Bill Raftery, the longtime college basketball analyst and part of the Final Four broadcast team, was head coach at Seton Hall from 1970-81 and was there at the birth of the Big East Conference. He talks with The Post’s Steve Serby about the upcoming March Madness.
Q: Why do some consider Seton Hall a Final Four threat?
A: A variety of reasons — the size, which a lot of teams don’t have. They are like an NBA team … an old NBA team even. I think the other thing about them too is that they can play differently. They can actually play small with Sandro Mamukelashvili. He’s a 6-10, 6-11 kid and he’s very mobile. … He’s overlooked quite a bit, I think, by the public in general. And they’re excellent defensively, Everyone talks about (Myles) Powell and what he can do, and it’s very impressive. Quincy McKnight is the guy that sorta runs the show, gets ’em in the right spots, a great defender. I think they’re deeper than a lot of teams. they can do a lot of different things that other teams can’t.
Q: Do you think they’re a Final Four threat?
A: Well, having seen the flavor of the month for the whole season, why not? They’re as good as a lot of teams in the country.
Q: You think they’re capable?
A: They’re very capable. Now, as you know, a lot of things have to go their way. Powell’s gotta return to form, he hasn’t been shooting as well as he’s capable of. I think this time off has probably been good for him. And again, I think the biggest thing about them is they can adjust to any way you want to play — large to small, a combination, fast, halfcourt. … Having said that, Villanova’s got just as good a shot as they do. I don’t know if Villanova has the depth, and they’re younger. That’s the other thing about Seton Hall, they’ve got some guys who’ve been around, and I think that’s very important come Tournament time. I think that would be the one thing that might separate them from a lot of teams.
Q: Kevin Willard?
A: He basks in anonymity. He just does his job. Seton Hall’s not the easiest job in the league, it might not have the top-notch facilities. He’s great at developing talent. I didn’t even mention Jared Rhoden, that kid is gonna be a really promising player, he is already. He wasn’t a great threat deep last year, now he makes that. They develop players, or they have eyes for players who can get better.
Q: Powell versus Markus Howard for Big East Player of the Year?
A: Different styles, you know? I always opt for the team that becomes more successful in the conference, or in the country. Myles is more of a scoring guard, although he’s become an excellent passer. … He’s unselfish … he’s got a great team attitude. Markus is sort of more of a combo. He can obviously light it up, I’m sure it’s a tough call for a lot of people, but if everybody felt they were equal, I would then opt for the team that finished higher. (Seton Hall) tied for the lead, you know?
Q: Can St. John’s go on a little run at the Garden this week without Mustapha Heron?
A: A bunch of games in a short time for them might be really difficult. Their lack of depth and experience is what’s hurt them.
Q: Mike Anderson?
A: He’s a winner, and I really expect, and I think a lot of people in the league expect, them to get it going again. To me what’s amazing about the conference, is that Georgetown is trying to get it going, St. John’s is trying to get it going, DePaul is trying to get it going, are there any bigger cities in the country, or more important media centers? So I think that really speaks well for what these other teams have been able to do. Things, unfortunately, are cyclical, although don’t tell Villanova that, obviously.
Q: Which team could surprise?
A: No one’s talked about Providence all year, and they’re really playing really good. I think they’re coming of age in terms of the upper bracket. They’re getting better at the right time of year. When (Alpha) Diallo plays well, this is a whole different team. His ability to make shots, good defense, very versatile.
A: They got the X on their back, they’re the champions.
A: They control the tempo of the game. They’ll bite you with a little fast break every once in a while. But basically, they’re very sound defensively. The backcourt is excellent on this team. And inside, (Bryce) Nze is very, very smart, does a lot of little things, he keeps the ball alive, he’s got good footwork around the rim. And the kid (Sean) McDermott can make 3s, you can’t leave him alone. (Jordan) Tucker is one of those guys that can stretch your D, and he went to Duke, so you know he was a high recruit.
Q: Who are some of the other players fans can gravitate to in the tournament?
