Three Marquette freshmen sat on the dais next to their coach, Tom Crean, and their senior teammate, Steve Novak, and just stared out at the mix of players and coaches and reporters that gathered inside Madison Square Garden for Big East media day Wednesday.
"We're kind of in awe," said guard Wesley Matthews, the 2005 Wisconsin high school player of the year. "Everything is like a shock to us, to see the teams and the media, and to see just how big the Big East really is."
And this year, the Big East is bigger -- and better -- than it has ever been. Marquette is one of five schools -- Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and South Florida are the others -- that have moved from Conference USA to the Big East.
Fifteen of the 16 teams in the conference have played in a Final Four (only newcomer USF has not). Two of the past three national champions have come from the Big East. Two coaches, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and a third -- Louisville's Rick Pitino -- probably will follow them one day.
"The quality is still there," said Pitino, who coached at Providence from 1985 to 1987, when the league had just nine teams. "But the depth is overpowering."
Villanova was the coaches' pick to win the league. The Wildcats received nine first-place votes, two more than Connecticut, which shared the 2004-05 regular season title with since-departed Boston College. Connecticut sophomore forward Rudy Gay (Archbishop Spalding) and Syracuse senior guard Gerry McNamara were chosen as the preseason co-players of the year.
The Wildcats return their top eight players from last season's team, which came within a basket of upsetting eventual national champion North Carolina in the regional semifinals. But they suffered a costly blow when senior forward Curtis Sumpter, the team's third-leading scorer (15.3 points per game), re-injured his knee last week. He will undergo surgery on Nov. 11.
"I hope that's with an asterisk," joked Villanova Coach Jay Wright, referring to the coaches' poll. "For 'Before Sumpter'."
Georgetown, which returns all five starters and two key reserves from last year's 19-13 squad, was picked to finish sixth in the conference. No Hoyas were named to the preseason All-Big East team, though sophomore forward Jeff Green (who shared co-rookie of the year honors with Gay last season) and senior forward Brandon Bowman earned honorable mention recognition.
"I guess that puts more pressure on you," said Bowman, who averaged a team-high 15.1 points. "That's expected. When you play like you did the previous year, they expect more of you the next year."
Teams will play what Commissioner Mike Tranghese referred to as a "dysfunctional" conference schedule; teams will play 10 opponents once, three opponents twice (home and away), and will not face two teams. The top 12 teams will qualify for the league tournament.
But the biggest concern is what will happen on Selection Sunday. No league has ever put eight teams in the NCAA tournament; the Big East sent seven teams last season, and its lowest-ranked team -- West Virginia, which finished eighth in the conference -- made a run to a regional final. Tranghese said that he is not concerned that deserving teams will be left out of the NCAA tournament.
"Everybody keeps telling me we're too big," Tranghese said. "Everybody in America is too big. . . . We just happen to be a little bigger than others."