The Times West Virginian

January 27, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Bottom teams getting better in Big East

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — On Wednesday night in New York City, West Virginia University’s inflated ego was deflated by a St. John’s team that was wallowing near the bottom of the Big East.

In years past, this would be considered something of an embarrassment for while the conference’s reputation was as the nation’s strongest, its bottom-dwellers were usually just so much fodder for teams like the Mountaineers.

But this is a new season in the Big East — be it West Virginia’s last or next to last in the conference — and it is not the Big East of old.

“We may not be quite as good on the top as we have been, but I think the people on the bottom are substantially better,” WVU coach Huggins admitted. “There have been some great coaching hires in this league.

Certainly Syracuse, which becomes the Mountaineers’ next opponent on Saturday, seems to be of the caliber of the great teams in the conference’s history, even though the Orange did stub a toe without their center Fab Melo.

Jim Boeheim, of course, will not anoint greatness upon his team yet, a wisdom that comes with coaching more than a 1,000 games. In fact, as far as he would go when asked if this team compared to some of his best in a Hall of Fame career was to say:

“We’ll find out. That’s what league play does. We don’t know.”

What we do know is that Boeheim’s team is performing in a league that probably isn’t quite what it normally is at the top but that is far more balanced than ever.

“There’s a lot of parity,” DePaul coach Oliver Purnell noted during Thursday’s Big East coaches conference call. “The thing that jumped up to me is that the teams on the bottom last year have all gotten appreciatively better.”

There is no one more capable of judging that than Purnell, who came into the league to take over a DePaul team that had lost 23 and 24 games the two seasons before he took over and dropped 24 more in his first season as coach, the highlight being putting an end to a 25-game conference losing streak.

This year, if there aren’t eight or so teams ranked in the top 25 of the nation, the lower rung of the conference has gotten better, including that freshman-laden St. John’s team that embarrassed West Virginia in the Garden.

Stan Heath, the coach at South Florida, also has spent his time at the bottom of the Big East alongside Purnell and DePaul.

You look at the standings now and you find Heath’s team at 5-3, tied with West Virginia, Cincinnati and Notre Dame for fourth place and ahead of defending national champion Connecticut, to say nothing of Louisville, Pitt and Villanova.

“We’re still trying to figure out where we fit,” Heath said. “We’re just trying to get better. We don’t feel out of the mix. Our defense gives us a chance every night to play with people, and when our offensive is clicking, we’re at the top part of the league.”

This is taking most everyone by surprise. Everyone knew that the Big East was not going to have a repeat of last year, but no one really saw the parity that has come in.

“Obviously, there are some surprise teams like us,” Heath said.

They didn’t expect Pittsburgh at the bottom of the conference, either, finally winning its first conference game on Wednesday night.

“The scores last night showed how many different things can happen in the Big East, how strong the league is,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “All the teams have quality wins, another indicator of how tough the conference is.”

“(The Big East) is not as strong as it was last year,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, one of those coaches used to being at the top and now having to scratch and claw for everything his Wildcats can get. “It’s obviously very balanced. There’s great opportunity for everyone. Besides Syracuse, everyone is beatable, but everyone is getting better.

“We haven’t been able to get those big wins yet, but I think we’re coming,” Wright continued. “I think we’re getting better. The problem is trying to get better in a league that is very competitive.”

That, by the way, is just what Huggins wants out of his team. It is young and not quite ready for prime time, but he isn’t pointing toward the regular season. Huggins would expect this team to blossom around tournament time.

The only problem is, as Wright said, it’s a league where anyone can beat anyone at any time.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.