On Thursday, October 10th the Big East Conference kicked off the upcoming season with its annual Media Day, held at the most fitting of locations Madison Square Garden.
Big East Coast Bias was on hand to take in the festivities of the day and catch up with some of yours favorites from on the Big East
This season will be the Big East’s 40th season of play, a ruby jubilee for the conference that will be celebrated over the course of the season. Kicking off Media Day was a short video put together by the conference to highlight a number of moments over the last forty years starting off with the halcyon days of the 1980’s when the Big East was the toast of college basketball onto the present day with such moments as Kemba Walker’s exploits at the 2011 Big East Tournament and Villanova’s recent NCAA Tournament successes. The video also briefly showed successes in other sports, such as St. John’s 1996 championship in soccer.
It was a nice reminder of what has taken place over the last forty years in the Big East and exciting for what is to come, especially as Connecticut will, once again, be joining the fray next season. Though UConn was not present at this Media Day, there was an air of presence in the room as the return of the Huskies was fresh on everyone’s mind, from Commissioner Val Ackerman to the head coaches of all ten programs.
The Pirates are the preseason favorites, slightly edging out Villanova by a single vote in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll thus ending a five year streak of Villanova leading the poll. This is the second time in Big East history that the Pirates are first in the poll, with the last time coming at the start of the 1992-93 season .
Shifting back to the present day, the Pirates return four starters from last season, among which includes Myles Powell who is this season’s Big East Preseason Player of the Year. A fitting award for a player who, last season, claimed unanimous preseason first team honors. Wearing a resplendent blue suit, Powell had his Preseason Player of the Year honor stitched onto the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
Spirits among the team are high, with a feeling that there is a lot to prove this season. Speaking with junior forward Sandro Mamukeliashvili he added a feeling that the Pirates “have grown so much over the summer, getting more confident...that we can do it. We have a good team, the best player in the country. I feel like all the guys are so focused and locked in.” Mamukelashvili followed up with an overview of what is to come, noting that the Pirates have a good schedule this season and a bit of a chip on their shoulder coming into the year. As for the preseason ranking, Mamukelashvili said that it was an honor being ranked this high, but with the Big East’s stacked teams every night you have got to come prepared.
Listing to Kevin Willard’s thoughts when asked about preseason expectations, Williard stated that nothing changes his approach the game and that preseason is preseason, highlighting that last season the Pirates were picked eighth and ended up finishing third in the conference, jokingly adding that some must have been voting on the golf course. Following that, he shifted gears to discuss Myles Powell and how his earning of the preseason honors shows all the work that he has put in, but also gave praise to a number of seniors in the league who have put the work in for their programs. Lastly, Willard has one more jest on hand, but this one was on the return of UConn. He does think its great for the league that Connecticut are returning, but, in a tongue-in-cheek moment, would have told them to stay away knowing what kind of job Dan Hurley is going to do with the Huskies and knowing that it will make the conference tougher. All eyes are certainly on the Pirates this season.
Despite earning the second spot in the preseason coaches poll, the Wildcats are ever present in being among the contenders for the conference. They have won five of the last six regular season titles and three straight Big East Tournament crowns, and with three returning starters and a bevy of talent coming into the program, it could be business as usual for Jay Wright and company. Heading into this season freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl earned Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year honors. As one of the premier talents Robinson-Earl will be bringing a wide array of options to the Wildcats.
Coach Wright will be entering his 19th season at the helm of the Wildcats, and has now taken on the role of elder statesman in the conference. During the coaches panel, he looked back at the changes he has seen over the years in the conference dating back to his time as a assistant to his time as head coach, and seeing various changes to conference structure over the years. Also getting the first few questions in the panel, Wright noted the depth of the league over the years, and that the Big East is a conference favors players who stick around to make names for themselves.
Following the panel, and naturally with a swirl of media around him, Coach Wright dived into a wide array of topics but focusing on his team, noted the he does not have those fourth year guys this season which, in his words, “scares the hell out of me, ‘cause we have benefited from that...last year, in the end, we have two fifth seniors [Eric Paschall and Phil Booth] and that’s how we won it. So we have to find our way by the end of the year much like Xavier did last year. We’ve got that kind of team.” On the subject of third year players, Wright put it simply, “they’re awesome. These three have great leadership on and off the court, but the big step is: How do you perform as a leader night in night out?”. Lastly, on the subject of the freshman, he noted they are great, but did feel the need to set things straight on the status of freshman guard Bryan Antoine noting, “he has not touched a basketball since his last high school game, and had reconstructive shoulder surgery...he hasn’t even been practicing. He didn’t even get diagnosed with a torn labrum till he got to Villanova.” Antoine might be back by November, but this question has been asked multiple times apparently.
