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Big East No More

In recent years, the college basketball world has been quick to shift its focus after the regular season ends.  Fans, players, coaches and the media watch games with exceptional talent, thrilling storylines and unpredictable results.  And that’s all before March Madness even kicks into gear.  That’s right, it’s the Big East Tournament, hosted in Madison Square Garden.  But in the near future it won’t be that way for those in Upstate NY or eastern Pennsylvania.  The NCAA football conference upheaval has reared its ugly head again – Syracuse and Pitt are headed to the ACC.

But you know that already.  If you pay any attention to sports in the US, you’re likely overwhelmed by all this conference talk.  So why further the discussion here? Because the basketball perspective is still quite dizzying, and I need to sort out my own view on the move.

I consider myself a college basketball fan before a college football fan.  In that respect, the move to the ACC seems insane.  Yes, the ACC has been a bastion of historic basketball success.  But the key word for the entire conference is “historic.” The past decade has seen continued dominance by Duke, UNC… and nobody else. After Maryland won the national title in 2002, only Maryland, Virginia, and occasionally Wake Forest have made even a slight push at the dominance of the top two teams.  It’s difficult to fully devalue the ACC because of the national success from Duke and UNC, but it’s also a challenge to argue that the conference is holistically strong.

Meanwhile, we have the Big East.  After the 2002 season (looking at the same period post-Maryland championship) there have been six different teams to win the Big East Tournament.  Those teams are Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Louisville, and West Virginia.  It’s also difficult to discount Villanova, Marquette, and Cincinnati, even though they don’t have the Big East Tournament championships.  And, yes, the Big East is also responsible for sending more teams to the NCAA Tournament in the past four years than any other conference (in fact, from 2003 to 2011, there were only two years when the Big East didn’t send the biggest delegation).  And an additional yes: those teams were certainly deserving.

So Syracuse and Pitt are electing to leave the top-to-bottom most powerful conference in NCAA Division I basketball.  But we know the reason for that already. Football reigns supreme.  Yes, football is the true money-maker and it is there that the Big East has readily proven its ineptitude over the past many years.  With the swirling conference realignment across the rest of the country, the Big East is likely to be left even further behind than it already is.  This is, of course, why Syracuse and Pitt, two teams with fairly strong football tradition, want to jump ship to a more significant, more competitive, more stable environment.  And I understand this move from that perspective – both ACC-bound universities want to ensure financial stability from one of their biggest sources of income.

But I can’t help but dwell on the irrational.  Without any other teams moving from the Big East (as of this writing), my beloved basketball world gets turned upside-down.  This means there is a future where Syracuse doesn’t have a showdown with UConn and a bitter rivalry with Georgetown.  Similarly, Pitt won’t have West Virginia and its powerful football and basketball showdowns.

And at present, the ACC doesn’t offer the depth of competition that the Big East presents in basketball.  Without Georgetown, Villanova, UConn, Notre Dame (sorta), Cincy, Marquette, and St. John’s, the level of competition just isn’t there.  I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see any of these teams win the Big East Tournament or make a run in the NCAA tournament in the next few years – they’re all legitimately good programs.  It’s tough to watch two teams with similar strength move from this kind of competition – competition that raises the profile and level of play of all those involved.

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This Map is Changing

So now I have to adjust to the new reality.  At some point in the next few years, we’re going to see the conference move come to fruition and Syracuse and Pitt will start their assault on ACC basketball.  I trust that the football element of the move will make the transition worthwhile for both schools.  I also trust that the move will be a strange one for the basketball fans involved.

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