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St. John’s Leads Dramatic Change In NY-NJ Hoops

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(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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JIM O’CONNELL, AP Basketball Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Things sure have changed in college basketball in the New York metropolitan area.

There are 19 Division I schools within a 90-minute trip to Madison Square Garden, the center of all New York hoops, and 10 have a new coach this season.

The first-year crew ranges from Steve Lavin at St. John’s (coming back after seven years as an analyst for ESPN) to Tom Pecora at Fordham (moved from Hofstra after nine successful seasons) to Mike Rice at Rutgers and Kevin Willard at Seton Hall (two of the hot young head coaches moving from mid-major programs) to Mo Cassara at Hofstra and Kyle Smith at Columbia (assistants taking their first head jobs) to Tim Cluess at Iona (moving up from Division II) to Danny Hurley at Wagner (moving from the high school ranks).

There’s even a coach who shed the interim tag in Greg Vetrone at Fairleigh Dickinson.

An incredible offseason around New York, which has always considered itself the center of the entire basketball world, left Jim Ferry of Long island University the dean of local coaches as he begins his ninth season with the Blackbirds.

“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” the 43-year-old Ferry said as he took some ribbing from the other coaches at a reception for them at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. “I sat back last year when all that craziness was going on in New York, saw people bouncing around from place to place and others being dismissed. I’m really happy at LIU but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve been there that long. It’s still new, it’s still exciting.”

Most of the coaches waiting for the season to get under way were talking the way coaches do before their won-loss record changes for the first time. But this group knows how important it is to keep up the image of New York being the place for college basketball as it was for decades with St. John’s the area’s power program. Over the last 10 years, St. John’s has struggled.

“We all need St. John’s to return to their form. We all root for St. John’s, we all root for each other,” Ferry said. “If we all have some success and keep these local kids home, I think it’s great for all of us. We’ve got to get New York back to where it was in college basketball.”

And Madison Square Garden, which bills itself as the Mecca of basketball, wants to be a part of a resurgence that could draw the standing-room-only crowds of long ago.

“We want to do events with schools from New York and we’re always thinking of how to better present college basketball in the area so we’re always interested in doing things with all of these schools,” said Joel Fisher, the Garden’s executive Vice president who is responsible for the building’s college basketball program.

Smith, who moves east after serving as an assistant to Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s to take over at Columbia, said there is a difference between basketball on the two coasts.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think the stereotypes are true as this is a little harder edged. You’ve got to be ready to fight back, no, push back. … We had a son born in Mount Sinai Hospital here and we have a 2-year-old born in California and if you had cameras in the two delivery rooms you would know right away which was New York and which one was California. Believe me, there is a difference.”

Lavin, who coached at UCLA for seven seasons before bouncing back from being fired with a successful TV career, said things happen in New York that just couldn’t be seen anywhere else.

“There was a poignant New York moment for me recently,” said Lavin, who took over a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992. “We were showing a recruit the Garden and when we were leaving for the car, another car pulled up and out got Walt Frazier. He said hello and he took the recruit off to the side and talked to him about playing in New York.

“But what went on while they were talking is New York. Men in suits, Wall Street types, were yelling ‘Clyde. Hey, Clyde,” he said. “Then there were guys down on their luck, maybe even homeless men and they saw him and right away it was, ‘Hey, Clyde. Clyde, you the man.’ That only happens in New York,”

Pecora, at 52, one of the deans by age in the area, said things have settled down since the busy offseason for the coaches.

“A lot of young guys got good opportunities and one old guy got a new opportunity,” he said with a laugh. “It’s good to see some new blood. Now we have to figure out a way to get everybody to play everybody around here.”

He doesn’t think he’ll be calling Ferry for any wise advise.

“The only thing I would ask him is if he knows a good diner in Brooklyn,” Pecora said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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