Big East Coaches: The Next Generation

December 6th, 2006

When college basketball fans think of coaches in the Big East, the two names at the top of the list, and deservedly so, are icons Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut. Both Hall of Fame coaches have had stellar careers - including three national championships between them. Future Hall-of-Famer, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, in his second stint as a head coach in the Big East, has also won a national championship as well as a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters. In terms of national name recognition, Pitino is right up there with Boeheim and Calhoun.

Yet the recent successes of a quartet of conference coaches, all in their early to mid-40s, may play as great a role in the league’s future as the venerated triumvirate of Boeheim, Calhoun, and Pitino. Three of the four have revitalized programs that were, for the most part, headed nowhere. The fourth continued a trend forged by his predecessor but has taken his program to even greater heights.

Here’s a look (in alphabetical order) at each of the four “forty-something” coaches who have already made their mark in the conference:

Tom Crean (Marquette):

Only 40 years old, yet in his eighth season at Marquette, Crean had a record of 141-65 heading into this season for a winning percentage of .650. Led by last year’s marquee NBA player Dwyane Wade, Crean guided Marquette to 53 wins in two seasons, the latter of which included a trip to the Final Four. However, almost as impressive was his team’s performance in its initial season in the Big East. Picked to finish anywhere from 11th to 14th in various national publications, Marquette surprised the analysts by going 10-6 in conference play and earning a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

During his tenure in Milwaukee, Crean has shown the ability to recruit highly-ranked high school players, such as Travis Diener, Steve Novak, and his present trio of sophomore guards - Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, Jr. He’s already landed commitments from other Top 100 players - Trevor Mbakwe and Nick Williams - in the 2007 and 2008 classes, respectively.

He’s also displayed a knack for recognizing some “under-the-radar” players, exemplified in the extreme, of course, by Wade. Marquette’s staff was the only high-major team in the Midwest, let alone the nation, to offer the future all-pro a scholarship early in the recruiting process. Obviously, their vision paid off. Similarly, Crean offered present freshman Lazar Hayward a scholarship long before the former prep school standout became a national recruit who eventually attracted the attention of both Boeheim and Calhoun, among others. And Crean’s latest “steal” may be freshman David Cubillan, who already has national media types mentioning him as the fourth guard when praising MU’s elite backcourt.

However, Marquette is not necessarily the right place for any player as Crean has taken some gambles in recruiting that haven’t panned out. All four of his recruits in the Class of 2003 transferred within two years, for various reasons, as did two players in the Class of 2002 and one in the Class of 2004. Prospective playing time was an issue in some instances, as it often is in transfer situations, but others simply were unwilling to put forth the consistent effort that Crean demands.

Crean has also demonstrated that he can develop talented players to play at the next level. None of the three former MU players now in the NBA was projected as a future pro when he started college, yet Wade is the prevailing public face of the NBA, Diener has made the most of limited minutes with Orlando, and Novak has a chance to become a major contributor down the road at Houston. Present sophomore guard Dominic James will likely be a first-round pick either this year or next.

Besides attracting and developing players, however, Crean has improved as both a practice and game coach. He has earned a reputation as being extremely demanding during practices, but players who have bought into his vision have helped Marquette establish a reputation for physical and mental toughness. Teams facing Marquette both last season and this season know they are in a battle from opening tip to final horn as Crean’s players have become the epitome of the term “warriors,” the school’s former nickname.

Despite its recent upset loss to North Dakota State, Marquette has reestablished itself as a major player on the national scene under Crean’s leadership. If James sticks around for another season, Marquette fans could see their team make another Final Four appearance sooner rather than later.

Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh):

Dixon’s situation at Pittsburgh when he was named head coach was quite different than Crean’s was at Marquette. Whereas Crean was faced with an overall talent level fit more for a middling mid-major program, Dixon took over from his predecessor, Ben Howland, a program that had gone 89-40 (.690 winning percentage) the previous four years.

As assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, Dixon was instrumental in that success. Thus, it was a smooth transition in April of 2003 when he was hired to succeed Howland, who had decided to head west to take the vacant position at UCLA.

