[b]Transition year packed with action
BY SKIP MYSLENSKI
October 16, 2004
It promises to be more entertaining than the raunchiest reality show. That’s the state of Conference USA on Saturday, the day that officially opens the college basketball season.
Down in Louisville, Rick Pitino has a Cardinals team talented enough to contend for the national title. Up the road is the always entertaining Bob Huggins and his Cincinnati Bearcats and down the road a bit is John Calipari with his revitalized Memphis Tigers.
Charlotte, guided by the always underrated Bobby Lutz, is Top 20 caliber. And closer to home, DePaul and Marquette are expected to contend for NCAA tournament bids.
Toss in former Texas coach Tom Penders, who’s the new coach at Houston, and former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy, who’s the new coach at Southern Miss, and let’s just say there won’t be many dull nights in this league this season.
“It’s as good as it ever has been, so it’s semi-unfortunate this is the last year,” Marquette coach Tom Crean says.
But that’s just what it is for C-USA, which will be reconfigured next year as DePaul, Marquette, Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida jump to the Big East.
That doesn’t exactly make this a lame-duck season. As DePaul coach Dave Leitao says, “We haven’t started packing our bags yet.”
But the imminence of the move has already had an effect on and altered the way the group goes about its business.
“From my vantage point, the more prepared we are the better off we’ll be,” Leitao says. “Are we going to change what we do? We won’t. But everything else around it changes, especially recruiting. We have to gear it to the teams we’ll be facing, get a different athlete. They are two distinctly different leagues.”
Crean’s preparation for the coming season and the conference switch have been hindered by a back injury for which he is undergoing treatment.
“We’ve tried to plan ahead the best we could,” he says. "In one area, recruiting, there has been an incredible impact in what the recruit thinks. We’re selling a league that on paper is as good as any that has been created. . . . Marquette in the Big East is a tremendous sell.
“You can still recruit the Midwest, and that’s still going to be our base. But you can also go to the East Coast and say, `Even though you’ll be playing in Milwaukee, there are days when you can go back home.’ It puts us on par with the ACC and SEC when it comes to recruiting nationally.”
At Cincinnati, a visitor walks under a Big East logo as he approaches Huggins’ office. Cincinnati ran out of C-USA stationery, decided against ordering another batch and is already using Big East stationery. Marquette’s media guide contains information on the Big East, and hats and T-shirts with the Big East logo will be on sale during this season’s games.
Louisville had a Big East block party to kick off the football season, has the Big East logo on the front of its basketball media guide and has distributed golf shirts with the Big East logo to its athletic staff.
The Big East has already infiltrated C-USA, which is one reason the league chose not to have a traditional basketball media day this year. It didn’t want to be overwhelmed by Big East questions. But for Crean and Leitao those questions have started already.
During the off-season, Crean looked at film of every Big East team, studied their style of play, noted how their coaches worked games and drew up statistical analyses of them all.
Leitao, who spent 14 seasons at Connecticut as an assistant, is familiar with that data.
“But every single game has so much meaning, is going to be so difficult, I’ve had to start going over them in my mind,” he says.
Leitao already has recruiting contacts in the East, which gives him an advantage. Crean has begun trying to reawaken the Marquette tradition in the East, the home of the legendary coach Al McGuire and former Marquette stars George Thompson, Dean Meminger and Butch Lee.
“We have a great tradition there,” Crean says. “The kids may not know it, but their coaches and parents do.”
There is also the tradition of the Big East itself, that beast of a league, the league of the last two national champions.
“It almost stands alone with its personality,” Leitao says.
Which is why, more than ever, their future is now.[/b]
Link: ChicagoTribune.com [NOTE: site requires registration]