- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The three New York area Big East schools all had new coaches to start the season. Steve Lavin, Mike Rice and Kevin Willard have made it to the halfway point, each trying to turn around a program in what is without argument the best conference in the country.

“It happens to be a year that might be the best year in the history of the conference,” said Lavin, who returned to coaching at St. John’s after seven years as a television analyst. “Some people thought the league might be on a down tick and the evidence, empirical evidence, no one’s opinion _ it’s pretty overwhelming that the league is the strongest in the country and maybe in the history of the league.

“I knew it was going to be strong, but not to the level where they are talking about possibly 11 teams making the (NCAA) field and the overwhelming winning percentage against the rest of the power conferences.”

The Big East tied its own record this season with a week in which there were nine teams ranked in the Top 25, and it had half of the top 10 one week.

Lavin’s Red Storm have been able to beat three ranked teams among their 12 wins, the latest a 93-78 dismantling of third-ranked Duke on Sunday. They are 4-5 in the Big East, one-half game in front of Willard’s Seton Hall Pirates and a game ahead of Rice’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights. They are 11th, 12th and 13th in the 16-team Big East.

“In this league you finish in the top eight, top nine, you’re in the NCAA tournament,” said Rice, whose team scared second-ranked Pittsburgh before falling 66-63 on Saturday night. “So I’m going to be fighting, scratching and clawing the next couple of years to get into that top eight, top nine.”

Seton Hall’s signature win so far this season was a 90-68 rout at No. 9 Syracuse last week.

“The strength of this league from top to bottom, there’s not one time you look at the schedule and say `Oh boy, a breather,’” Willard said. “It’s a dogfight every night.

“You look at your next four games and you just got through a tough four games. The teams are so well-coached from top to bottom and there are great players from top to bottom. So you better be prepared or you’ll have an `L’ pretty quick.”

Of the three, Lavin was the only true newcomer to the Big East. He was an assistant at Purdue in the Big Ten and then an assistant and head coach at UCLA in the Pac-10.

“Even with that background of being in different conferences, until you actually coach in this league you don’t get a sense of how physical the play is in the lane and at the rim,” Lavin said. “It’s officiated that way, and personally, I love it. It’s officiated differently than it is in the West. This is a brass knuckles conference.”

Rice was an assistant at Pittsburgh in 2006-07 and came to Rutgers after a three-year stint as head coach at Robert Morris, a run capped by an overtime loss to Villanova of the Big East in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.

“When I was an assistant we were on top,” Rice said. “Still, even then it’s a struggle night in and night out to get a victory in this league, but when you’re trying to go up the ladder, those guys just won’t let you do it and whether it’s (Pittsburgh’s) Ashton Gibbs or (Georgetown’s) Austin Freeman, they all have those type of players, those guys who get to the next level. There’s an urgency for Rutgers to find one of those players.”

Willard played for three seasons at Pittsburgh under his father, Ralph, and then was an assistant and associate head coach under Rick Pitino at Louisville before taking the head job at Iona for three seasons.

“Because I played in the league and I’ve been up in this area and played a lot of these teams I knew how physical it would be,” Willard said. “I think the refereeing has been terrific and at a high level. The physicality is something college basketball has turned into.”

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