By Lenn Robbins
The Big East Conference welcomed back Connecticut on Thursday, which is great news for the league and bad news for St. John’s
Another elite program with elite facilities and full commitment to its men’s and women’s basketball programs joins the ranks of Butler, Creighton, Marquette, Villanova, Xavier and others.
I mention those programs because all have recently built or announced plans for new training and/or arenas or did major renovations on exiting home courts.
Let’s not forget Providence and Seton Hall, which has been fielding NIT or NCAA Tournament teams on a consistent basis of late.
DePaul is showing signs of life again. They swept the Johnnies in the regular season. And Georgetown has benefitted from the hiring of its living legend – Patrick Ewing.
Which brings us back to the Johnnies-come-lately.
Their living legend – Chris Mullin – decided to leave his alma after four seasons.
Their on-campus arena was ‘renovated’ [see new lights and a nifty paint job] in 2005.
The Johnnies made their 29th NCAA Tournament last season. They were the last at-large team taken. They were dusted 74-65 by Arizona State and its new coach, Bobby Hurley.
As soon as Mullin opted to leave, new AD Mike Cragg, formerly at Duke, pushed all of his chips in and thought he had convinced Duke All-American Hurley to return to the metropolitan area. Hurley secured himself a new deal in Phoenix. That’s the business.
Cragg went to Plan D
[not sure there was a B or C]
and hired former Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who still needs a subway map. To Anderson’s credit, and perhaps his survival, he hired Steve DeMeo and Van Macon, two metropolitan area recruiters.
But it’s going to take a lot more than that for St. John’s to see the top half of the conference any time soon. Seton Hall is a recruiting power in the metropolitan area. Villanova, which won NCAA titles in 2018 and 2016, can recruit anywhere.
Which brings us back to UConn. The Huskies cleaned the Johnnie’s clock in recruiting for the last two decades, albeit perhaps with some questionable enticements. The Huskies won the 2014 title under former coach and NCAA rules violator Kevin Ollie.
UConn replaced Ollie with Danny Hurley, who also is a name well known to prep and AAU coaches. The announcement that UConn was rejoining, after leaving in 2013 for a football home in the American Athletic Conference, came in The Garden, the Johnnies home court for most Big East games.
There were far too many games in the 2000s when a UConn-St. John’s game in The Garden sounded like it was being played in the Hartford Civic Center. The Johnnies couldn’t even be kings in their own castle.
Cragg announced in February a new initiative to boost St. John’s athletics. He hired a Dallas-based real estate development company, The Beck Group, which he worked with at Duke. Cragg said the objective is looking for “facility improvement, renovation, replacement, and new construction over the next 10 years,’’ which is 10 years too late, but it’s a start.
UConn has won four national titles. The Johnnies, who have never won an NCAA title, have made just five NCAA Tournament appearances since the calendar flipped to this century. Four times they lost their first game.
Nova has those two titles in the last four years. Seton Hall, which beat Kentucky last season, is the gritty program you don’t want to play. Creighton averages more than 17,000 fans for every home game. Butler plays in one of the great basketball shrines in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
This is not the same Big East that UConn left. Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse are gone to the ACC. But UConn is back, which is good for the league and bad for St. John’s. For a New York college basketball fan, that’s a tough sentence to write.