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By John Grupp
Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010
 

Half of the new coaches in the Big East have a familiar look to Pitt basketball fans. Kevin Willard of Seton Hall and Mike Rice of Rutgers are part of the Big East coaching fraternity after either playing or coaching for the Panthers.

Willard was a guard at Pitt in the mid-1990s under his father, Ralph. Rice was an assistant coach at Pitt in 2006-07 before becoming the head coach at Robert Morris for the past three seasons. Both have challenges ahead of them as they try to turn around the New York City-area schools that never quite made it under former coaches Bobby Gonzalez (Seton Hall) and Fred Hill (Rutgers).

Rutgers is down to nine scholarship players after two of its best players, guard Mike Rosario and forward Gregory Echenique, transferred and a juco transfer tore an ACL. The Scarlet Knights have nobody taller than 6-foot-8 on their roster.

"I think it's the ultimate motivation," Rice said. "Proving people wrong when everyone thinks you stink."

Willard got some potentially bad news Wednesday morning when Eurobasket.com reported senior forward Herb Pope, an Aliquippa native, signed a pro contract with Antalya of the Turkish Basketball League.

"He's in class," Willard said. "He's on campus. He doesn't know what it's all about. That's all we know about it."

• West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked if he thought the Mountaineers, who won the Big East Tournament last year, were being overlooked. West Virginia is unranked in most preseason polls and was picked No. 5 in the Big East coaches' poll. "I don't think they are overlooking us," he said. "Fifth in this league is pretty good. Fifth in this league, you are a four or five seed in the NCAA Tournament. That's pretty good."

• St. John's senior swingman D.J. Kennedy plans on going out on top. The Schenley graduate has endured three tough seasons with the Red Storm, never finishing better than 13th in the conference. This season, Kennedy is a second-team all-Big East selection and St. John's, with 10 seniors under first-year coach Steve Lavin, is picked sixth in this year's preseason coaches' poll. The Red Storm even got a first-place vote and are ranked ahead of Big East mainstays Connecticut, Louisville and Marquette. "My whole purpose when I got here was to change the culture of the program," he said. "I feel like finally in my senior year that it's going to happen."

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