There is an old saying that goes “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” 2009 – 2010 was finally going to be the year that college basketball became relevant again for the 3 Big East representatives in the greater New York area. St. John’s, Seton Hall & Rutgers all had reasons to look forward to the upcoming 2010 Big East season. Despite sending 2 teams (UConn & Villanova) to the Final Four last year, the Big East lost the likes of Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Terrance Williams, Earl Clark, Dante Cunningham, DeJuan Summers, Sam Young, DeJuan Blair & A.J. Price to the NBA Draft. Add to that the fact that the 3 schools were returning the core of their starting nucleus as well as welcoming promising new talent, you can see why the horizon finally looked like the Big East was finally going to shine again in the Big Apple.
For head coach Norm Roberts, St. John’s was finally going to have a healthy and experienced team take the floor in 2010. All five starters were returning, senior swingman Anthony Mason, Jr. was granted a fifth year of eligibility & the Red Storm finally had a legitimate 3 point threat in incoming junior college transfer Dwight Hardy. The Red Storm showed promising signs during the non-conference slate with wins against 2009 NCAA participants Siena & Temple, and a hard fought 9 point loss against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
At Seton Hall it was a similar scenario. Bobby Gonzalez was looking to use last year’s 17 win season as a springboard for the NCAA tournament, and why not? Jeremy Hazell was back for his junior season after being named a 2010 pre-season candidate for the John Wooden Award All American Team and Player of the Year, after averaging over 22 points per game last year, 2nd in the Big East. Joining Hazell were 3 returning starters and two impressive transfers in Herb Pope (New Mexico State) and Keon Lawrence (Missouri). Though the Pirates early season schedule saw a lot of home cooking against lesser competition, there was an impressive win on the road against Cornell (just asked top ranked Kansas how tough the defending Ivy League champs are) contributing to a 9-1 start.
Rutgers also had reason to believe this was going to be the year they climbed out of the bottom rung of the Big East ladder. The Scarlet Knights were returning the 2009 Big East’s top rookie scorer in Mike Rosario. All Rosario did as a freshman was average 16.2 points per game. Also returning was fellow sophomore Gregory Echenique, who had an equally impressive freshman campaign posting an average of 8.4 points per game and over 8 rebounds a game. Head coach Fred Hill was even able to welcome a player with NCAA Championship experience in University of Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell. A former New York Mr. Basketball in high school, Mitchell was a member of the 2007 Gators’ national title team.
Good signs all the way around right…well maybe not. After a combined 9 games into the Big East schedule, St. John’s, Seton Hall & Rutgers were a combined 0-9 in conference play. If not for Seton Hall’s win against Cincinnati in Newark on Saturday, the winless streak for all three would be alive and well. The problems for all three however have not been limited to their inability to get into the win column.
At St. John’s Anthony Mason, Jr. suffered yet another injury sidelining him for the entire non-conference schedule. Mason finally returned over the weekend in the Red Storm’s loss against Louisville as did starting point guard Malik Booth, who was also injured and missed team’s home conference opener against Providence. Perhaps most troubling for St. John’s is the continuing 2nd half breakdowns the team continues to demonstrate. Despite either playing well or leading in the first half in all three of their conference games, the Johnnies continue to get outscored after the officials insist they come back to the court at the end of halftime. This is Norm Robert’s 6th season at the helm and the natives are not getting restless…they are down right frustrated.
Seton Hall also suffered a 3 game skid to start Big East play before the win against Cincinnati, and lost 4 straight overall with a non conference loss to Virginia Tech in the middle of that stretch. The Pirates however have unfortunately made news off the court as well. In November junior transfer Keon Lawrence was suspended by the University after Newark police charged he was under the influence when he drove the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway and collided with another car. Lawrence has since been reinstated and Gonzalez hopes that the incident is now behind him.
Further down the NJ Turnpike Rutgers sits at 9-6 overall also sporting an 0-3 Big East start. Of the three, the Knights were the one team who could not afford to lose any key players heading into the season. Unfortunately for Rutgers they will now have to go the rest of the way without sophomore Gregory Echenique. In December Echenique was lost for the season after he suffered a detached retina. To make matters worse, on Friday the school announced that Echenique informed the school of his intent to transfer and that he has been granted a conditional release.
Things may get worse before they get better. With Pitt, UConn, Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia & Georgetown all ranked in the Top 25, the Big East may not be as weak as many projected at the start of the season. So as St. John’s, Seton Hall & Rutgers prepare to get deeper into conference play, fans can only hope that things will in fact change and change quickly.