October 25, 2006

New Big East coaches ready for challenge

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NEW YORK - It is the perfect situation for Mick Cronin. He's back in his hometown of Cincinnati, coaching the Bearcats and loving every minute of it.

Now he has the task of rebuilding a team that lost so much talent from last year's squad. It's just the job Cronin wants.

Last season's interim coach, Andy Kennedy, landed at to Ole Miss. James White, Eric Hicks, Devon Downey, Jihad Muhammad, Armein Kirkland and Chadd Moore are gone. Cronin did not start from scratch - he had Cedric McGowan returning - but it was pretty close to a bare cupboard.

After being hired in late March, Cronin blitzed the recruiting trail and signed eight players. That leaves Cincinnati as one of the new-look teams in the nation.

"It's been wild," Cronin said. "The scramble to get players in the spring. I can write a book."

It has been a whirlwind so far for Cronin, one of three new coaches in the Big East. Things are starting to slow down as practice continues. That's good news for Cronin as starts to get a handle on what he is dealing with this season.

He grew up in Cincinnati and coached locally at Woodward H.S. before becoming video coordinator for the Bearcats. He moved up through the ranks to assistant coach, then took the associate head coaching job at Louisville. His last stop before taking over at Cincinnati was the head coaching job at Murray State.

Cronin's father, Harold "Hep" Cronin, a well-known basketball coach in the area. Hep Cronin was inducted into the Greater Cincinnati Hall of Fame.

"My brother and father are my best friends," Cronin said. "Family being so close is one thing, and then you grew up rooting for the Bearcats. Most everything from the core of who I am came from my dad. You start to learn the impact you have on the players and their lives."

Two other first-year coaches in the conference - Seton Hall's Bobby Gonzalez and Rutgers' Fred Hill - should provide for some interesting recruiting battles in the New York metropolitan area.

Gonzalez comes over from Manhattan, where he led the Jaspers to four 20-win seasons in seven years. Hill's last two positions were as associate head coach at Rutgers (2005-06) and Villanova (2003-05).

On the recruiting front, Gonzalez landed Eugene Harvey the No. 67 prospect in the 2006 class according to Rivals.com - soon after being named coach. Hill was instrumental in inking 6-foot-10 center Hamady N'diaye, the No. 68 prospect, from Simi Valley (Calif.) Stoneridge Prep.

"It's a dream come true," Hill said. "The responsibility falls now on my shoulders. It's their program, I just happen to be the guy in charge. I don't know how to do anything else.

"It's my turn to manage the program. It doesn't seem much different (than being an assistant). When we're getting beat up and you guys (the media) are beating me up, maybe the outlook will change."

Hill and Gonzalez are faced with serious challenges this season. Seton Hall lost reliable seniors Donald Copeland and Kelly Whitney, last season's top two scorers and the only players to start every game for the Pirates a year ago.

Hill must find a scoring threat to fill the gap left by Quincy Douby, who averaged 25.4 points per game and a conference-high 27 points per outing in Big East play. Marquis Webb might be the guy to fill that role.

"Trying to get to the top 12, the race within the race, is so heated," Gonzales said. "We're just trying to stay out of the bottom four. Everybody has 7-footers. Everybody has potential pros. From a coaching standpoint, it's no joke."

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