UConn men’s basketball’s Tyrese Martin lone Big East player drafted. Here’s why league is still strong

Photo of David Borges

The Big East is a very good men’s basketball conference.

The league ranked second in overall RPI this past season, bested only by the Big 12 and its national champion, Kansas. It finished fourth in the conference NET rankings.

The Big East sent six teams to the NCAA tournament, including Villanova, which advanced to the Final Four for the third time in the past seven seasons.

It’s a damn good league. It’s just that the NBA doesn’t necessarily agree.

When UConn’s Tyrese Martin was selected with the No. 51 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft late Thursday night, it marked the second year in a row the Huskies had a draft selection, and added another feather in the cap to Dan Hurley’s staff as talent developers.

It also marked the only Big East player selected in this year’s draft. A slew of players, including two-time league player of the year Collin Gillespie and former Huskies R.J. Cole and Isaiah Whaley, either signed two-way contracts or received invites to summer leagues and/or training camps.

But Martin was the lone Big East player drafted. You’ve heard of “Requiem for the Big East.” Was this a “Referendum on the Big East?”

Compare that to the Big Ten, which had nine players selected, or the SEC (seven) or Pac-12 (six). Even the WCC had three (thanks, Gonzaga). The American Athletic Conference, much-maligned by UConn fans, had two.

What a difference from the 1985 NBA Draft, when four Big East players were taken in the first round alone, including future Hall-of-Famers Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. Or 1996, when seven Big East players went in the first two rounds, including another future Hall of Fame pair: Allen Iverson and UConn’s own Ray Allen.

Heck, in 2006, there were four first-rounders from UConn alone — Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone — and six overall from the Big East.

On Thursday, just one from the Big East, in the second round. Same amount as the Horizon League, MAC and Mountain West. An anomaly, you say? Well, three years ago, the league also produced just one draft pick (second-rounder Eric Paschall of Villanova). And in 2020, there were just two.

So what gives? Why is the Big East still such a terrific league, even if it’s not churning out NBA Draft picks? Certainly, the league isn’t bringing in the type of highly-ranked recruits, the one-and-dones, that Power Five leagues have been attracting.

Villanova, far and away the class of the league for the past decade with two national championships in its trophy case, never had a one-and-done under recently-retired Hall of Famer Jay Wright. Since Jim Calhoun took over the reins in 1986, UConn has had just one — lottery pick Andre Drummond in 2012.

The one-and-done studs are heading to Duke and Kentucky; the long, athletic freaks who may be raw but ooze potential are going to Arkansas, LSU, Texas, Baylor, or more established basketball powers like North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona or UCLA.

The Big East, instead, largely ends up with talented, top 75-150 recruits who will stay in school for a few years. Maybe even five years, like several recent graduates (Gillespie, Cole, Whaley, Providence’s Nate Watson, etc.) have done thanks to an extra Covid-19 season. It makes the league older, stronger and a lot tougher for a freshman to break in and find immediate success. It also makes it a better overall league, even if the talent level isn’t necessarily populated by future NBA studs.

And let’s not forget, NBA draft picks don’t always equal NCAA tournament success. What does the Big Ten have to show for its nine draft picks this year? A 9-9 record in the Big Dance, with no teams advancing past the Sweet 16. Duke had four first-round picks but couldn’t win an ACC tournament championship, and fell to archrival North Carolina in the Final Four.

This upcoming season, the Big East will feature some of the top big men in the country, led by UConn junior Adama Sanogo, who’ll likely be the league’s preseason player of the year. A pair of 7-footers, Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner and Xavier’s Jack Nunge, need no introduction for UConn fans, nor does bruising Eric Dixon of Villanova. Qudus Wahab is back at Georgetown after a year at Maryland, and don’t sleep on 7-2 UConn freshman Donovan Clingan, the Bristol product.

But there’s a reason why the league has so many talented, experienced bigs.

“Obviously, a lot of those guys made the decision to come back to school,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott told Hearst Connecticut Media. “Part of it is that the NBA game has changed, and there aren’t as many of those guys on an NBA roster anymore.”

That’s why Sanogo and Clingan are both working to expand their games, hit a few mid-range jumpers, even a few 3-pointers, and play and defend in space. Both could wind up being NBA Draft picks. In fact, Hurley believes he could lose at least three players to the 2023 draft: Sanogo, 6-6 wing Andre Jackson and 6-5 Jordan Hawkins.

It’s all a bit cyclical. Don’t forget, the league had four players drafted in 2021, led by lottery pick James Bouknight of UConn. Bouknight probably could have been a late first-round, early second-round pick in 2020, but made the wise choice to return for a second year in Storrs.

In fact, the 2023 NBA Draft could have much better Big East representation. The league could even have a one-and-done next year out of, of all places ... Villanova. Cam Whitmore is a national top-15 recruit who is projected to be a potential lottery pick in 2023.

No doubt, the Big East still has a lot of good players. Most of those players just tend to stick around in college a bit longer, making the Big East an older, bigger and better league than most.