NEW YORK – At the Jimmy V Classic dinner, I had the chance to talk to three coaches who will be on UConn’s schedule this coming season, Mick Cronin of Cincinnati, Josh Pastner of Memphis and Billy Donovan of Florida. They represent a kind of cross-section, too. Cincy is a Big East holdover moving to the Amercan Athletic Conference with the Huskies; Memphis an newcomer excited to be in the AAC; and Florida is part of UConn’s need for “scheduling up” out of conference.
Some highlights ran in the Courant on Thursday … I’ll roll out more from these interviews over the next day or so on the blog, starting with Cronin ….
The Bearcats finished 22-12, and split two rough-and-tumble games with UConn last season. This year Cincinnati and UConn meet on Feb. 6 in Cincinnati and March 1 at the XL Center.
Like UConn, Cincinnati wants to continue to play games in New York, even through the grand Big East Tournament stage has disappeared, so the Jimmy V game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 17 at Madison Square Garden is right up the Bearcats’ alley. They have five players from the New York area.
“This is step one,” Cronin said. “We’re already looking for games in 2014 and 15. It’s huge for us, and our goal is to keep it that way. As long as I’m at Cincinnati, which I hope is 25 years, we’ll be up here every year if we can be.”
What does Cronin think of the new conference, the AAC …
“I think it’s quality,” he said. “We don’t have the quantity of some of the 12-, 14-, 16-team leagues, but we’ve got quality. I think you’re looking at a 10- team, leagues where, I don’t see a bad basketball team in our league. Having studied it all summer, I don’t see a team where you say, ‘well, they can’t beat us.’
“It’s similar to Big East in t hat all 18 games are going to be competitive, that’s what I’m trying to explain to our team, they may have some different names, In an SMU or a Houston, but one thing our guys need to know, even though you might not be playing Louisville, those other teams, they may need a win in the worst way sometimes.
“I think the more interesting thing will be the officiating. We’re now part of the [Men’s Basketball Officiating Consortum] headed up by Curtis Shaw, where as John Cahill took over the [“new” ] Big East. So for the teams, Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, Connecticut, Rutgers, you wonder, ‘How are the games going to officiated?’ Within league play, there’s definitely a difference. That’s the unknown more so. You can scout your opponent, but what is unknown is going to be how some of the games are going to be called. I learned when I got into the Big East, I was building a program and. I learned real quick, it’s a blood bath. You better get tough enough before you even think of getting skilled enough. You better not get run over first, that’s the first step to victory. In this league, maybe it won’t be quite as crazy.”
How about UConn?
“Hopefully for Kevin [Ollie] – not the rest of us, but for Kevin, whose a friend of mine – they’ve got some depth,” Cronin said. “They had depth issues last year, and when you have those type of issues, injuries become a factor because the season is so long and every game is such a grind. Our league is going to be a grind and it puts a lot of physical pressure on your players, no question about it. [UConn] needed to add some depth and Kevin, when I’ve talked to him, is optimistic they’ve picked up some depth. The kid from GW [Lasan Kromah] is going to help them.
“ … Their perimeter play is as good as anybody,” said Cronin, who was at the Jimmy V Classic dinner on Monday night. “The X Factor for them is DeAndre Daniels. He went from a heralded freshman that, the league was a little too physical for him, to his sophomore year – I give the kid credit. He made the adjustment. A lot of kids don’t, a lot of kids hang their head and transfer. He made the adjustment and he turned himself into a serious player.
“And to me, he’s one of the best pro prospects in our league.”
How does the change in leagues affect recruiting?
“Today’s kid is so different,” Cronin said. “I don’t know how much they even know [about conference affiliation] or care. ESPN is the key . For us, we have 17 games on ESPN, that’s what kids care about, other than what’s going to affect them – their apartment, their dorm, your locker room, the gear. If a certain kid is hell bent on the ACC or the Big 10, you’re not going to get him anyway. . I tell everybody – Conference USA was good enough for a lot of guys like Kenyon Martin to be first pick in the draft, for Derek Rose to be MVP of the NBA, so don’t let other schools fool you, the most important thing is your relationship with your coaches at the end of the day. As long as were with ESPN, we have a great platform and our league’s going to flourish.”