UConn, Syracuse tie for 1st in coaches' poll
NEW YORK—The basketball coaches of all 16 Big East schools were in one building, ready to talk about their teams and the prospects of a season that starts in just about three weeks.
However, this media day was different. A lot of the talk on Wednesday was about conference expansion, a significant topic since Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced they're leaving to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
TCU was slated to join the Big East in 2012, but jumped to the Big 12 before anybody got close to the Horned Frogs.
Big East Commissioner John Marinatto had announced on Tuesday that the conference was looking to bring in schools to make up for the defections and ward off any more.
"Without the Big East, I would never had a chance to win three national championships," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose team was picked as co-favorites with Syracuse in the coaches' preseason poll. "If we were to stay in the Big East, it would be a great thing and that's what I would like. But if we aren't able to, I'm sure our leadership will find a suitable location for us."
There has been plenty of talk -- some by the governor of the state -- that UConn would be interested in also going to the ACC, but it has said they are set with 14 members right now.
"I worry about UConn basketball in the future. In the past five years we've had the best basketball league in the country. We had (a record) 11 teams in the NCAA tournament last year and on paper today nine of them would be in it again."
Connecticut closed the season on an 11-game winning streak with all of them elimination games en route to winning the Big East tournament and the national championship. In last year's preseason poll, the Huskies were picked 10th.
"It was kind of easy to play last year because all we did was play basketball," Connecticut junior forward Alex Oriahki said. "It's different this time. After winning the Big East and the national championship, everybody's going to be gunning for us and we'll get everybody's best game."
The Huskies will have to do it without All-America guard Kemba Walker, who did everything needed to win games.
Calhoun has three starters returning, including sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, a preseason first-team pick, and Oriakhi, a second-team selection. Freshman Andre Drummond, a 6-foot-11 center, was chosen preseason rookie of the year.
"He's a crazy athlete," Oriahki said of Drummond, who didn't enroll at Connecticut until the summer. "With all the hype around him, you would think he'd be some type of arrogant but he's not. He listens. I try to coach him out there and tell him what he does wrong and he takes it like a sponge. He's still raw but the sky's the limit."
Syracuse, which had five first-place votes -- two less than Connecticut -- returns first-team selection Kris Joseph, a senior, and second-teamer Scoop Jardine, a junior who led the conference in assists with a 6.1 average last season.
Orange coach Jim Boeheim was asked if he thinks his team will be treated differently during road games because of the decision to leave the league.
"Nobody has ever cheered for us on the road. We never got a lot cheers," Boeheim said. "On the road the fans are always against you, especiallly Syracuse. You just have to go out and play. I mentioned it briefly, maybe five minutes. They know what life on the road is all about. I don't think it will be much tougher."
Louisville, which had three first-place votes was third, followed by Pittsburgh, which had one.
Rick Pitino, along with Calhoun and Boeheim the three coaches in the conference with a national championship, wasn't hiding his feelings about the move by Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
"I had no problem with a charter member like Syracuse leaving and I had no problem with Pittsburgh leaving," Pitino said. "What I had a problem with was the decision coming in 36 to 48 hours. It's like being engaged for a while and then heading to Las Vegas to get married. I think any major decision for a charter member, it would need two weeks to make a decision. It's the right of every school to do what they want."
Then he tried to debunk the feeling that the expansions were all football-related.
"I don't like hearing that this was a football decision," he said. "It was a basketball decision to get the ACC back to where it was 25, 30 years ago, and I'm sure they want to go back to that and the way they did it was to steal two great basketball programs like Syracuse and Pitt."
Panthers senior guard Ashton Gibbs was selected preseason player of the year. He led Pittsburgh in scoring (16.8), and led the conference in 3-point shooting (49 percent), and was second in free throw shooting (88.9) He enters the season third on the Big East career 3-point shooting percentage list at 45.4.
The other Panthers to be preseason player of the year are Charles Smith (1986-87), Jerome Lane (1987-88), Brandin Knight (2002-03) and Aaron Gray (2006-07).
"It's an honor but it's a personal accolade and my teammates and I are playing for championships," Gibbs said. "We want the Big East. We want a national championship. That's what we work so hard for."
Cincinnati was fifth followed by Marquette, West Virginia, Villanova, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall, South Florida, Providence and DePaul.
In addition to Gibbs, Lamb and Joseph, the preseason first team included seniors Darius Johnson-Odom of Marquette and Kevin Jones of West Virginia, and graduate student Tim Abromaitis of Notre Dame.
Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team or players.