Third place in the coaches poll went to Xavier. Travis Steele is entering his second season as head coach of the Musketeers, following a strong first season that saw Xavier go 19-16 and 9-9 in conference play with a strong 6-1 finish. Coach Steele has four starters returning, all of whom averaged double-digit points last season, giving Xavier explosive potential for this season. Upon the conclusion of the coaches panel, Coach Steele was the first person we spoke to once the floor opened up for media to walk around and ask questions.
Going into a sophomore season is interesting for anyone, let alone a head coach. When asking Coach Steele about going from last season into this season he noted, “You know I think that every season is different with regards to your personnel. We’ve brought four guys back that had a significant role on our team last year, but we’ve added seven new players. So our depth is different...we have more of a four man in Jason Carter. We have never had that position in the last few years. So we have got to play a little bit faster. I think our defense got a lot better late last year.” Steele also gave a great deal of credit to the improvements late last season to his guys adapting to situations noting that they, “stuck with it and stayed positive.”
On if there is anything new to expect in Xavier’s style of play, Coach Steele gave a rundown what could change and what he would like to see the Musketeers try out this season, stating, “we would walk the ball up last year, we were trying to play five guys as much as possible so we’re going to push it off more with misses and makes. We need to make more turnovers as much as possible.” When asked if Xavier will play off on a counter, he emphatically said yes, and that they are going to push it as much as possible.
The Golden Eagles flew close to the top of the conference last season, and heading into this season are placed in a tie with Providence for fourth spot in the preseason poll. Once again, the focal point of the team will be Markus Howard, who is coming off of a Big East Player of the Year season, but questions remain over the ability of the Golden Eagles on defense. During the coaches panel, head coach Steve Wojciechowski addressed these issues highlighting that, “Naturally, we have to tighten things up and can not be so loose when it comes to pressure.” He also praised Markus Howard for his Big East Player of the Year season, noting his natural scoring touch. In speaking with recent transfer to the program from Utah, Jayce Johnson, Johnson noted, “So far it has been great, we’ve been working on our defense a lot this year. I feel like it is going to be a great year defensively and offensively. As long as we lock down on defense the offense is going to come.” Lastly his thoughts on transferring in, “it has been nothing but great. It has been awesome, the guys give the feeling that I have been here for four years. It is really great to have a coach who is really behind all the players.”
Tied with Marquette for fourth are the Providence Friars who, last season, finished with an 18-16 record and a foray into the NIT. It was a bit of a down season last year with the Friars going 7-11 in conference play but with a solid core coming back, things could definitely turn for the better this season. In the offseason, Coach Ed Cooley took charge of the US Team at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru alongside Seton Hall Coach Kevin Willard as his assistant, in what was a unforgettable experience as he mentioned during the coaches panel.
Speaking with senior Kalif Young, the subject quickly went to looking at the Friars heading into this season while looking back on what went wrong last season. Young quickly stated, “We’re hungry this year...we’re really hungry in terms of this year. Our group we bring back a lot of experienced players and we all want to take that step forward. With more experiences comes a lot more comfortable situations on the court, and I think that we are all happy to have all these guys back and bring the new guys in and I think we’ll do well.” Young highlighted that last season definitely helps coming at things with more experience, noting that “We understand where we’ve been down and now understand how to pull that up and that’s where we have to come in...obviously we have 5-6 seniors this year so that leadership definitely counts.”
The Hoyas just missed joining the fourth place tie with Marquette and Providence by a single point in the preseason poll. Georgetown are coming into this season with a whole of players returning from their freshman class, among which includes their trio of players who made the All-Big East Freshmen Team in James Akinjo, Mac McClung, and Josh LeBlanc. Akinjo received Big East Freshman of the Year honors last season, as well.
We caught up with James at this Media Day to talk all things Georgetown and to see what is to come from the Hoyas this season. Akinjo believes that they can it take to another notch this season stating that “we can turn it up this year. I think last year you saw a young, anxious in a good way team...you know just get out there and make something happen. We’re trying to make a name for ourselves, but this year we’re a little bit more calm, more about what is going on and, you know, we’ve matured a lot and that helps a lot with what you are going to see this year.”
On the subject of taking that next big step, Akinjo believes that, “this is the year we can potentially do something special. We have the group of guys to do it...I feel like this is the year that we will do something special.” Getting reflective for a second Akinjo also noted that he can do better than last year, as well. It will be exciting to see what he does on the court this season. There are expectations for this Hoyas team, and they are definitely one to watch this season.
