By Tarik Turner Editor's Note: Tarik Turner played at St. John's from 1995-98. He currently is the radio analyst for St. John's games.
Entering this season, the BIG EAST was considered by many to be "down" because of a perceived lack of star power with guys like Greg Monroe from Georgetown , Wesley Johnson of Syracuse and Devin Ebanks of West Virginia leaving early for the NBA draft. As the final stretch of Big East conference play approaches, a couple of themes stand out to me. First and foremost, the BIG EAST is arguably the best and deepest conference in the country. Secondly, parity in the Big East is at an all-time high. With as many as nine teams in the top 25 and no dominant, standout team at this point, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh, it's quite possible that we could see 11 teams go dancing in March which would beat the previous record of eight. That record, of course, belongs to the BIG EAST.
A major reason for the strength is the play and leadership of the league's seniors. Seniors are special. They are the "grandfathers" of the team sharing their wisdom and experience on and off the court. Senior leadership has played a key role in several teams' success this season. From a coaching standpoint, it's a luxury to have an experienced senior leader who understands what you expect and can impart that understanding to his teammates, serving as the coach's eyes and ears on the court. It can be similar to a parent who has trouble getting an important message through to his child while one of the child's peers can deliver the same message from a different angle. Ultimately this game is about the players on the court, and senior leadership can be the deal maker for a winning team.
A good senior leader is someone who's been battle-tested and understands how to bounce back from adversity. An experienced senior, knows how to change the pace of the game --when to slow it down or pick it up. At the same time, seniors play with a sense of urgency --largely because they realize that this is the last opportunity to end their careers on a positive note.
Looking back on my own senior year at St. John's in 1997-98, I vividly remember that sense of urgency and feeling that I was running out of time. That feeling is what drove me to be the best leader I could be. As a point guard, I was in a natural position to lead. My leadership wasn't about putting up big numbers. It was more about keeping the team focused on the task at hand, being vocal, making sure we were organized on offense and defense, keeping the guys loose in the locker room, making sure the camaraderie was good, and making sure the freshmen were comfortable on and off the court.
One freshman I spent a lot of time with during my senior year was Ron Artest (currently with the Los Angeles Lakers). "Ron Ron" as we called him, was one of the top high school players in the country. As he was making the adjustment to college ball, Ron always seemed to be going 100 miles per hour. (I'm sure I did the same thing as a freshman.) His undeniable talent and intense focus caught me by surprise. I had never played with anyone that young who was so dominant. There were days when he literally dominated every aspect of our practice. As one of the captains, I tried to make sure Ron felt comfortable with the team's offensive and defensive sets, constantly talking to him during practice, in the locker room and as roommates on the road. While I could never take any credit for his outstanding talent or current success, I'll never forget Ron mentioning in one of his interviews that I "kept the team together." He was referring to a rough stretch during our season when we had a team meeting after coming off two consecutive losses to Syracuse and West Virginia. I spoke up about this being our last chance to win as seniors (Felipe Lopez, Zendon Hamilton and me) stressing that we had to stay together as one unit. I didn't say anything profound, but I strongly believed that we could save our season if we stayed together. As we continued to work together, we got back on track and won 12 of our last 14 games en route to our best season of my career with a 22-10 record and an NCAA tourney berth.
Senior leadership usually evolves over time, starting in the freshman year. It may require waiting your turn until older guys with more experience graduate. Most of this season, 10 of the top 12 or 13 BIG EAST scorers have been seniors. Several players have been cast in new roles as the go-to guys for their respective teams. Providence's Marshon Brooks is leading the league in scoring as I write this and has emerged as one of the more explosive scorers in the league. Brooks' aggressive, slashing style has helped raise his scoring average by nearly 10 points from last year.
Louisville senior Preston Knowles has also assumed a new role as his team's leading scorer. Knowles has the green light in coach Rick Pitino's offense and has thrived as the leader of the Cardinals' more uptempo style.
