’re staring at 12,000 fans at Nippert Stadium for Cincy-Rutgers in three years. The bottom can fall out on UC football in a hurry. Might want to make sure you stay on top of the basketball program before you risk the possibility that both programs go into the tank and you’re staring at a lost decade.

I don’t expect Mick to get fired after this year even if UC collapses and loses out. But the cries for his ouster will be extremely loud if he does get retained, and that will be the first time where I really feel like there is a consensus that UC should move on. There are no more excuses at this point. UC has let Mick bring in every thug with a pulse, and he has a full roster now. If he can’t make the dance next season in his 5th year, it’s time to make a change.

11) Seton Hall -- RPI 64 Pomeroy 64

I'll tell you what, Seton Hall is a lot better than their 3-7 Big East record. They've had several very close losses, including two in overtime. Reminds me a lot of that 2005-2006 ND team that lost a million games by 3 or less. They actually play a lot like ND does. Very good offensively with a dynamic wing player in Jeremy Hazell, but poor defensively. Not quite as bad as ND, but one of those teams that always seems to be getting in a shootout. Even though Seton Hall fans seem to be upset with him, I'm fairly impressed with what Bobby Gonzalez has done in making them competitive again.

I feel like I'm banging on this drum year after year, but someone tell me why Seton Hall wouldn't be better off in the A10 or some other conference. I know the A10 is having a banner year, but The Hall would probably be in the top 3 or 4 in the league with an RPI somewhere in the 40s if they were playing A10 basketball. They'd be right in the NCAA Tournament mix. In the Big East, they are lucky to even be an NIT team with all the talent in this league.

I guess not all hope is lost for this season though. I'm looking at their schedule, and every game but the road game at WVU looks winnable. Could they get to 10-8?? Probably won't happen, but it's not completely out of the question. Still don't think that gets them into the NCAA Tournament with that weak nonconference schedule, but a strong finish would be a good sign for next year for The Hall. If Hazell comes back, you gotta put them on the list of teams that could surge into the dance next year.

10) Connecticut -- RPI 57 Pomeroy 54

This might be a bit of hyperbole (UConn has gone through rough stretches in the past and gotten through them), but is UConn basketball at a bit of a crossroads?? Calhoun has been out for awhile, and who knows how much longer he’s going to be on the UConn bench. He’s 67 years old, and this is his third straight year of taking a leave of absence with health problems. At what point does he hang it up?? And how long before his health starts affecting their recruiting? It’s not like UConn is Duke or Carolina or Kentucky where kids grow up dreaming of putting on that uniform no matter who the coach is. Kids go to UConn to play for Jim Calhoun and develop into NBA players. If there’s uncertainty about his future, it might start scaring off players.

Then again, UConn still gets a 5 star type player every year. It just seems like they have a bad mix of guys this year and some guys who haven’t panned out. UConn seems to go into a funk every 4-5 years where they miss the NCAAs and then come roaring back the next year with a better mix of guys. For whatever reason, this team hasn’t gotten it done even though they look talented on paper. Seems like Dyson and Stanley Robinson have one foot in the NBA, and some of the younger stud recruits have not developed. Kemba Walker is a bright spot, but this team is thin and not a typical tough UConn team that gets in your shorts and locks people down. I thought they looked like a Final Four contender on paper, and now it's looking less and less likely that they will even make the NCAAs.

The interesting thing will be whether UConn can get to 9-9 this year and put themselves on that NCAA bubble going into the Big East tournament. With their talent, would ANYONE want to face them in the second round as an 8 or 9 seed?? Imagine if UConn gets to 9 wins, wins a couple games in the BET and is suddenly sitting there as a dangerous 2nd round opponent for somebody like Kentucky or Kansas. UConn has as much talent as anyone and 4-5 future pros on their roster. If they get it together, they have the ability to scare the heck out of someone and make a run, especially if Calhoun is back come tournament time.

Having said that, I don't see them getting to 9 wins. UConn has been an absolute dog on the road this year, and they still have 5 road games left. Looks like they are headed for 7-8 wins at best. See ya next year.

By the way, that UConn job is going to be interesting whenever Calhoun does step down. How attractive is that job?? On the one hand, UConn has been a powerhouse for a good 20 years, they are in a good recruiting area, and they are committed financially with a new practice facility coming on board. Plus, they have created this "basketball hotbed" niche with the men's and women's programs both being elite programs. The only questions for me are:

1) Does a good coach want to follow in Calhoun's footsteps?
2) Is UConn capable of standing on its own as an elite job without Calhoun's presence?

I think it's an interesting question. If you're some hot shot young coach, would you be scared off by the shadow of Calhoun?? What if you struggle for a couple years and fans get restless?? And is UConn really a top 10 kinda job along the lines of a Duke or UCLA or UNC or Kansas?? UConn has the Big East dollars and Nike and all that, but I don't know where they fall in the pecking order in terms of being a job that other coaches covet.