Bunched in the middle of the poll at seventh place are the Creighton Bluejays. Last season saw Creighton go 20-15 overall and 9-9 in conference play, with a brief run in the NIT. Coach Greg McDermott has a whole host of players coming back to the team for this season among which includes Ty-Shon Alexander, who earned preseason All-Big East First Team honors. We spoke with junior guard Mitchell Ballock on what is to come from the Bluejays this season.
Speaking with Ballock, he stated “In the Big East everybody can beat everybody, there are no off nights...If we can get one hundred percent that will be good for us going forward and we think we can beat anybody any given night. Add that consistency in with the way that we play and we’ll be pretty good in the conference this year.” On the subject of Creighton’s play, Ballock feels that they are going to play the same as last season, with a fast pace but will be more focused on the defensive end, noting that last season the Bluejays got more defensive towards the end of the season. He also added that their play this season will put a lot of pressure on the teams of the Big East.
Last season was not exactly an ideal one for the Bulldogs, with a 7-11 finish in conference play. Heading into this season, Butler are slotted in the eighth spot in the conference and are bringing back three players in Kamar Baldwin, Aaron Thompson, and Sean McDermott. Baldwin is coming off of a 17.0 ppg season in which he earned All-Big East Second Team Honors. We caught up with Sean McDermott to talk about what is to come from the Bulldogs this season.
When looking at expectations, McDermott stated, “Preseason polls are just a prediction, we haven’t really given much though to it. We just have goals to do well.” Onto the team, McDermott felt that “defensively we need to get a little bit better. There were games where we played defensively and games where we struggled, so we have to be more consistent defensively. On offense, we need to trust each other more, trust the offense, trust the coaches and I think we’ll be fine.” As for looking back on last season with a focus for this season, McDermott rounded things off by noting, “with our goals, we can not go 7-11 in the league, but with the way everyone has worked we have to be able to finish games for sure.”
Upon his introduction during the coaches panel, new St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson jokingly welcomed everyone to his home, the court of Madison Square Garden. It will be a sea of change for Coach Anderson whose career thus far has featured not a single losing season at the three previous programs he has coached at (UAB, Missori, and Arkansas) and NCAA Tournament appearances at all three. He is taking over from where Chris Mullin left off, though in this case, it’s a program that will need a bit of rebuilding before being a serious contender. The Johnnies this season sit at ninth in the coaches poll with five players returning including Mustapha Heron and L.J. Figueroa.
When speaking with Coach Anderson, he says that he has a job to do here and that the ultimate goal is to bring a championship to St. John’s. A statement that his is wholeheartedly serious about much in the same vein of talking and living basketball. When asked about difficulties and challenges at St. John’s, Coach Anderson said that, “the biggest job was getting the guys who stayed on to buy in, and that it was especially important for L.J and Mustapha then after that every will follow.”
On the subject of his style of play and what is expected from his team, Coach Anderson broadly stated “we’re going to compete I can tell you that. Everywhere I’ve been we’ve been picked at a certain spot and always overachieved.” The defensive style though was what is on everyone’s mind, especially those who have seen Anderson’s teams play over the years. “Our defensive style is going to be disruptive with a lot of energy...it’ll be chaotic but trust me it’ll be organized chaos.” It will be fun to see this chaos in action.
The Blue Demons are tenth in the poll, a place they have found themselves more often than not over the years in the Big East. Last season was a improvement for the DePaul, as the Blue Demons went 19-17 and finished as runners up in the CBI Tournament. It will be interesting to see how the Blue Demons shape up this season with the loss of the Max Strus and Eli Cain. Paul Reed won Most Improved Player last season and could be a main focal point for this upcoming season. In speaking with Dave Leitao, he highlights that top to bottom this is his deepest and most talented team that he has had.
It should be noted that Max Strus and Eli Cain made up about 32% of DePaul’s scoring last season but in light of that, and when asking Coach Leitao about changes in play for this season, he noted again they are deeper and will try to stretch the court and run a little bit more.
Big East Preseason Player of the Year
Myles Powell, Seton Hall, G, Sr.
Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova, F, Fr.
Big East Preseason All-Big East First Team
Kamar Baldwin, Butler, G, Sr.
Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton, G, Jr.
Markus Howard, Marquette, G, Sr.
Alpha Diallo, Providence, G, Sr.
Naji Marshall, Xavier, F, Jr.
Big East Preseason All-Big East Second Team
Paul Reed, DePaul, F, Jr.
James Akinjo, Georgetown, G, So.
L.J. Figueroa, St. John’s, G-F, Jr.
Mustapha Heron, St. John’s G, Sr.
Collin Gillespie, Villanova, G, Jr.
Jermaine Samuels, Villanova, F, Jr.
Preseason All-Big East Honorable Mention
Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown, C, Jr.
Paul Scruggs, Xavier, G, Jr.