Friday, December 26, 2014

The soul of the Big East is still alive

Just over a year ago, I wrote an essay in which I lamented the loss of the Big East conference that I grew up knowing. Today, we can say that soul has not fully disappeared.

The soul of the Big East is still alive

The crowd wouldn´t be quite like this for Southern Methodist or Central Florida. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
The crowd wouldn't be quite like this for Southern Methodist or Central Florida. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

Just over a year ago, I wrote an essay in which I lamented the loss of the Big East conference that I grew up knowing.

It turned out that the conference's soul had not fully disappeared. It was rescued from extinction, and it will get new life when the new Big East arrives next season.

The formal announcement will come Thursday: the Big East’s basketball-only schools are separating from the rest of the conference this summer. Instead of breaking up in a year or two, they're doing so on June 30. They will take the Big East name and they will take the right to play a conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.

If you truly consider yourself to be a Big East basketball fan, you know this is the right thing to do.

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The separation of the so-called “Catholic 7" from the schools that have big-time football programs has been coming. But only in recent days have we learned that the ultimate end of the separation is one which makes eminent sense: do it now, get it over with, and let the two parties go their separate ways.

Yes, I am writing this essay from a subjective point of view, not an objective one; yes, I am writing from the heart instead of the head. I know that there’s an enormous money involved in the process. I know that some of it is coming from Fox, some of it from CBS (in the form of NCAA Tournament shares), and some of it is coming from exit fees paid by schools that are gone or on their way out.

I also believe, though, that any dollar value is a negotiated point between two others. It’s a lot easier to solve the financial part of the negotiation than it is to figure out who gets the Big East name, or who gets a conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. You can’t split a building in half, or split a name like the Big East in half.

Those two things - even though they have a dollar value - are of enormous sentimental value to people who grew up believing in the Big East as a league where schools without big-time football could still play big-time basketball.

Here’s a question to ponder. Would you rather watch a game between Seton Hall and Providence or a game between Houston and Central Florida? Had the Big East stayed together for one more year, both of those matchups would have been contested under the same conference banner.

Speaking of banners, earlier this season Georgetown students brought one to their game against DePaul that drew national attention. It featured seven figures in hooded sweatshirts representing the seven schools that form the core of the new Big East.

The words on the banner were simple: “BASKETBALL IS OUR RELIGION.” The turn of phrase was not lost on anyone, whether Jesuit or Augustinian.

It’s true that the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday wasn’t as big as it could have been. It’s spring break on the Main Line, and there was a threat of bad weather. Had the game been on a Saturday, the crowd surely would have been bigger.

But one thing that I wrote still holds true: games like Villanova-Georgetown generate outsized interest relative to their institutions. For many years, crowds at NBA arenas throughout the Big East have been larger than the combined enrollments of the schools involved.

It’s been true for not just the Hoyas and Wildcats, but also St. John’s and Marquette. Even Seton Hall and Providence have significant histories, even if their recent pasts haven’t measured up. We know that Xavier and Butler will bring fan bases, histories and traditions when they come to the new Big East. So will Creighton and Dayton if they join in.

But it’s also true that some schools which have been a major part of the old Big East’s basketball culture won’t be part of the new one. In particular, Connecticut and Syracuse will be on the outside looking in.

The Huskies will join Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis in whatever the Big East football collective decides to name itself. I have some sympathy for those in Storrs and Hartford who have been left at the altar not only by their basketball brethen, but by schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh that have moved to greener pastures.

Even Rutgers managed to make it to the Big Ten. It’s been a while since that news was announced, but it’s still strange to think that the Scarlet Knights will be hosting Michigan and Ohio State’s football teams soon.

(And yes, I have some sympathy for Temple. Though the Owls will still be better off financially in their new surroundings than they’ve ever been.)

In the present, though, we are dealing with the final days of one of the great institutions of college sports. Not surprisingly, there has been an outbreak of sentimental reflection, and a lot of that has come from the Carrier Dome.

One could argue that there aren’t many better ways to spend time during a central New York winter. Jim Boeheim has certainly been making that case for many years. Indeed, Boeheim has been a public critic of Syracuse’s move to the ACC.

I can’t help wondering this aloud, though: If there are really so many Syracuse fans who care about basketball so much - and if Boeheim really has king-making much power in his athletic department - wouldn’t the Orange have worked harder over the years to stop this breakup from happening?

We know that didn’t happen, and we know why: money speaks louder than anything else.

So what if the crowd of 35,012 that watched Georgetown’s final Big East visit to the Carrier Dome was the largest college basketball history? Just wait until Duke comes calling next winter. You can be sure ESPN will do its best to make sure a new mark is set.

