Sales Pitch discussion: Who's the most underappreciated coach in the Big East?

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Thursday, May 13, 2021

ESPN continued itsSales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men's college basketball programs in the Big East that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey,'s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the Big East recruiting landscape, including how Villanova became the model for every other Big East program, who's the league coach who merits more appreciation than he gets, and who most fits the description "sleeping giant" within the conference.

Follow this link to read what anonymous coaches said about recruiting in the ACC, and the Big East.

Villanova remains the Big East's gold standard in terms of its ability to construct a championship-level roster. What elements have been key to the Wildcats' ability to get so far out in front of the rest of the league over the past decade?

Borzello: There are a few things that separate Villanova on the recruiting trail -- aside from the national titles and pipeline of NBA draft picks. The Wildcats rarely recruit transfers, they rarely use all their available scholarships and they have been one of the few high-major programs who voluntarily redshirt freshmen on occasion. Moreover, they've completely owned the fertile D.C.-Maryland-Virginia recruiting area. Georgetown lost its grip on that area around the time Villanova was rising in power -- and the Wildcats have taken advantage. It's really hard to beat Wright and the Wildcats on the trail now.

There was a stretch about 15 years ago when it looked like Villanova was going to start dominating the league on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats were making deep runs in the NCAA tournament and backing it up by landing five-star prospects. But as Jay Wright once told me, "I got sloppy." The five-star prospects Villanova was chasing weren't the type of players that helped bring success to the Main Line earlier in Wright's tenure, and things took a downturn on the court.

Wright knew after the 2011-12 season he had to get back to finding guys that fit the culture he helped build. He brought in Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu the following fall and signed Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart shortly after. Nearly a decade later, Wright has found the right mix between highly touted prospects and guys who fit the Villanova culture.

Medcalf: Per RealGM, there are eight former Villanova players in the NBA. None of them are superstars -- Kyle Lowry is now 35 years old and playing the final chapter of his career -- but they're all valued members of their respective rosters. You can always find scorers. You can make a trade and find players to fill complementary positions. But the NBA's Villanova alums are all smart players who understand their roles and they're trusted to execute. Seven of those eight Villanova players are averaging at least 9.0 PPG in the NBA.

I think Villanova's advantage is just the overall pedigree of the program. And I think that's reflected by the number of former players who have found consistent roles at the next level, players credited with their positive impact on the players around them. You put those guys together and you don't have a problem with egos or poor chemistry or selfishness. Those qualities have all translated to the next level for Wright's top players. I think that's his edge. It's a difficult thing to do with this generation of athletes. But Wright is the best at facilitating those qualities.

Gasaway: Villanova is in a class by itself nationally in terms of signing players ranked outside the top 20 nationally, winning games (and the occasional national title) and then sending those same players into the NBA. Mind you, the "outside the top 20" bit is the surprising and impressive part, not necessarily the secret sauce. Who knows, perhaps Jay Wright would have done just as well over the last 10 years even with a flood of McDonald's All Americans.

Still, if we learned one thing from two national championships and five consecutive top-two seeds in the NCAA tournament, it's that there's value in finding versatile players that can make the correct read with the ball in their hands -- especially if they can shoot. Basically, Wright found untapped potential in recruits that were being passed over for the (very) highest honors. The fact that a not insignificant number of those players then went on to the next level suggests this wasn't merely a chance occurrence.

Lunardi: Player development, coaching and culture are unsurpassed at Villanova. Yes, the 2016 and 2018 title teams were loaded with future pros. But did we really think that in advance? Josh Hart, maybe. But raise your hand if you thought Mikal Bridges was a lottery pick, or that Ryan Arcidiacono would still be in the league.

Five guys from the truly elite 2018 team -- Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, Omari Spellman and Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson -- were in the NBA at the same time. At Kentucky, no one bats an eye when that happens. At Villanova, it's aggregate improvement over time.

And the success continues. Saddiq Bey and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl didn't win a national championship, but developed into players good enough to do so. And the next generation is already in place, bolstered by the unexpected old hand of Collin Gillespie. The next title could come as soon as next season.

Who's the Big East's sleeping giant -- the team with the best combination of resources, location, coaching staff or other factors who you would be least surprised to make a run at Villanova over the next decade?

Gasaway: I'm going to go way out on a limb and tap the program that's won four national titles in the last quarter-century as a sleeping giant. In fact, the only question might be whether UConn is truly "asleep." Perhaps it would be better to say the Huskies dozed off there for a bit.

