Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The soul of the Big East

A reflection on whether Villanova, Georgetown and the other core Big East schools still resonate in an era dominated by football.

The soul of the Big East

WASHINGTON - Sometimes I write posts based on facts, and sometimes I write posts based on opinions. This post is squarely in the latter category, save for a few facts that should be established at the start.

On Saturday, I watched a college basketball game between a private university with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 10,500 students, and another private university with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 7,500 students.

The game was played in an NBA arena, and the announced attendance of 19,277 was larger than the combined total of the aforementioned enrollment figures.

At least half the country was able to watch the game on television, as a national broadcast network aired the game simultaneously with another on the west coast. Anyone who could not watch the game on television could do so free of charge on the internet.

Sure, there are schools in the Big East that are much larger than Villanova and Georgetown. When Louisville plays South Florida, that's a Big East game too.

But let's be honest with ourselves. We know better than to claim that the two matchups are truly equivalent.

I know a lot of you can't stand Villanova, and a fair few of you don't hold Georgetown in high regard either. But whether you follow Temple (especially), Saint Joseph's, La Salle, Drexel or Penn, you know about the Big East. You know how important it is, and you know how it got to be that way.

A group of small institutions in major Eastern cities came together to form and promote a basketball league. The result was a product whose whole so far surpassed the sum of its parts that it became the best college basketball conference in the nation.

Not the Big Ten, with its state university behemoths. Not the ACC, complaints to the contrary from Tobacco Road notwithstanding. And not the Pac-12, or the Pac-10, or the Pac-8, despite the historical dominance of UCLA.

It was the Big East.

Sure, Syracuse had football, and Pittsburgh and Boston College did too. And Connecticut was a state school, even if it didn't have big-time football.

But the core of the conference was those schools and these: Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova. They were in the Big East from the start (or a year thereafter), and they will still be in the Big East when it is done destroying itself in the name of the almighty gridiron.

Whenever any two of those five play each other, I pay attention. I have paid attention since I first started following college basketball, as a kid growing up just a few miles away from Georgetown's campus.

Even when the aforementioned programs aren't any good (and in recent years they've all had their turns), they still matter to me. And call it an educated guess, but I think they matter to you too.

Tell me honestly. Between these two games that were played Saturday, which would you have rather watched: Villanova at Georgetown, or Texas A&M at Oklahoma State? I'm pretty sure I know the answer.

And then think about the sizes of the respective schools. How is it that the small Big East programs are able to compete at an equal level with the football-fueled Big 12 behemoths?

The answer is the Big East itself. If the five non-major-football schools were in another conference, the level wouldn't be equal. Which is, of course, why the Big East made the football moves that it did to save itself.

But what will happen when Southern Methodist and Central Florida play at Madison Square Garden on the same day as St. John's and Seton Hall? Will the old, traditional rivalries survive?

I hope they will. I would like to think that they will. But I don't know for sure.


I felt at least a little better when I put the question to Villanova coach Jay Wright and Georgetown coach John Thompson III after Saturday's game.

"Villanova guys always get up for Georgetown," Wright said. "I think it might become even more of a special game, because they are two teams that were charter members, with a great history."

Wright admitted that the current Wildcats team has "so many inexperienced guys that I don't know if they even think about it yet."

It doesn't take much, though, for the message to get across.

"Anybody at Villanova that's played in one of these games, they know the great respect that we have for Georgetown and the great history of this rivalry," Wright said.

Thompson cited "the history that Georgetown and Villanova have, the significant history that they have as it relates to each other and as it relates to the league."

"I think as long as we're both still here, this will without a doubt remain a big game for the players, for the fans, for both institutions," he said.

Thompson knocked down the notion that both schools' lack of big-time football had anything to do with it.

"When we get out on the court, we're not thinking about football," he said. "I think it's just because of our history, and both programs have been pretty good through the years."

But there's no question that a game like Georgetown-Villanova carries some extra meaning. And not just for the coaches. Maalik Wayns offered a great quote when The Inquirer's Joe Juliano asked him for his view of the rivalry.

"They're two little private schools in the Big East and it's always been a great rivalry," the Philadelphia native said. "I know about the great championship game in '85, things like that. But it's always a tough game, Villanova-Georgetown."

Chew on that for a moment.

