The ACC's raiding of the Big East, for the third time since 2004, is a move based on football and the TV revenue it brings. Changes like this are always driven by football, and everyone else gets to come along for the ride, whether they want to or not. But today's move, with Pittsburgh and Syracuse jumping off the Big East's ship, will take the ACC's basketball teams, or at least its fans, on a trip each March that they'll enjoy.
There are four levels of college basketball fans. A Category 1 fan buys tickets to Midnight Madness, stays up until 1 a.m. to watch a team play in the Great Alaska Shootout, and knows the high school stats and ESPNRise ranking of the 12th man (who walked on primarily to be able to tell women at parties that he's on the basketball team). The Category 2 fan watches, or goes to, lots of games and knows a little too much about the amoeba-zone defense. There is the fan who checks in from time to time during the regular season (when he or she isn't too busy figuring out if Chad Ochocinco or Deion Branch will get more targets this week), then dives in once the conference tournaments start; that's Category 3. And there's the fan who fills out an NCAA tournament bracket the morning after Selection Sunday, says he loves Carolina because of Coach K, and wants to know why Kutztown isn't in the field of 68; Cat 4.
Pitt's and Syracuse's moving won't affect Category 1 fans; they're obsessed with their own teams and will absorb every second of any game regardless of conference alignments. Category 4 fans wouldn't notice if the NCAA started playing tournament games on the moon as long as there were lines on which they could write "UMBC" while sitting in their cubicles.
For Categories 2 and 3, though, this will mean a shift come conference tourney time.
In the 1990s, the ACC tournament was the one to watch. If Randolph Childress (listed at 6-foot-2, looked more like 5-10) wasn't dragging Wake Forest to a title by scoring over 35 a game and nailing the game-winning shot in the championship game with four seconds left in OT, then Duke and North Carolina were slugging away at each other in the final, usually as top-five teams. In the '90s, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Stephon Marbury, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, and Vince Carter, among others, showcased their skills in the ACC. Duke and UNC each made the Final Four five times. And the ACC tourney was spectacular, with teams that had spent two months beating each other up deciding to do it for four more days.
Then it changed. UNC hired Matt Doherty. The second-tier teams like Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Virginia fell back. Maryland rose to power, but quickly retreated. Duke maintained its dominance, but without the Tar Heels, or anyone else, as worthy foes for a good five years, the tournament became stale. The Blue Devils won it seven times in eight years from 1999 to 2006.
And the Big East dominated. After it was picked apart by the ACC for its top football programs (Miami and Virginia Tech, and later Boston College), the Big East went a different way, getting stronger in hoops. They added Marquette, Louisville, and Cincinnati and became a basketball juggernaut. In the 2000s, Madison Square Garden was the focus of conference tournament week. There were more ranked teams than you could fit into the quarterfinals. Connecticut rose and won three national titles from 1999 to 2011. Pitt, which made the NCAAs twice in the '90s, has been there 10 years in a row. Notre Dame made it once in the 1990s, five times from 2000 to '09. Georgetown has been revived under John Thompson III. Jay Wright got Villanova back on track, and Syracuse stayed among the nation's best throughout while winning another national championship. Eight different teams have won a Big East tournament in the last 12 years.
But now it's going to change again. (Or, at least it will once the Panthers and Orange are allowed to leave the Big East, which is sometime in 2018). The ACC will soon be king of college hoops in the East, and its tournament will be must-see TV for four days in early March.