This is a team that hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2016, but Dan Hurley at least got Connecticut back to the field of 68 in 2021. The return to the Big East should give recruiting a boost in Storrs, and Hurley has put elite defenses on the floor not only at UConn but also at Rhode Island. Pulling in talent is the next step and, in fact, Connecticut's adding three top-100 recruits this fall in Jordan Hawkins, Rahsool Diggins and Samson Johnson.

Borzello: UConn is the easy answer, but I think they're the second-best program in the league and so I'll leave them out. For me, Georgetown should be a lot more successful than it is on the recruiting trail. There are coaches in the league who will tell you that Georgetown is the best job in the conference -- it just needs to regain the momentum it had in the past.

I don't necessarily agree it's a better job than Villanova, but I also don't think Villanova inherently has much more to offer than the Hoyas. The Wildcats have just had far more on-court success in the last 15 years and have owned the recruiting area in Georgetown's backyard. That would be the first step for the Hoyas to close the gap on Villanova. Landing top-25 prospect Aminu Mohammed in December was a start.

Medcalf: John and Jeff are right here -- UConn is the obvious choice. And Georgetown, led by the greatest player in the history of the program in one of the game's richest recruiting markets, will always feel like a sleeping giant to me. I'll add a third team to the mix: Marquette. There is a lot of money behind that program. It's a great school. Plus, Shaka Smart isn't facing the same pressure he accepted when he followed Rick Barnes at Texas after his magical run at VCU.

About 80 miles west of Marquette, Bo Ryan built a back-to-back Final Four team just six years ago. The states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois are all producing top talent and Smart will be a star on the recruiting trail throughout the Midwest. Now, making a run at Villanova is a lot different than actually surpassing the Wildcats. But Smart doesn't have to leapfrog Texas Tech, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the other Big 12 standouts just to compete with Kansas. The gap from Marquette to Villanova is more narrow in the Big East, which could position Smart to build a winner in Milwaukee.

Lunardi: Shouldn't the answer always be St. John's or, in modern times, DePaul? The biggest cities, arguably the longest traditions, and certainly among the very deepest pools of local talent. For the Big East to truly challenge the Power 5 for bids and championships, it needs these dormant programs to thrive. Especially if Jay Wright ever leaves (he won't, but he's also not immortal).

Those who follow the league closely know that every Big East coach not named Jay Wright (and for the moment at least, Shaka Smart) has been subject to a certain amount of criticism from fan bases with very high expectations. Name a coach in the Big East you think should be appreciated much more than he is by his own fans for his ability to construct a winning roster.

Medcalf: I think it's Ed Cooley. It's not just the success, but the fact that the bottom doesn't fall out at Providence. And even some of the best coaches in the country have a year or two where everything falls apart. That hasn't happened to Cooley at Providence. In his first year, the Friars were 15-17 but they also beat a Louisville team that reached the Final Four. Two years later, he started a streak of five consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins.

Last season (13-13) was his worst since his first year with the program and the Friars still beat UConn, Villanova and Creighton. Providence is usually a team with legit NCAA tournament hopes each year under Cooley. A lot of programs would love to start each season in one of America's toughest leagues with the same level of optimism.

Lunardi: Definitely Cooley, with a second nod to Kevin Willard at Seton Hall. These are two relatively small schools that have ridden the Big East brand far beyond their respective footprints and influence. But it takes the right guy to do it, as the brand itself -- e.g. St. John's, Georgetown, DePaul -- isn't always enough. The Friars and Pirates rarely underachieve, if ever, which is all you can realistically expect of non-football programs in the current era.

Borzello: I think there are two clear picks: Creighton's Greg McDermott and Cooley. The state of Nebraska rarely produces an abundance of high-major players, which has forced McDermott to get creative in recruiting. And he's found gems outside of his region, namely Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander, while also developing an international connection. The Bluejays play a free, unique style on the offensive end, which is attractive for a lot of kids.

As for Cooley, the Friars have punched above their weight class on the recruiting trail since Cooley took over a decade ago. They've landed 10 ESPN 100 prospects and produced multiple NBA players. Rhode Island isn't exactly a fertile recruiting ground, but Cooley has recruited the New England prep schools effectively to keep kids home, while also dipping outside the region to land guys.

Gasaway: Greg McDermott gets the nod here. His win percentage at Creighton is actually superior to that posted in Omaha by his predecessor, Dana Altman, and McDermott's done so while the Bluejays have played their last eight seasons in the Big East. (To be fair to Altman, he inherited the program at a low ebb and required a few seasons to rebuild. Duly noted.)

Last March, CU reached its first Sweet 16 since 1974 under McDermott, and the Blue Jays have won better than 70% of their conference games in each of the last two seasons. There wasn't a lot of buzz when McDermott was hired at Creighton in 2010, but it's fair to say the coach has exceeded expectations in Omaha.