To his credit, Dixon has not only continued the Panthers’ winning ways under Howland, he has surpassed them. His record during his three year tenure was 76-22 overall (.776 winning percentage) including 33-15 in the Big East (.688). He has taken his teams to three straight NCAA tournaments with three straight years of 20 wins or more. His first season, he guided the program to the Sweet 16.

Dixon has demonstrated that he can recruit Top 100 talent. His first recruiting class as head coach included Keith Benjamin (#81 on RSCI), but it was his second recruiting class that stands out. Current sophomores Sam Young, Tyrell Biggs, and Levance Fields, all consensus Top 100 players in the Class of 2005, selected the Panthers as did Gilbert Brown in the Class of 2006. Dixon already has a commitment from another highly-regarded Top 100 player in the Class of 2007, power forward Dejuan Blair, a hometown product.

Dixon’s coaching ability extends beyond the recruiting trail as he has had definite successes in the crucial area of player development. Three seniors, none of whom were Top 100 recruits, start for Pittsburgh, and all three have shown marked improvement during their careers. Heading the list is all-American candidate Aaron Gray. The 7'0" center averaged a double-double as a junior after playing limited minutes behind current NBA player Chris Taft his first two years. Gray is a lock to be a first-round draft pick next spring, something no Pitt fan could have possibly predicted even a year and a half ago.

Though their progress has been less dramatic, power forward Levon Kendall and wing Antonio Graves have also shown steady improvement from year to year. Both have become solid contributors to the Panthers’ success.

Under Howland, the Pitt program built a reputation as an intense, hard-nosed, clawing defensive team. That collective persona has continued under Dixon. While the Panthers have become a more efficient offensive team the past few years, Dixon’s emphasis, and Pitt’s trademark, still lies on the defensive end. The Panthers simply wear opponents down with their aggressive, harassing, attack mentality.

This year Pitt is the odds-on favorite to win the Big East conference title, and few would be surprised to find Dixon and his staff coaching during the Final Four instead of watching the games from the stands. He has put together what is almost certainly the deepest team in the league as he can play 10 different players with little drop off in production. His second five could compete with some starting lineups in the conference.

Perhaps one of Dixon’s most significant, though unsung, accomplishments has been his ability get his players to buy into the team-first concept. He has managed to avoid, at least to this point, the epidemic of “transferitis” that has infected college basketball in recent years. The result is a team that not only offers a tremendous present for Panther fans to enjoy, but also promises perhaps even a brighter future.

John Thompson lll (Georgetown):

If ever there was a natural “marriage” between an incoming basketball coach and a basketball program, it’s the matching of 40 year old Thompson lll and Georgetown, the program his father led to national prominence in the 80s. The younger Thompson came into a program showing unmistakable signs of decline. In fact, the year prior to Thompson lll’s hiring the Hoyas won just 13 games.

His first year at the helm, Thompson lll guided Georgetown to 19 wins, then won 23 last year and finished with a record of 10-6 in the conference. His overall record for his two years is 42-23 for a winning percentage of .646.

He accomplished this record despite the fact that not a single member of last year’s team was considered even close to a Top 100 recruit coming out of high school. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have some talented players. Two in particular, present juniors Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, could both end up being early entries in the NBA draft next spring.

After steering the program in the right direction his first two years, Thompson lll needed to become a major player in the recruiting game to continue the building process, which he did. In the Class of 2006, not only did he get a commitment from Jeremiah Rivers, son of Doc, but he also brought two Top 30 players into the fold – forwards Vernon Macklin and DaJuan Summers Both are likely to become stars before their careers in D.C. are over.

Having taken care of the frontcourt, Thompson lll turned his attention to the backcourt for the Class of ’07 and landed two premier guards – Austin Freeman and Chris Wright. In short, Thompson lll has proven he can attract the kind of talent necessary to sustain a nationally-ranked program.

However, recruiting players is only part of the formula for success. A coach also has to develop that talent. Just as Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh demonstrated the ability to develop a big man in Aaron Gray, Thompson lll has helped 7’2” center Roy Hibbert become a legitimate all-conference candidate as well as an almost certain future pro. He has also turned junior Jonathan Wallace into a solid high-major point guard even though he wasn’t recruited by Big East-level schools coming out of high school.