They're two little private schools in the Big East...

Of which one is in the top 10 in the nation, and the other is set to bring in another outstanding recruiting class despite this season's struggles.

If you would rather watch the SEC or the Big Ten or the Pac 12, you can have them. I'll take the Big East, and I'll take the old core of the Big East in particular. I'll even take it over the ACC, whether in its current form or with Syracuse and Pittsburgh on board.

But that doesn't mean the Big East can rest on its laurels, or that it should. Change is necessary, and it is necessary right now in order for the conference to survive in any form.

There is some reason to believe that as the Big East changes and evolves, its basketball tradition won't be completely subsumed by football in coming years.

By adding Memphis for all sports, the conference took a major step towards re-establishing the prominence of its basketball.

And if, as has been rumored, the Big East is going to add Temple for all sports, it will have improved by going back to its roots: adding a school with a strong basketball program in the heart of a major Northeast city.

If we are to believe the rumors that a given program's opposition to inviting Temple was proportionate to that program's proximity to Philadelphia, then it might mean something that the three departing schools - Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia - are relatively close to the city.

Perhaps those departures have removed some of the resistance to Temple's admission.


The main reason why I came to Washington this weekend is that my grandmother passed away this past Thursday. My family buried her on Friday, and we celebrated the many memories with which she left us.

When I circled the Villanova-Georgetown game on my calendar, my grandmother was still alive. I assumed at the time that I would be coming here to bury an era, not a person, and to celebrate the memories with which Big East basketball left us.

But the timing was such that I ended up traveling south a few days earlier than planned.

My grandmother had been in poor health for some time, but she lasted longer than many in my family expected. She made it to age 93, and lived every one of those years to the fullest.

And now it appears possible that the Big East can also outlast predictions of its passing. Indeed, it can survive and thrive, without having to worry about the physical effects of aging.

The best way to do so would be to embrace Temple, and bring it on board for all sports.

Yes, that means basketball. And yes, Temple's arrival will scare some Villanova fans who believe that the Wildcats won't be able to recruit top talent anymore if the Owls are a conference rival.

To them, I would offer a piece of advice that my grandmother would offer me, and in her characteristically blunt tone: Baloney. Have some confidence and belief in the strength of your program.

I have learned enough about the Philadelphia basketball scene in my 10 years living in the city to strongly believe that there is enough talent for both Temple and Villanova to both have their share, as long as both programs are as smartly run as they are now.

And I would argue that St. Joe's, La Salle, Drexel and Penn will still be able to get their respective shares of talent if they do just the same thing.

Is that naive idealism on my part? Probably. But someone ought to be that way.

There's certainly enough talent across the city right now for every team to have achieved something of consequence this season.

Saint Joseph's beat Temple and Drexel. Penn beat Saint Joseph's. La Salle beat Penn, and Villanova beat La Salle, and Temple beat Villanova. It's not quite a circle, but it's close enough.

And it doesn't include non-conference wins by city teams against Creighton, Duke, Cleveland State, Harvard, Xavier and Seton Hall.

None of those results happened because of some cosmic interference. They didn't happen because some computer predictor said they would. They didn't even happen because St. Joe's took their Big 5 games out of the Palestra.

They happened because one team's players beat the other team's players. Simple enough.

Just like I hope the Big 5 doesn't die, I hope the Big East doesn't die. And I don't think it has to.

But it will take an admission that basketball still matters, and that the old teams and the old rivalries still matter. It will take an admission that the whole can still be greater than the sum of its parts.

I don't think I'll be covering that much more basketball this season. I won't be at the Big East or Atlantic 10 tournaments, or at an Ivy League playoff game if it happens. I'm going to the Pacific Northwest for a week starting March 7 to cover soccer, which means I'm going to miss out on Championship Week. I'm not even sure I'll be able to watch the Selection Show live.

I think I have one more major essay to write this season. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know what it is; and if you don't, you probably know anyway.

I hope, though, that this piece is one that you remember. I hope that those of you who really believe in the importance of basketball on the college sports landscape aren't afraid to stand up for it and tell people about your belief.

(And if your belief is that I'm a naive idealist, well, you can fire away about that too.)

If we don't say it now - as the final Big East Tournament with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia draws near - we might never have the same kind of chance again.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected