Heard it From Hoard: Column 57
"The BIG EAST is the strongest league in the history of college basketball."That bold statement isn't courtesy of yours truly (although I agree); it was made by Rick Pitino on Wednesday at BIG EAST media day at Madison Square Garden. That comes from a coach whose Louisville Cardinals received three first place votes and was picked to finish second behind UConn in the league's preseason coaches' poll. So imagine how brutal the BIG EAST looks when you're Mick Cronin. Last year the Bearcats finished in 10th place with an 8-10 league record. They enter this season with dramatically improved talent and yet they're picked to finish 11th. "We've added some legitimate talent and we still haven't entered the conversation of the main teams in the BIG EAST," Coach Cronin told me in New York. "It's motivating. You can't let it be demoralizing. I look at it two ways; as we recruit better players and have better talent - as that talent gets older and develops and our team develops, our turn will come at the top of this league. That being said, being a young coach and looking to have a 20-year career, I think the reality of Cincinnati basketball of 11 straight conference championships is totally unrealistic. It's a part of our past now like Oscar Robertson. It was great like he was, but it's not happening anymore. Not in this league. It's not happening at Syracuse either - it's not happening for the original BIG EAST teams. Those days are over. It's going to be extremely hard to be consistent. Through recruiting you develop your talent and you've got to make sure that you're on 'the wheel,' and when that wheel turns you're getting your turn at the top. That's been our focus." The Bearcats are clearly moving in the right direction. In fact, Pitino named Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Providence as his "sleeper teams" in the BIG EAST this season. "The goal for this team is to be in the top four or five seeds in the BIG EAST tournament and get beyond the BIG EAST tournament," UC junior Deonta Vaughn told me. "We made it to New York last year and gave Pittsburgh a run for their money. They beat every other team by more than they beat us, and for us to come in and give them a battle showed that we have a lot of passion for the game. We have a lot more players with ability this year and we should be able to do a lot more things." Vaughn, who was named to the 11-man preseason all-BIG EAST team, was one of two players who accompanied Coach Cronin to New York. The other was Mike Williams - the only player among the approximately 40 in attendance who has never played in a BIG EAST game. "I want to thank Coach Cronin because if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be at the University of Cincinnati or be part of the basketball program," Williams said. "I think it's great to be here with the great players in this league. It's my first year playing here so I'm very excited about it." "It says that he's a leader," Coach Cronin told me. "We don't have a lot of seniors returning or juniors that have played, but I probably would have brought Mike anyway. He's a leader and he has to be one for us. He's a guy that steps forward and demands of his teammates. He plays with a sense of urgency and says it's time for us to make the next step and I'm going to show you the way. He's going to be a huge factor for us. That's not to say that he's going to get 20 points a game. He may have a game of 20 and he may have a game of 7, but consistency on the defensive end and being a veteran 'glue guy' is something this teams desperately needs." The Bearcats chances of exceeding preseason expectations could get a big boost if 7'2" John Riek joins the team in December as anticipated. Once again, that's not coming from me. "He came over to workout with me one time about four or five months ago," UConn's Hasheem Thabeet told me. "His knee was bad. Before that, I saw him at the LeBron James Nike camp and he looked good. He's not as coordinated maybe as some of the big guys like myself, but he's a good player. I was told that UConn was recruiting him until I said that I was coming back this year and then they stopped. But if you're good enough to get recruited to a program like this you can definitely make it anywhere." The 7'3" Connecticut center was the league's Defensive Player of the Year last season and set a league record for blocked shots in conference play. Could Riek eventually have a similar impact at UC? "I haven't seen John play in a year," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "I know he had a knee operation which he needed, but he's so darn big that if his knee's improved, with his size he can certainly influence a game. In 37 years I've never had anybody like Hasheem so it's hard to say that somebody's going to be that good. Could he have a similar-type impact? He's got the size and some athleticism so he could." Keep your fingers crossed. I've been incredibly lucky to have witnessed some great moments in sports history and I added to the list last week from the stands at Fenway Park when the Red Sox rallied from a 7-0 deficit in the 7th inning to beat Tampa Bay 8-7 in Game 5 of the ALCS. As a sports broadcaster I'm often asked, what's the greatest moment you've ever seen in person? That Red Sox game is up there, but number one on the list would have to be Tiger Woods winning the 2005 Masters. Remember the famous chip shot on the 16th hole where the ball hung on the lip with the Nike logo perfectly framed for the TV cameras before trickling in? I had a great vantage point and have proof - see the attached photo (I'm circled in red). While that's the greatest moment I've witnessed it's not necessarily the most memorable. I am, after all, the only play-by-play announcer whose color commentator got ejected from an NCAA tournament game. I'd love to hear from you. The address is email@example.com. Enjoy this week's photo of the handsome lad enjoying one of his favorite activities.