- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Big East doesn't need St. John's, Seton Hall or Rutgers to be a top-tier team.
Sure, having the New York metro-area schools relevant in the most expansive, and one of the most televised leagues in the country, helps the greater good of the conference.
"Utopia to me is when we're good in New York," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "When St. John's is good in New York, the whole coverage of college basketball gets ratchetted up and St. John's drives a lot of it. When they win, there is a different level of excitement."
But is it a necessity? The reality is that with the start of practice just two weeks away, there is very little buzz outside the metropolitan New York area for the three Big East teams.
Yet again, none is projected to go to the NCAA Tournament. Getting to the NIT would be considered a very good season for them. Just reaching the Big East tournament (only 12 of 16 are invited), something that Seton Hall and Rutgers missed out on last season, would be a step.
"There's definitely a buzz locally about getting it back, but I do sense right now that there aren't any expectations for any of us," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said. "Not one of us is supposed to go to the NCAA. Right now, we're all trying to make the Big East tournament [first]."
St. John's hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002, although that trip was vacated so the last official trip was in 2000. NCAA sanctions from the Jarvis regime had a hand in the current rebuilding situation for Norm Roberts, who followed Jarvis.
Seton Hall has had the most success of late, going to the NCAAs in 2000 under Tommy Amaker and then twice under Louis Orr in 2004 and 2006, the year he was sacked in favor of Gonzalez.
Rutgers hasn't been to the NCAAs since Bob Wenzel went in 1991.
The rest of the metro-area schools -- places like Hofstra, Manhattan, Iona, Fordham, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Stony Brook and Columbia -- are, for the most part, in one-bid leagues (save the occasional exceptions for the Colonial and the A-10). None is projected to win its conference, so there is a good chance that the area could get shut out for the second straight season.
But let's stick to the Big East trio. There are plenty of theories as to why the ball in the area hasn't been too good of late. And there are no easy answers to the problem, either.
Why the Apple has soured
Ron Naclerio, a longtime coach at Cardozo High, leans toward the expanded Big East theory. He said expansion has made it easier for the New York-area players to go to Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and other schools, knowing they're going to be returning to NYC a fair amount.
I went to a couple of St. John's games, and it's nothing compared to the Big 12. It's never more than one year. It's not like that at Kansas. A lot of kids want to get out of New York. They want to get to big schools. I wanted to get out, experience something different. I wanted to see something different and a different culture. I don't know what's missing, but it's not there.
"Let's face it, there aren't as many good players as there once were," Naclerio said.
Former Rutgers coach Gary Waters, now the head coach at Cleveland State, said the gap between the haves and have-nots in the Big East is too wide to overcome. He said constantly staying with the big boys from one season to the next is a daunting task. He agrees with Naclerio that the new Big East schools (Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, South Florida and DePaul) can pull more recruits out of New York, while still getting players from their own areas as well. Conversely, he doesn't see how one of the three metro-area schools can go into Wisconsin and get a recruit away from Marquette.
"It's going to have to take a scheme, something like what [John] Beilein had [at West Virginia and now Michigan], a style of play that allows you to have success," Waters said of how the three New York-area Big East schools could survive. "If you have a team running the Princeton style, that allows them to compete with the guys without having the top players in that area."
Another reality is that sometimes players don't want to stay home.
"I went to a couple of St. John's games, and it's nothing compared to the Big 12," said New York native and Kansas senior guard Russell Robinson, who also based his decision to go to KU on the lack of consistent success by NYC-area schools. "It's never more than one year. It's not like that at Kansas. A lot of kids want to get out of New York. They want to get to big schools. I wanted to get out, experience something different. I wanted to see something different and a different culture. I don't know what's missing, but it's not there."
Derrick Caracter, who is from New Jersey, chose Rick Pitino and Louisville two years ago.