Leadership can also be revealed vocally leadership, leading by example, making big defensive plays or grabbing rebounds that turn the game around. Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker and swingman Gilbert Brown epitomize senior leadership. Wanamaker has emerged as the heart and soul of his team. His strong, hard-nosed style fits perfectly with coach Jamie Dixon's blue-collar system. Brown is one of the best overall athletes in the conference. A strong 6-6, he has the ability to defend multiple positions and impact the game on both ends of the court. He prefers to slash and use his jumping ability to score near the basket and his outside shot has improved. Both Wanamaker and Brown play with passion and intensity that have been big factors in their team's success this season.
You can't have a conversation about senior leadership without mentioning Georgetown's Austin Freeman. Leading by example has always been his way. The BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year, Freeman has lived up to the hype. Georgetown's league season began slowly with a 1-4 start. Since then, the rock solid guard has carried the Hoyas swiftly up the standings. Although Freeman tends to be very quiet, he turns into a monster once the ball goes up in the air. In a win at Villanova, Freeman scored 10 of the team's last 12 points and assisted on the other two with a great pass to seal the victory. All Freeman did was finish with a team-high 30 points and six assists.
Rick Jackson, Syracuse's anchor in the low post, is one of the top big men in the BIG EAST. A Philly native, he prepared for his leadership role last summer by losing 25 pounds and getting in the best condition of his career. With Wes Johnson gone to the NBA and center Arinze Onuaku graduating, Jackson knew it was his turn to be the team leader. So far this season, he has been their most consistent player and has proven to be a steady double-double guy. For the younger guys on the team, Jackson has been the big-brother-mentor type of teammate.
Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and Villanova's Corey Fisher both had to wait patiently behind older players before becoming team leaders. Hansbrough began to emerge as a leader late last season when standout Luke Harangody went out with an injury. Hansbrough is not only the Irish's best player, he's also their vocal and emotional leader. Hansbrough has established himself as one of the top players in the conference. He's emerged as one of the most dangerous guards because of his shooting ability and attacking style of play. What stands out the most to me is his confidence. He plays with an attitude and his teammates feed off his energy. Notre Dame goes as he goes.
Fisher has always been one of the better guards in the BIG EAST, but until his wing man Scottie Reynolds graduated, he had to wait his turn to be the leader of the Villanova team. Leading up to this season, head coach Jay Wright told Fisher he was counting on him to be the coach on the floor. I spent some time with Fisher this summer in Brooklyn, N.Y., at a summer basketball tournament and he told me he couldn't wait to prove to everyone that he could run the team. He embraced the leadership role fully and currently leads his team in scoring and assists. Fisher does a great job of controlling tempo and finding a balance between scoring the ball and keeping his teammates involved.
Another advantage of having guys like Fisher and Hansborough is they want the ball in their hands when the shot clock is winding down. They both have a knack for making big shots and can knock down free throws in crunch time.
The last example of senior leadership is unique because it's not one specfic player but a group of seniors that are trying to make their best of their final season. I am talking about the St. John's Red Storm, which incredibly features 10 seniors. On this team, a couple of guys stand out. Malik Boothe, the co-captain point guard, is the vocal leader on the court and in the locker room. Boothe has the respect of the entire team and coaching staff. His leadership and toughness can't be measured by his stats, but by how hard he plays on the court. Boothe's unselfishness and willingness to do whatever it takes to win are a big reason why the Red Storm are on track to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2002.
One of the other keys leaders is guard Dwight Hardy, co-captain, leading scorer and one of the top guards in the conference. Hardy leads by example and usually has the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. Hardy is a good leader in that he's not afraid to fail. He loves the big shot.
In the final weeks of the regular season, senior leaders will look to make an even greater impact. As the clock ticks on their college careers, the seniors' sense of urgency intensifies and the phrase, "play every game like it's your last" becomes much more than a locker room cliché. The stark reality of this moment drives these student-athletes to end their collegiate careers on the highest notes possible. And there's no bigger stage than the Big East Tournament.