This brings me to the other point I wanted to make in this essay. Part of the aforementioned outbreak of sentiment has been a desire for Syracuse to keep playing its “traditional” Big East rivals. St. John’s has already agreed to keep playing the Orange. There are hopes that Villanova and Georgetown are doing the same.

I am against that.

I know that a lot of people, especially in D.C., disagree with me. But let me try to explain.

If Syracuse plays non-conference games against the big-city Big East schools, I see it as allowing the Orange to have it both ways. They get the benefits of ACC membership, with big money and big games against Duke and North Carolina; and they get to keep bringing their traveling circus into NBA arenas.

A game against Syracuse means a big influx of visiting fans. Yes, that leads to a nice little payday for the home team. It’s also a spectacle that helps sell high school kids on a small town whose most famous building is a concrete box with an inflatable roof.

You know that the next Hakim Warrick or Scoop Jardine will be in the building if Syracuse comes to the Wells Fargo Center to play Villanova. And you know they’ll walk out wanting to make that trip up Interstate 81 instead of playing for their hometown team.

At least when Syracuse was in the Big East (yes, I just used the past tense), the privilege of playing in big cities came with the price of Big East membership. A game against Georgetown, Villanova or St. John’s meant something in the standings - and often something big.

If the Orange keep coming to D.C. and Philadelphia, those games won’t have such meaning. Sure, they’ll be spectacles, but there won’t be anything at stake. There won’t be a trophy for a Georgetown-Syracuse game the way there is for the Big 5. I doubt it will even be on the level of Illinois-Missouri, much less Cincinnati-Xavier.

There will be something missing. And we’ll all know what that something is.

So let Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and the rest go on their way to football-fueled riches. And celebrate the fact that it’s happening now, not after an awkward year or two.

Yes, it will sting for a while. But allow me to use the first person here for a moment. I’ve grown pretty sour on college sports over the last two years, between conference realignment and the scandals that have rocked some of the nation’s biggest institutions. I’ve been covering a lot less basketball and a lot more soccer, as I know you all have seen.

But I’m very excited for the arrival of the new Big East. I hope to be able to cover it a lot, and to celebrate the traditions that its members have built. I’m also looking forward to the arrival of Xavier and Butler, and perhaps a few more schools in another year. I’ve already promised a good friend in Indianapolis that I’ll come to Hinkle Fieldhouse for Villanova’s first game there.

At its core, though, the Big East will be about three schools that have helped define that name for decades: Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s. We’ll continue to watch those schools play big games against each other in front of big crowds in big arenas.

I asked Jay Wright for his take on where things are headed after Wednesday’s game. One of the big questions about the future Big East is whether it will have enough strength in depth to make every game a big game.

The Wildcats lost to Providence twice, but later beat Connecticut and Marquette. They lost to Seton Hall and Pittsburgh, but rebounded with a win over Georgetown that all but sealed a NCAA Tournament berth.

“When you win 10 games in this league, something like 94 percent of the teams in this league make it [to the NCAA Tourmament],” Wright said. “I love this conference... I know it has to, but I really don’t want to end, and I want to enjoy very minute of it.”

It will be a lot easier for Wright to enjoy himself at Madison Square Garden with the résumé his team has compiled so far. Even that sweep by Providence doesn’t look as bad anymore, as the Friars also have 10 conference wins this season.

I then asked Wright whether he thinks it will be hard for the new Big East to match the current conference’s strength in depth.

“No, because I think you’re going to play a lot of the same teams, and the same rivalries,” he said. “I think that’s what so cool about the future. It’s never going to be the same, but I think it’s going to be different and really exciting, and I think it’s going to be the closest thing that anybody has to what this great conference is.”

Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Connecticut might disagree with that claim. But what Wright is surely hoping for - along with executives at Fox Sports, it should be said - is that the Georgetown-Villanova-St. John’s triumvirate really does still matter.

They hope that when those teams go to Butler and Xavier, the same thing will happen that did in the Big East’s heyday: the TV audience for those games will far exceed what a group of small, private universities should theoretically produce.

Butler and Xavier have been there before, which is why they’ve been the first teams invited to join the party. Creighton and Dayton have histories too - and some of the most rabid fan bases in the country.

Will there be risks involved? Of course. There are risks any time there’s change. Some of those risks will be mitigated by the vast sums of money spent to get this all figured out between now and next November.

In the end, though, we know that the schools that will form the new Big East are going to a place that is right for them.

(Yes, I hear you, Villanova football fans. I know a small cadre of you dreamed of watching the Wildcats beat USC in a BCS title game. It is not going to happen. Get over it.)

We aren’t there yet, but we will be soon enough. After the long, draining roller-coaster of realignment we’ve been on in recent times, we can look forward to the future instead of fearing it. The conference that so many of us grew up with will be back where it belongs.

On a basketball court. 

Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
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.

Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
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