The coaching searches at these big time Big East jobs that might open up in the next decade (Syracuse and UConn) are going to be fascinating.

9) South Florida - RPI 50 Pomeroy 65

For my money, hands down the most intriguing story in the Big East this year has been the South Florida Bulls. When is that statue of Stan Heath going up on campus?? Hands down the coach of the year!!

Not only have the Bulls risen from the ashes, they might be the most fun team to watch in the league. Look at some of the numbers Dom Jones has been putting up. Amazing. Also love that Jarrid Famous guy, and they have Gilchrist coming back within the next week. Oh and just to add drama, former Ohio State transfer Anthony Crater has worked his way into the rotation. Extremely intriguing team that seems to be getting better as the season goes along. Watching that ND-USF game on Sunday, I felt extremely fortunate to come out of that one alive with a win. We needed every bit of that 16-2 start to pull that one out.

Can they get into the NCAAs this year?? I think they've got a shot to get into the picture. 4 home games left that all look very winnable (Cincy, Providence, SJU, UConn), and they still have DePaul on the road. Couldn't they easily win all those games and jump up to 10-8, especially with how well they are playing right now?? If that happened, they'd have several things going for them:

1) red hot finish
2) 10 conference wins
3) big wins over Pitt and Georgetown

I'll go ahead and say they get to 10-8. I'm Not sure if that is enough to get them into the NCAAs unless they make some noise in the BET, but they'd have some stuff going for them.

Anyway, even if they don't make the NCAAs, I think it's great that college basketball is relevant in the Greater Tampa area. Looks like Stan Heath is building something down there.

8) Notre Dame - RPI 59 Pomeroy 74

I don't know what to make of Notre Dame basketball right now. Part of me is screaming out for change, but the larger part of me feels no urgency to make a change for the sake of making a change without a larger plan in place to take the program to the next level. If you think that a simple coaching change is going to get this program to the next level, you're kidding yourself. It's plain as day from the recent interview with Swarbrick in Blue and Gold Illustrated that ND doesn't view itself as a major player in college basketball. Swarbrick admits himself that we do not even have the DESIRE to go after the elite guys. ND is not comfortable with the AAU scene or the agents or the handlers or the Worldwide Weses of the world.

Here is Swarbrick's quote on what it's like to recruit in college basketball these days.

“One of the challenges in basketball that you don’t see in other sports as much – although certainly the trend is in that direction – is that [recruiting] has become almost completely divorced from the high school environment,” Swarbrick explained. “So when you recruit a basketball player today, you’re not talking to the principal and the high school coach. Not as much as you’d like to. You’re talking to the folks involved on the AAU team.

“Football, of course, continues to all still be within the school environment, so you get grade input, and you establish relationships with principals and guidance counselors and coaches that, for all the challenges of the process, especially with the oral commit phenomenon, is still significantly healthier, because it plays out in that high school environment.”

Swarbrick even goes on to say in the interview that he hopes there are rule changes that will someday allow us to compete again for titles. He's looking for the NBA to adopt the baseball rules for early entry where a high school senior can either declare for the draft or go to college for three years. We can debate that topic at another time, but this tells me that our athletic department is openly admitting that we are not equipped to compete for championships right now in college basketball. It doesn't matter if Brey is the coach or Rick Pitino. If you can't get the players, you can't win big. It's plain and simple. You need to play defense of course, but you need pros. Future NBA guys. And under our current structure, we're not capable of landing those guys.

Now that's not meant to absolve Brey entirely. I'm well aware of his flaws and have documented them on this site ad nauseum. And if he did a better job with his bench or defensively or in constructing a nonconference schedule, this team might get better seeds in the tournament, which might lead to a deep NCAA tournament run and better recruiting. Brey has flaws as a head coach. He's almost become like the Wayne Fontes of college basketball. Remember back in the 90s when Fontes would start out every year like 2-6 and then reel off 5 straight wins to save his job?? Just when the buzzards started circling, he'd suddenly turn into Vince Lombardi. Brey is sort of like that as well. We do our best work when no one is expecting anything from us. It's like we need the element of surprise to win games.

But lots of coaches have flaws, and it's hard for me to bag on Mike Brey too much when he continues to get this team to .500 or above in the Big East even though he presides over a program that gets very little support from the athletic department. ND spends on this program like we should be Rutgers or St. Johns, and Brey typically gets far better results than that. What more can you expect from him?? Top 10 teams and Sweet 16 appearances?? Even though ND is 12th in spending in the Big East and won't let him recruit the studs that he needs if he wants to get us to the next level??

Imagine what Brey could do if you added an Onuaku type inside, an Austin Freeman out on the wing, and maybe someone lke Maalik Wayans as a 3rd guard. You don't think he'd benefit from having those options?? If you added a couple of those guys to this roster, we'd be a Sweet 16 team AT LEAST. But we're not even allowed to touch most of these stud McD's All-American types because they are viewed to be academic risks or "unsavory characters" or whatever other reason the collars have for not allowing Brey to recruit them.

