03/09/2009 3:51 PM ET
NCAAs out of reach for Big East locals
Schools must improve talent to compete in tough conference
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Of the five New York area players that made the All-Big East squads, only one, Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell, plays for a local team. (AP)

The Big East could send as many as eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, but none of them are likely to come from the New York metropolitan area.

Seton Hall, St. John's and Rutgers went a combined 15-39 through the Big East regular season and are seeded 11th, 13th and 15th, respectively, in the conference tournament beginning Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. One of them would have to pull off the amazing feat of winning five games in five days to earn the conference's automatic bid to the Big Dance.

"[Rutgers coach] Freddie [Hill], like all our other coaches, has got to win games and Freddie knows that better than anyone," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said Monday in a phone interview. "[Seton Hall coach] Bobby [Gonzalez] knows it. [St. John's coach] Norm [Roberts] knows that better than anyone.

"When you're struggling, of course you've got to win more games because ultimately they're being hired to win and everybody that comes in this league knows that."

Pittsburgh and UConn could both win up with No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, while it is possible regular-season champion Louisville could garner a third No. 1 seed if it wins the conference tournament.

Marquette, Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia should all make the NCAAs, and Providence is on the bubble.

Seton Hall (16-14, 7-11 Big East) could still gain an NIT victory with a couple of wins this week and last went to the NCAAs in 2004 under former coach Louis Orr. St. John's (15-16, 6-12) hasn't been to the tournament since 2002 but had to vacate that appearance because it had an ineligible player. The NCAA drought for Rutgers (11-20, 2-16) dates back to 1991.

For the three local teams to crack the top eight of this 16-team mega-conference, they must recruit more talented players from the metropolitan area and beyond and then keep those players on campus over a period of time.

"I think the bottom line is that Norm and Freddie and Bobby can all coach," Tranghese said. "That's not the issue. It's a matter of working hard and recruiting and continuing to get the players, but it's hard. The competition for players in this league is very, very difficult in this league right now."

Of the 16 players just named to the first-, second- and third-All-Big East teams, five are natives of the metropolitan area, yet only one, Seton Hall sophomore guard Jeremy Hazell, plays for one of the locals.

Second-teamers Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia) and A.J. Price (UConn), as well as third-teamers Levance Fields of Brooklyn (Pitt) and Earl Clark (Louisville) all chose to go elsewhere.

Of the six freshmen on the Big East All-Rookie Team, four have ties to the New York-area but only Rutgers shooting guard Mike Rosario chose to stay home. Devin Ebanks of Long Island City, N.Y. (West Virginia), Samardo Samuels of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark (Louisville) and Kemba Walker of Manhattan Rice (UConn) all left the area for college.

"To win in the Big East you have to have a Big East roster," said legendary St. Anthony of Jersey City coach Bob Hurley, whose team went 32-0 last season en route to the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title and a mythical national championship and sent six players to the Division 1 ranks. "It's not a forgiving league. [Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's] are not complete teams, but they're not bad. None of them is a bad team. There are no nights off [in the Big East]."

"What separates them is just the depth of talent, and they just don't have it."

A year ago, St. Anthony, St. Benedict's and St. Patrick of Elizabeth combined to go 80-7. The Friars and the Gray Bees finished 1-2 in most national polls.

The three programs combined to send 11 players to Division 1 programs, but only two chose to attend Rutgers, Seton Hall or St. John's

Both Rosario and St. Ben's big man Greg Echenique opted to play for Rutgers, where they are now two of the players Hills counts on most heavily.

Among the other nine players who went D-1, two ended up at defending national champion Kansas and two picked Fordham. One chose another Big East school in Travon Woodall of St. Anthony (Pitt).

"[Rosario and Fontan] lose on a regular basis right now," Hurley said. "Both of them are on teams that are in the bottom half of very good leagues, so it's something they never experienced before...Both of them right now are so important to their teams that they have to be ready and I don't know if emotionally they're ready for every game like they need to be. And losing's tough. Losing's tough."

Several players from the current Jersey high school teams are also committed elsewhere.

At St. Anthony, senior wing Dominic Cheek is verbally committed to Villanova. St. Patrick senior guard Dexter Strickland signed to play for North Carolina and senior forward Paris Bennett to George Mason. St. Benedict's senior guard Tamir Jackson will play for Rice, while former St. Ben's junior forward Tristan Thompson, a Top 5 player in the Class of 2010, and sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo are both committed to Texas.

All three programs also have a number of younger players who will end up playing high D-1, namely St. Patrick junior guard Kyrie Irving; St. Pat's sophomore wing Michael Gilchrist; and the St. Anthony junior trio of Devon Collier, Derrick Williams and Ashton Pankey. The 6-8 Gilchrist and the 6-8 Thompson are both considered potential future pros.

St. Ben's coach Dan Hurley, whose team is currently 23-2 and ranked among the Top 10 nationally in most polls, says Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's have to recruit these types of players harder.

"Besides just getting in their gym and getting them to games, the only way that you're going to get the kids that put you over the top is to get somebody close to them to get them in front of you," he said. "Get them to your practices, get them to your games. You get to as many of their games as rules allow. You've got to live with these kids because it's so much easier committing to Texas than it is Seton Hall because it's perceived as a risk, whether that's right or wrong.

"Right now there's got to be a bond because you don't have the tradition, you don't have the recent success, you don't have the NBA players. And plus, all these other [schools] are great."

St. John's successfully recruited New York native Omari Lawrence, a senior wing now at South Kent (Conn.), and has a legitimate shot at Lance Stephenson, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2009, according to Hoop Scoop.

The 6-foot-5 Stephenson will likely choose from among St. John's, Kansas and Maryland and could announce later this month. The St. John's staff and players were out in force when Lincoln played Sunday at St. John's in the PSAL playoffs.

"If he was to go to St. John's," Bob Hurley said, "I think that changes a lot of things."

From where Tranghese sits, that would be a good thing.

"Clearly having the metropolitan schools be successful just adds another layer of importance to our league," he said, "because New York is obviously our most important city and I think that college basketball fans in New York would like to see a winner."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com
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