The Big East Split Will Be Good For The Game
In one of the least shocking announcements in recent conference realignment, the new Big East announced its long-reported television contract with FOX this morning, along with the inclusion of Butler, Xavier and Creighton as the league’s eighth, ninth and 10th members. Those are good inclusions and make the new league, along with the seven breakaway members of the former Big East, a very credible one right out of the chute.
This past week, as the final Big East tournament as we knew it unfolded at Madison Square Garden, there were countless inches of newsprint and pixels spent memorializing the league, its tremendous history and its role in the rise of ESPN and the overall shaping of the college basketball landscape. From the salad days of Hoya Paranoia and the three Final Four teams in 1985 through the more recent miracle run of Kemba Walker and UConn, the Big East resonated in a way that no other basketball league did. It was tough. It was combative. It was passionate. It meant something to everyone involved, teams and fans alike.
It was also time for the league to split up. I think we’re heading to a better place, for most of the teams involved and for the fans who love the game of college basketball.
The original Big East was a seven-team enterprise, with Villanova and Pitt joining soon afterward to make it the nine-team league everyone remembers. It had an identity. It had rivalries. It was a league built on basketball in a region of the country where college football is pretty much a nonentity. The bloated, geographically diverse league that was put to bed last week didn’t have all that much to do with the original vision.
It was a conference jaded by the Sisyphean pursuit of football success, and had an unwieldy mix of football- and non-football playing schools all trying to co-exist. The league simply grew to have too many teams. It had teams that had no business being in the league to begin with, and was inviting more. And with a 16- or 17- or however many team league, there was almost no chance for the poor programs to improve to consistently credible levels. They were too far behind the 8-ball.
It also had become stale. While the influx of teams like Louisville and Notre Dame and Marquette added some new styles, more often that not, league games were slugfest grinds. This season’s league had four of the nation’s 35 slowest teams in it. Only three Big East teams played at a tempo that was even in the top-100 nationally. The only team that truly pushed tempo, DePaul, went 7-83 in league play over the last five seasons.
The split into two leagues will breathe a lot of fresh air into all of the programs from the former league. The Catholic schools struck paydirt with a lucrative TV deal that prioritizes basketball, and they are bringing in three other programs with excellent vintage, all of which have more than paid their dues to make it; to this level. The league will instantly be in the mix for four or five NCAA bids, and the former Big East stragglers like Seton Hall, Providence and St. John’s will have more of a chance on a level playing field to become the programs they were in the 1980s.
While programs like Connecticut and Cincinnati seem to have gotten stuck without a chair when the music was turned off, the new league that’s bringing in teams like Memphis and Temple will be plenty competitive. It’s clear the shuffling won’t end, but until someone moves on, the teams and fan bases will have time to cultivate new rivalries and once again be among peers who value football as part of their athletics experiment.
Additionally, at least from a fan standpoint, the ACC becomes a hoops dream, adding Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and (after a one-year bridge stay in the UConn/Cincy league) Louisville to Duke, North Carolina and the rest. That league is going to be amazing, and the new schools will bring styles the league doesn’t currently have. It should be amazing to watch.
So while I understand the “in memoriams” and the wistful longing for the famous conference that was called the Big East, it was time to move on. Progress sometimes requires pain. This split will be better in the long run. The re-establishment of basketball as a legitimate primary driver is huge for our sport. We’ll always have our memories, and I think the ones we claim going forward will be even better.