Thompson lll is not afraid to buck the latest crazes/trends in college hoops. In an era when many coaches are looking to push the ball up the floor and speed up the tempo of the game, the Hoyas are content to run their Princeton-style series of off-ball picks and look for easy baskets off backdoor cuts. It takes awhile for players to learn the nuances of the system, but once they get it, the Hoyas are very difficult to defend.

One obvious characteristic of Thompson lll’s teams is unselfishness. His players are not focused on how many points they score individually but rather on getting W’s. As Coach Thompson lll continues to gain experience, there should be plenty of those down the road.

Jay Wright (Villanova):

The 44 year old Wildcat coach has succeeded in restoring Villanova basketball to national prominence during his five year tenure at the school. In fact, two years ago, the Wildcats were seconds away from defeating eventual national champion North Carolina despite the unexpected loss of star forward Curtis Sumpter to an ACL injury the previous game. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to realize that with Sumpter it might have been Wright and his players cutting down the nets after the championship game against Illinois, not Roy Williams and the Tarheels.

It takes even less vision to imagine what Nova could have done last year had Sumpter not once again suffered an ACL injury that forced him to miss the entire season. Without him, Wright still led his team to 28 wins and a spot in Elite Eight where they lost for the second year in a row to the eventual national champion, in this instance, Florida.

The key to the Wildcats’ resurgence was Wright’s ability to put together a monster recruiting class in 2002 that included that included four Top 100 players in Sumpter, Jason Fraser, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye. Though Fraser was plagued by injuries throughout his career and never became the dominant force he could otherwise have been, Foye, a first-round draft pick, and Ray are now in the NBA following stellar college careers.

Even with that anchor class in place, Wright has shown the ability to consistently attract quality high school talent. In the Class of 2003, the Wildcats got two more Top 100 players in Will Sheridan and Michael Nardi, plus another in the Class of 2004 in Kyle Lowry. His current freshman class includes Top 40 recruit Scottie Reynolds, and in the class of 2007 Wright has landed commitments from two New Jersey prep standouts, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher.

When confronted with adversity, Wright showed his ability to be innovative. In fact, his daring response to Sumpter’s ACL injuries was so successful that it shattered traditional approaches to college basketball. Without Sumpter, Wright started a four-guard lineup – Ray, Foye, Nardi, and Lowry – against North Carolina, a strategy that caused the Tarheels fits. He frequently used the same lineup in 2005-2006 again with outstanding results. As a bonus, beyond its 28 victories, Nova was almost certainly the most exciting team in the country to watch last season with its trapping, pressing defense and its up-tempo, attacking offense.

Three-guard lineups, which Wright didn’t introduce to college ball, but which he helped popularize, are now common among high-major programs, and four-guard alignments are no longer viewed as folly. More than a few coaches across the country now employ four guards at the same time to varying degrees.

One of Wright’s strengths is his ability to get former high school stars to understand and accept their roles for the good of the team. Will Sheridan is a perfect example. Last season, this former Top 50 recruit (#45 on RSCI) was content to do the dirty work – set picks, grab rebounds, and play tough defense – while the guards got to take most of the shots. Sheridan didn’t get the accolades of his more highly-publicized teammates, but he knew his contributions were just as important in amassing 28 wins as were those of the double-digit scorers.

It’s unlikely there will be any Elite Eight appearance this year for Nova, especially after Kyle Lowry opted to turn pro. Still, by the end of the season, the Wildcats will be a formidable opponent for even highly-ranked teams as Wright blends veterans like Sumpter, Nardi, and Sheridan with his younger players.

Boeheim, Calhoun, and Pitino still represent the collective face of the Big East coaching fraternity, and they probably will for quite a few more years. However, the quartet of young coaches are in the process of establishing their own credentials, not just regionally, but nationally as well. None of them, of course, will cause fans to forget the considerable accomplishments of the present deans of Big East coaches any more than fans have forgotten John Thompson, Rollie Massamino, and Louie Carnesecca from the glory days of the original Big East.

And there’s no question that a few years of success do not begin to compare to the decades-plus records of the “Big Three.” None of the “Forties-Something” coaches may ever be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet each one has his respective program’s alumni and general fan base excited about the future.