"I just decided that Coach P was one of the best for discipline and basketball," Caracter said. "[At Louisville, it's like] we're really in New York with the whole staff being from New York. It's pretty much at home. I always wanted to get away from home and experience things on my own and get out of that whole area."
"Players have always left New York," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who has had success in building the Panthers' program with a New York accent (Chevy Troutman, Chris Taft, Keith Benjamin and Carl Krauser, among others). "This isn't a new trend. It's always been the trend."
He's right. Schools in the ACC and SEC have had years of success plucking the city's finest.
But Tranghese isn't buying any of these theories.
"A couple of people say to me that one of the reasons St. John's and Seton Hall and Rutgers struggle is because of expansion and everyone coming into New York, but it's all an excuse," Tranghese said. "I believe there are a lot of players. Rick [Pitino] has been coming into New York [and recruiting] long before the Big East started. Everybody was coming into New York.
"St. John's has struggled for quite a bit, Rutgers has struggled quite a bit, and Seton Hall struggled quite a bit. I keep hearing recruiting is getting better, but it's got to get even better."
Do hard times for those three teams hurt the Big East?
"It hurts them, not us," Tranghese said. "We've had so many good teams. It's like when Alabama struggled in the SEC [in football], it didn't hurt the SEC. We're the same way in basketball. There are so many teams that can be very good that if someone is down it hurts them, not us."
Tranghese said the only way to create the regular-season buzz in the metro area is by winning.
But it goes back to the chicken-and-egg theory. Do you need the players to win, or do you have to win to get the players? New Seton Hall coach Gonzalez, who was formerly at Manhattan, said it's all about players, players, players.
"One of us has to upset the order of things," Gonzalez said of nabbing a big-time recruit.
All three have tried, come close and whiffed at the end. Rutgers lost out on Lance Thomas to Duke last season.
"We have to win, and then maybe those players will want to stay home," Rutgers coach Hill said. "Kids want to play in the metro area in front of family and friends and want to go somewhere where they have a chance to win a national championship.
"Kids go to the school they think will be in the NCAA Tournament, with a chance to play in the NBA. All three programs are in a down period, and there's a process you have to go through to turn it. You can't speed that process up. You've got to pick the right guys."
Roberts, who is finally working with a full set of scholarships in his fourth season after the NCAA penalties, said that although he had to build the program from the bottom with academic advisors and strength and conditioning coaches, he does get to coach in a new practice facility, an advantage previous coaches lacked.
"New York is never patient and people understand what we're trying to do, our administration does, and how I'm trying to do it," Roberts said. "They didn't want me to go out and get six junior college guys and not worry about the guys going to class."
Former St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla, now an analyst for ESPN, had success grabbing local talent for the Red Storm, most notably keeping Ron Artest home. And that kind of player can get NYC excited again about local college hoops. Fraschilla said as much as Robinson has had a solid career at Kansas, no one would know him if you plunked him down on 7th Avenue. While Felipe Lopez and Artest were at St. John's, he said "people hugged them and stopped them and said 'Go St. John's!'"
"There's apathy that can change with one breakthrough season," Fraschilla said. "MSG [Madison Square Garden] wants St. John's to be good. That's when St. John's differs from Rutgers and Seton Hall. When they're good, they're just as important to the fabric of New York basketball as the Knicks."
The Red Storm under Roberts, a former Bill Self assistant at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, have improved each of the past three seasons. The Red Storm finished one game ahead of Connecticut last season in the Big East. But there have been some mistakes of late, players who weren't able to stay eligible or on the roster without issues, such as Derwin Kitchen and Qa'rraan Calhoun the past two seasons. Seeing Flushing's Sylven Landesberg commit to Virginia Thursday was a hit, too.
The Red Storm also are playing only five Big East games in the Garden this season. St. John's will play two other games in the Garden in the Holiday Festival. But the five home nonconference games and the other four Big East games will be on campus at the Carnesecca Arena.
