By JIM O’CONNELL, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) _ Pittsburgh is the only Big East program to have won at least 10 conference games in each of the last nine seasons.
Jamie Dixon has been there for all nine, the last seven as head coach. He knows how impressive that streak is when you’re in a league that has produced six Final Four teams and two national champions over that span, and is almost guaranteed half of the 16-team league being in the NCAA tournament.
“I was looking at the conference and overall records over those nine years and we’re tops in both, and that’s a pretty good group to be among,” Dixon said. “It speaks to the number of good players we’ve had and to do it for nine straight years you need good players, a lot of good players.”
Dixon has enough of those good players this season that the Panthers were picked No. 1 again Wednesday in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll.
“I think it is a reflection over what we’ve done the last nine years, that’s part of it,” said Dixon, who has four starters back from a team that went 25-9 last season and finished tied for second in the conference at 13-5.
“Our goal is to be the best, not win a preseason poll. It’s something we acknowledge but most of this group was picked ninth last year. We went from a young team and now we’re old. Is there any in between?”
The Panthers received 12 first-place votes from the 16 coaches, who could not vote for their own team.
Villanova, which received one first-place vote, was second, followed in the first division by Syracuse, Georgetown, defending conference champion and Final Four participant West Virginia, St. John’s, Notre Dame and Louisville and Marquette, which tied for eighth.
Syracuse, last season’s regular-season champion, received two first-place votes and St. John’s had one.
The remainder of the poll was Connecticut, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, South Florida, Providence, Rutgers and DePaul.
Bob Huggins, who led West Virginia to its best season since the days of Jerry West 50 years ago, was almost blase when he was asked how good the Big East appears to him.
“That’s our league,” he said matter-of-factly. “You play one great team on Saturday and there’s another waiting on Monday. That’s our league and that’s why there is so much respect in this league.”
Marquette’s Buzz Williams, now a veteran of two seasons as a head coach in the Big East, blames the league for health issues.
“The teams at the top are really good and there are some teams in here that are way better than people think,'”he said. “I think it will be another great year. Another year that will add 30 pounds and take four years off my life.”
Georgetown senior guard Austin Freeman, who averaged 16.5 points last season while shooting 52.5 percent from the field– including a league-best 51.9 percent from 3-point range –was the choice as preseason player of the year. He is the fourth Hoya to be selected for the award, joining three-time honoree Patrick Ewing, Alonzo
Mourning and Roy Hibbert.
“It’s an honor to be in that category. They are all great players,” he said. “The way I look at it, it only matters where we are at the end of the season. This is an honor and it gives me more focus but there’s a whole season to go.”
Joining Freeman on the first team were seniors Jeremy Hazell of Seton Hall and Corey Fisher of Villanova, and juniors Kemba Walker of Connecticut, Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh and Kevin Jones of West Virginia.
Syracuse freshman Fab Melo, a 7-foot native of Brazil, was chosen the preseason rookie of the year.
“Fab can play,” said Jim Boeheim, who has had a few star freshmen in his 35 seasons at Syracuse, including Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, who led the Orange to the 2003 NCAA title. “He needs to work on his offense as all young big men do. He’s 7 feet, 260 pounds. He’s a hard worker and he’s already at a high level
rebounding and shot blocking. Offensively he has a long way to go like all big guys.”
St. John’s, one of four teams in the conference with a new coach, has not been picked higher than ninth in the preseason poll since 2002-03. Former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst Steve Lavin has 10 seniors back from a team that finished 6-12 in the conference and 17-16 overall.
“I think we’ve learned from our hardships, injuries and not really having the support of our fans and that made us more hungry,” said point guard Malik Boothe, one of those 10 seniors.
“We want to go out on a high note.”
The other new coaches are Kevin Willard at Seton Hall, Mike Rice at Rutgers and Oliver Purnell at DePaul.
Purnell has been through rebuilding before, at Dayton and Clemson.
“It’s going great. It’s similar to Dayton and Clemson in what we face,” Purnell said. “There is a lot of work to be done. This year, we want to be a very tough out.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)