People act like ND is some sort of plum job. It's not. We don't pay for squat in terms of head coaching salaries, we have a small recruiting budget and staff budget, our facilities are maybe the worst in the Big East, we can't recruit the best of the best because of academics, the perception out there is that we only care about football, and we haven't had a big time winning cache in 30 years. And people think coaches will be lining up for this job if/when Brey is gone??? Child please.

We would be LUCKY to get Brad Stephens, and I'm not even sure I'd want that guy. Yes, he's been fantastic at Butler, but he's never coached anywhere else!! Butler is one of those programs that runs on autopilot these days. They are the best of the best in the Horizon League, and they only need to recruit a 3-4 hour radius from campus to load the roster with a bunch of underrated guys from Indiana and Ohio and Illinois. They can scour the region and talk to every high school coach in the area to find kids who didn't grow up in the AAU scene but know how to play the game. And Butler is an attractive place for those guys to go because it's a hoops crazy school that will treat them like royalty. Stephens has won big at Butler, but my fear with him is that he's riding the coattails of a program that has been successful long before he got there.

Think about the coaches who have been at Butler before Brad Stephens. Lickliter, Collier, and Matta. Lickliter and Collier have been absolute DISASTERS outside of the Butler cocoon. Matta has been fantastic at Xavier and Ohio State, but Matta also had great basketball mentors in his assistant coaching days and had longtime recruiting ties in the Midwest that set him up to be successful outside of Butler. Matta was the guy who established Butler's recruiting pipeline that has allowed that program to flourish to this day. Plus, Matta earned his stripes outside of Butler as a head coach. He went to the Elite Eight at Xavier. Maybe Stephens is the next Thad Matta, but Stephens has never left the little Butler bubble. Take him out of that scene, and can he do it on his own, especially in the Big East?? Is Brad Stephens prepared to show up in the Big East and start winning head to head recruiting battles with the Jay Wrights and Jim Calhouns and Jim Boeheims of the world?? Maybe he can do it, I'll believe it when I see it. Either way, I hardly consider him to be a sure thing.

For my money, I'd rather hang onto Brey for the next couple years and do the following in the mean time:

1) Make it a goal to be the #1 spender in the Big East in terms of budget. Double the recruiting budget, tell Brey he can hire whatever assistants he wants, and recruit whoever he wants
2) Break ground on the best practice facility in the nation -- We have an enormous endowment and football money coming out of our ears. Put it to good use and build the best basketball facility around. ND is one of the richest schools out there, especially compared to the rest of the Big East programs that don't even have football. We should not be crying poor.

After that, I'd give Brey an ultimatum. He has 3 years to either (a) go to the Sweet 16, (b) go to the Finals of the BET, or (c) bring in a consensus top 10 recruiting class. If he can't do that with the new commitment that we are showing to hoops, he is gone. I would completely support that decision. If we're going to make the effort to be an elite program, then the expectations for Brey should be that he can get us there.

But for now, I really don't have that big of a problem with keeping Brey around. The problems in this program go higher than him. He's the Marvin Lewis of college basketball. Even though I think he's a flawed coach, it's hard for me to blame him for losing games when the program is not committed to winning. And the fact that he does win 9-10 games every year and keeps us relevant is not something I take lightly. There are a lot of coaches who would come to ND and completely flame out. If we fire Brey just for the sake of doing something, we could end up with a Jerry Wainwright/John McLeod type who could run this program right back into the ground.

As for this season, I think this team will probably end up a 9-9 or 10-8 (depending on Seton Hall). If we get to 10-8, we'll be in the tournament conversation. Our RPI and Pomeroy ratings are lousy, so that might ultimately keep us out. But at least we'd be in the hunt. That's about all I can expect out of this program these days until I see a plan from Swarbrick and the collars to perform better.


Anonymous said...

First of all your constant references to money spent and x is 12th in spending etc is misplaced. Those figures do not differentiate between campus faciities where no rent is charged versus downtown arenas that charge a hefty dollar and therefore, increase expenses.
Moreover, your excuses for ND failures is pathetic. First, most elite basketball players do not want to be in South Bend. Second, you are under the misapprehension that players like Austin Freemann were dying to go to ND. The fact is that since the days of Digger, no top rated DC player has chosen to matriculate to ND and most top players in the DC/MD/VA area will choose Georgetown over ND, including Freeman. Finally, facilities are red herring. Top players want to go to a basketball school, not a football school like ND. If it is facilities, how do you explain Georgetown's success?

Craig said...

Facilities are what make ND solely a football school. Does anybody argue that Texas is not a basketball school now that they've sunk some cash into supporting their program?

If an opposing coach wants to argue that ND is not committed to winning basketball, they need point no further than the Pit. (And that's an improvement on years past, when they could point to the arena as well... and I think we're seeing the fruits of that upgrade in the next recruiting class.)