That's fine with Roberts. MSG doesn't discuss its agreements with St. John's, but Roberts said if the Red Storm don't sell 9,000 tickets at Garden games, the school doesn't make money because of its $100,000 rent each game.
And, Roberts said, playing games on campus gives the home team a decided advantage, much like when Connecticut plays at its on-campus Gampel Pavilion instead of the Hartford Civic Center. Roberts would rather see opposing schools sweat in the 6,000-seat Red Storm band box with their 40 allotted tickets than see half of the Garden full of the opposing team's fans.
"I'm going to love being in Carnesecca Arena and with it being all red and white and saying, 'Here's your 40 tickets up there in the rafters and now you deal with it,'" Roberts said.
Rutgers is starting the infancy stages of trying to build a new arena in New Brunswick to upgrade the RAC. Still, when the RAC is full, it has been one of the tougher stops in the Big East. But that was when the Scarlet Knights were a bit more competitive.
Hill, who like Gonzalez is entering his second season as a head coach in the Big East, is no stranger to landing quality talent. He did it at Seton Hall as an assistant to Amaker, hauling in one of the top recruiting classes that spawned a Sweet 16 team. He did it at Villanova, helping Jay Wright land the New York-area class of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser that ultimately earned the Wildcats a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Under Hill, Rutgers has landed local talent. Corey Chandler (Newark, N.J.) and Mike Coburn (Mount Vernon, N.Y.), are both expected to be major contributors to the Scarlet Knights (who finished 3-13 in the Big East last season, 10-19 overall). Mike Rosario (Jersey City, N.J.) has verbally committed to Rutgers for 2008.
"There is a buzz in the state," Hill said. "We're in the infancy stages of creating the buzz and we'll continue to get more. We're not ready for the buzz to go from 10 wins to 18. By no means do I think we can't win, but I understand the process. I would like us to shock everybody and shock me."
To have success in recruiting the area, you've got to take on the bullies in the league, says Fraschilla, who went after schools like Connecticut and Syracuse, the kingpins. To do that, though, you need to be a bit brash and willing to ruffle feathers in recruiting.
Sounds a little like Seton Hall's Gonzalez.
"People don't like him, and that's because he's fearless," Fraschilla said. "Freddy has a lot of that. Norm has a different approach. He's just a great guy and even great guys have to grab people by the proverbial jugular."
Roberts didn't back down when he and UConn tussled over the de-commitment of East Hartford's Doug Wiggins from St. John's to UConn two years ago. Still, Gonzalez may be the most aggressive of the three coaches.
Gonzalez is getting the second-tier New York-area players who were going to Pitt and Providence in years past, players like Eugene Harvey and Larry Davis last year, or Brandon Walters or Mike Davis in this freshman class, or Jordan Theodore out of Paterson, N.J., for 2008.
"I may not get the McDonald's All-Americans like Samardo Samuels [a New Jersey native committed to Louisville]," Gonzalez said. "But I've got to get Eugene Harvey to offset that. It's not easy, but it's doable and I'm crazy enough to think it's doable. Hopefully you're not calling me in a few years and they're looking for me in the Hudson River."
The reality is that one of the schools has to break through by convincing a big-time recruit to stay home, and hope for all of their sakes that the other two can follow suit to create relevance beyond the metro area.
"I want to be successful at Rutgers, but I want Seton Hall to be successful so we can create a rivalry that means something," Hill said. "It would be phenomenal if St. John's, Seton Hall and Rutgers were all good at the same time. It would make it more difficult on a Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, a Florida or a Duke or North Carolina to come in to attract those kids, to say they're leaving something meaningful. I root for the day that all three of us are in the top six in this league."
And if that happens then, as Tranghese said, there is a chance for perfection in the Big East.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Despite being in the hotbed of hoops talent, Rutgers, St. John's and Seton Hall are getting left behind in the college basketball world. There are a lot of reasons but no easy solutions for reversing the trend, writes Andy Katz.