By JIM O’CONNELL, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) _ The three New York area Big East schools all had new coaches to start the season. Steve Lavin, Mike Rice and Kevin Willard have made it to the halfway point, each trying to turn around a program in what is without argument the best conference in the country.
“It happens to be a year that might be the best year in the history of the conference,” said Lavin, who returned to coaching at St. John’s after seven years as a television analyst. “Some people thought the league might be on a down tick and the evidence, empirical evidence, no one’s opinion –it’s pretty overwhelming that the league is the strongest in the country and maybe in the history of the league.
“I knew it was going to be strong, but not to the level where they are talking about possibly 11 teams making the (NCAA) field and the overwhelming winning percentage against the rest of the power conferences.”
The Big East tied its own record this season with a week in which there were nine teams ranked in the Top 25, and it had half of the top 10 one week.
Lavin’s Red Storm have been able to beat three ranked teams among their 12 wins, the latest a 93-78 dismantling of third-ranked Duke on Sunday. They are 4-5 in the Big East, one-half game in front of Willard’s Seton Hall Pirates and a game ahead of Rice’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights. They are 11th, 12th and 13th in the 16-team Big East.
“In this league you finish in the top eight, top nine, you’re in the NCAA tournament,” said Rice, whose team scared second-ranked Pittsburgh before falling 66-63 on Saturday night.
“So I’m going to be fighting, scratching and clawing the next couple of years to get into that top eight, top nine.”
Seton Hall’s signature win so far this season was a 90-68 rout at No. 9 Syracuse last week.
“The strength of this league from top to bottom, there’s not one time you look at the schedule and say `Oh boy, a breather,”’ Willard said. “It’s a dogfight every night.
“You look at your next four games and you just got through a tough four games. The teams are so well-coached from top to bottom and there are great players from top to bottom. So you better be prepared or you’ll have an `L’ pretty quick.”
Of the three, Lavin was the only true newcomer to the Big East.
He was an assistant at Purdue in the Big Ten and then an assistant and head coach at UCLA in the Pac-10.
“Even with that background of being in different conferences, until you actually coach in this league you don’t get a sense of how physical the play is in the lane and at the rim,” Lavin said.
“It’s officiated that way, and personally, I love it. It’s officiated differently than it is in the West. This is a brass
Rice was an assistant at Pittsburgh in 2006-07 and came to Rutgers after a three-year stint as head coach at Robert Morris, a run capped by an overtime loss to Villanova of the Big East in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.
“When I was an assistant we were on top,” Rice said. “Still, even then it’s a struggle night in and night out to get a victory in this league, but when you’re trying to go up the ladder, those guys just won’t let you do it and whether it’s (Pittsburgh’s) Ashton Gibbs or (Georgetown’s) Austin Freeman, they all have those type of players, those guys who get to the next level. There’s an urgency for Rutgers to find one of those players.”
Willard played for three seasons at Pittsburgh under his father, Ralph, and then was an assistant and associate head coach under Rick Pitino at Louisville before taking the head job at Iona for three seasons.
“Because I played in the league and I’ve been up in this area and played a lot of these teams I knew how physical it would be,” Willard said. “I think the refereeing has been terrific and at a high level. The physicality is something college basketball has turned into.”
Willard got the chance to coach against his former boss, Pitino, whose No. 1 assistant is Ralph Willard.
“It was a little weird looking over and seeing Coach Pitino and my father,” he said. “It was one of those things where you smile thinking of all the time you spent with them. My brother and sister were rooting for me and my mother was rooting for Louisville, so it kind of split the family.”
Jamie Dixon was Rice’s boss at Pittsburgh and he was asked if he could remember how he felt halfway through his first season as a head coach in the Big East, if he was kept awake at night worrying about a daunting schedule?
“I still think that seven years later,” Dixon said, smiling.
“I think our league is getting better. When I first got here 12 years ago as an assistant the league wasn’t close to being as tough as it is now and without question this is the best conference in the country. … It’s different because this a far better league now than it was then and we know how good it was then.”
Nine conference games down, nine to go and then there’s the conference tournament. The new guys have a lot of tough games ahead of them and perhaps plenty of seasons ahead of them in a conference that doesn’t show any signs of getting any easier.
“I’ve never been this tired at this point of the season,” Willard said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)