NEW YORK — With last season’s breakup of the Big East, the remaining Hall of Fame coaches exited a league that for decades was defined by its urban roots, bruising style of play and larger-than-life personalities on the bench.
The plague of conference-raiding stripped the Big East of Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, whose Syracuse and Louisville squads bolted to the ACC, just as retirement claimed Jim Calhoun, John Thompson Jr. and Lou Carnesecca before them.
As a result, the star wattage was decidedly down at Big East media day Wednesday. But the enthusiasm was high, with Commissioner Val Ackerman and Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, among others, extolling the muscle and must-watch games in store in the reconstituted league that consists of seven former Big East members and newcomers Butler, Creighton and Xavier.
“If you look around the room, the quality of coaching is outstanding,” said Thompson, whose Hoyas finished 25-7 last season and were co-champions of the Big East regular season. “Yes, we lost some Hall of Fame coaches, but I don’t think too many teams want to go up against the guys in this room. Every game is going to be a battle. That was true last year; that’s going to be true this year.”
Marquette Coach Buzz Williams, whose Golden Eagles were picked by the league’s coaches to win the 2013-14 regular season title, proclaimed the Big East “one of the best two or three conferences in the country.”
Georgetown was picked second, garnering two of the 10 first-place votes. And Creighton, which boasts the league’s unanimous preseason player of the year, senior forward Doug McDermott, was picked third.
“Every coach is going to say they play in the best league,” said Marquette’s Williams, whose team reached the NCAA tournament’s region finals, “but if you objectively study the numbers, I think what this league has done the last five years speaks for itself. I think this year that will hold firm, too.”
Mere proclamations don’t land leagues a place among college basketball’s elite, however. Nor can they conjure passionate rivalries to replace those that stoked the Big East of old, such as Georgetown-Syracuse. Those things are earned on court, over time.
Ackerman, the former WNBA commissioner who took the reins of the Big East on July 1, insisted the new league was up to the task, committed to proving that a league that makes basketball — rather than big-money football — its calling card can be financially viable and nationally respected.
“There’s no doubt: The eyes of the basketball world and the eyes of others in college sports are definitely on the league,” said Ackerman, a former standout at Virginia. “But I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation.”
When Georgetown opens its season Nov. 8 against Pac-12 power Oregon in South Korea, it will be without do-it-all forward Otto Porter Jr., last season’s Big East player of the year, who was chosen by the Wizards with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, and junior forward Greg Whittington, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the offseason.
Thompson said it was impossible to gauge Whittington’s readiness to return and, as a result, was preparing as if he wouldn’t be available.
“I don’t think anyone short of God knows when he will be 100 percent healthy, when he will be able to play,” Thompson said. “And he will not get on [the] court one second before that. If that’s this year, so be it.”
The Hoyas are rich in experience, led by seniors Nate Lubick and Markel Starks, who was named to the all-Big East preseason team. And they add an imposing big man in UCLA transfer Josh Smith, who has practiced with the squad since spring semester last year and impressed in the practices that got underway in late September.
“There’s not much on the basketball court that he’s not comfortable doing,” Thompson said of the 6-foot-10, 350-pound Smith. “He just has to continue the process that he has started and is in midst of, which is getting in the best physical shape possible.”
Added Lubick: “He’s so skilled for someone who is that big. It makes him very hard to guard. When Josh is in the game for us, it’s going to be a different look we’re giving teams. Throwing somebody out there with his size and stature, it’s immediately a huge adjustment for the other team.”