A: Naji Marshall might have a coming-out party, the kid from Xavier. … St. John’s Rasheem (Dunn), see if he can do something. … Providence, Diallo and (David) Duke, (Luwane) Pipkins has had a great run. … Georgetown, (Mac) McClung (foot) is hopefully healthy. (Omer) Yurtseven (ankle), the big kid on that team. … Kamar Baldwin at Butler, everybody in the league fears him, one of the premier backcourt kids. … And Creighton with the 3s, they’re phenomenal those kids the way they shoot the basketball. … And Saddiq Bey at Villanova, he’s got great range, he can handle the basketball, he can guard little guys if he has to, he can create post-ups with his dribble. He’s just one of those very, very tough outs. … DePaul, (Paul) Reed, he’s got great size at 6-foot-9, can rebound, can shoot the basketball. He can drive it left or right, he does things in the open floor that guards do, and he can actually make a 3 on occasion.
Q: Big East or Big Ten?
A: I think they’re all good. It’s like if you live in the Midwest, you say the Big Ten. … They’re pretty solid all the way through … some leagues are top-heavy. You get in the Tournament, you gotta play Oregon, you’re not gonna have an easy time. USC’s another team, they’re very good. The ACC’s not quite what it was, but it’s still pretty damn good.
Q: What is it about the Big East Tournament that gets your juices flowing?
A: Well obviously the Garden comes to mind. I just think they’re all schools that have a total commitment to basketball. That’s their primary spirit, development of the student body, and I think they live and die with it. I just think there’s something about the city, the place, the toughness of the kids, the importance of it. Ever since Dave (Gavitt) started it, nothing had really happened differently. It’s always been about leaving it all out there. And I remember Dave saying, “Everybody’s gonna get a shot.” And the first shot was Rick (Pitino), getting (Providence) to the (1987) Final Four. Then P.J. (Carlesimo) got there (with Seton Hall) in ’89. They were the last two.
Q: What specific Big East memories as an announcer stand out to you?
A: John Thompson winning (the NCAA Championship) in ’84. … That sort of alerted some people. And then, three of us (Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova) getting to the Finals in ’85. And then selfishly, P.J. getting there in ’89. And I mentioned Rick before.
Q: What about the six-overtime Syracuse-Connecticut classic in 2009?
A: (Sean) McDonough, (Jay) Bilas and I always say that that’s the one game that I’ll never forget.
Q: New York City and Syracuse legend Pearl Washington?
A: He had what (Pete) Maravich had.
Q: How about those old St. John’s-Georgetown games at the Garden?
A: 1 versus 2 was one of the biggest ever. I was fortunate enough to do that one when John [Thompson] donned the sweater with Looie (Carnesecca). I still don’t know how he got the same kind of sweater, it still amazes me. … Patrick (Ewing) blocking a shot, or two, or three, to deliver a message early in the game that “don’t come in here.” The intensity of the games … there’s so many rough-and-tumble things. … Just the excitement of the tournament itself … the value of it.
Q: What is your view of the Big East now compared to when Looie and Rollie (Massimino at Villanova) and John Thompson and Jim Boeheim (at Syracuse) and Jim Calhoun (at UConn) coached?
A: I think the biggest difference, it’s not a first-name league yet. Then it was Chris (Mullin) and Eddie (Pinckney), Patrick (Ewing) and Walter (Berry). The other thing about the league that’s interesting, with exceptions, it’s not a one-and-done league. Villanova’s had its share of guys leaving, but it’s mostly sophomore, junior, senior year. So kids are around a while, and people can rally around their programs a little bit.
Q: Did you have reservations when the league changed the way it did in 2013?
A: I don’t think I had reservations because the foundation was there.
Q: What do you remember about the very first year of the Big East?
A: Back in ’79?
A: Well my first reaction is, “What did I do to myself?” We (Seton Hall) were OK playin’ ’em once, but playin’ ’em twice. … I guess you might call it an honor to be asked when we started, having played most of those teams once a year. We were in the ECAC — all of us, St. John’s, ourselves, Fordham. … November, December were always hard — January and February got harder.
Q: What would be your favorite Big East memory as a coach?
A: Wow. … Becoming an announcer (laugh).
Q: Becoming an announcer?
A: I was only there two years, and we weren’t in the Garden before I got there. So it was like in its formative stages. The first one was in Providence; the second one was in Syracuse. We played in those two. And the third one was at UConn. So our kids didn’t get the taste of that.