Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Villanova picked fourth in Big East men's basketball preseason poll as famed conference is reborn

Villanova men´s basketball head coach Jay Wright chats with reporters at Big East media day. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Villanova men's basketball head coach Jay Wright chats with reporters at Big East media day. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

NEW YORK – Technically, the Big East was reborn on July 1.

Officially, the Big East's first athletic contest in its new era was a men's soccer game between St. John's and Boston University on August 20.

But spiritually, let the record show that the Big East truly came back to life on October 16. For at its core, the Big East is a basketball league. On Wednesday, the conference returned its spotlight to the sport it cherishes most, as its annual media day set the stage for the coming season.

Villanova was picked fourth in the preseason ranking, behind Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton. But unlike most preseason media gathering, the poll results weren't the big news.

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  • The story was that the Big East exists in the first place, and has begun its quest to return to national prominence.

    "We are going to set out to do everything [Big East founder] Dave Gavitt set out to do when he brought this league into being in 1979," new Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. "We are going to make this basketball conference a force."

    In the Big East's heyday, its media day was a grand affair. Teams and observers from the entire Eastern seaboard congregated at Madison Square Garden, and later the New York Athletic Club, to prepare for the new campaign.

    Wednesday's festivities, held at Chelsea Piers, certainly weren't as large as past years' gatherings. The affair felt familiar, but also more familial.

    The story of how the league fell apart has been well-told. Virginia Tech and Miami left first, in 2004, followed by Boston College a year later. Those departures were made up for with the addition of five teams in 2005 - most notably Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette.

    But a 16-team conference proved too big to sustain, and the most recent losses proved too big to bear. The departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame were the straws that broke the back of a league long renowned as an anchor of the nation's hoops elite.

    So the basketball schools divorced themselves from their football brethren, the former taking the Big East name and the latter creating the American Athletic Conference.

    The Big East now is composed of 10 schools. Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette and DePaul have been joined by Butler, Creighton and Xavier.

    It was impossible to miss the absence of personalities from the old Big East's heyday. Famous characters such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Louisville's Rick Pitino were nowhere to be found.

    Coincidentally – or perhaps not – those two Northeastern bluebloods spent the day south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Boeheim was at the Atlantic Coast Conference's media day in Charlotte, N.C., and Pitino was at the American Athletic Conference's festivities in Memphis.

    They were there because of football. The Big East schools were in New York because of basketball, and they intend to keep it that way.

    "We've gone back to the Big East's roots - this is going to be a basketball conference at the core," Ackerman said, "I don't have anything negative to say about football, but I'm a basketball-head like you are."

    Fox Sports' Gus Johnson, who will team up with Bill Raftery as the network's top Big East broadcast crew, made the point even more strongly.

    "We don't have to worry about football, the competition [for attention] from football, whatever football is doing - and all the money they're wasting on that side," Johnson said with a trademark burst of enthusiasm. "We can just worry about basketball, the game that we love, the game that keeps us warm on those cold winter nights. This is going to be something to see."

    Ever since the split – and indeed, before it – there have been questions as to whether the new Big East can continue to stand among the nation's best college basketball conferences.

    Ackerman acknowledged that those questions are fair to ask. But not surprisingly, she believes in her conference's product.

    "That's why I took this job," she said. "There's no doubt, I think, that the eyes of the basketball world and others in college sports are definitely on the league. But I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation."

    Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said keeping the Big East at a high level will require its member schools "to keep the foot on the gas."

    "At the end of the day, it's productivity," he said, "We need to be in a position where schools in this conference, and a number of them, win games, get to the [NCAA] tournament and advance in the tournament. The proof is in the pudding at the end of the day, and I think we can do that."

    Plenty of non-football conferences have shown an ability to land multiple NCAA bids in recent years. The Big East's name recognition should help its teams build strong non-conference schedules, a task which has challenged other leagues at times. 

    If the Big East can deliver in November, it's more likely to deliver in March. Villanova's Jay Wright knows that as well as anyone, as the Big 5 round-robin always boosts the Wildcats' early-season slate.

    There's good reason for Big East fans to be optimistic.

    As Ackerman said, the conference has returned to its roots by anchoring itself in big cities. The seven "old guard" programs have added three new soul mates in Butler, Creighton and Xavier. All of them fit right in their new neighborhood.

    For Xavier in particular, joining the Big East from the Atlantic 10 is validation of years of hard work at the mid-major level. Indeed, you could argue that the Musketeers' history of March success made them the nation's top basketball program outside the power conferences.

    But making the move up hasn't dimmed coach Chris Mack's amibitions one bit.

    "Validation doesn't come just by being a part of the conference - we want to win the conference," he said. "When we get to that point, that's when the validation will come."

    It says something about the Big East's profile that the Bulldogs are the most likely to struggle in their upgraded surroundings, even though they've reached the national championship game twice in the last five years.

    Five Big East schools play in NBA arenas, including Villanova. Creighton brings a facility of equal size, and routinely fills it. In fact, the Blue Jays had the sixth-highest average attendance in Division I last season. That was higher than Ohio State and North Carolina State, among other big-time programs.

    Leaguewide, every men's basketball venue in the conference seats at least 10,000 fans. But while big games such as Villanova-Georgetown and Creighton-Marquette will draw big crowds, what about the others? And if the buzz cools off, will top recruits in the Big East's big cities come to play in the conference?

    Villanova coach Jay Wright is optimistic, but realistic.

    "That's what we're all counting on," he said. "I don't know where that's going to take us, but I know that for everybody in the basketball world, it's going to be a very comfortable place. Every school, the most important event on campus is going to be the basketball game."

    Wright acknowledged that the Big East's model might not work in other parts of the country. But if it works in his backyard, there's a good chance the conference will succeed.

    "If you're down south, you might be going to football games, but in all the areas where these teams are, there are passionate basketball people," he said. "And that's usually what recruits are - they're basketball junkies - and it's where the recruits are."

    This much is certain, and reassuring: Come March, the Big East tournament will take center stage at Madison Square Garden, the conference's spiritual home. Though some the old Big East's biggest draws won't be there, that could allow fans without booster-sized wallets to watch in person for the first time in years.

    Creighton coach Greg McDermott expects the Blue Jays faithful to flock to Manhattan - and not just because his son, Doug, was named Big East's preseason player of the year. 

    "To have an atmosphere at a conference tournament, it needs to be filled up with fans of member schools," he said. "I'm confident that our fans will turn up in droves."

    But the Garden won't be the Big East's only basketball shrine. Butler's 86-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse is right up there with the Palestra among college hoops' most historic arenas.

    Villanova will open its conference season with a trip to Hinkle on New Year's Eve. Wright is already looking forward to the trip.

    "I'm excited about playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and I know Villanova fans are already talking about going out there on New Year's Eve to see the place," he said. "Who would appreciate a place like that more than basketball junkies from the northeast? These are some of the benefits I think we're going to get from this conference."

    Most important of all, the Big East has a 12-year, $600 million television contract with Fox. Each program is expected to receive around $4 million a year, a substantial increase from the $2 million to $3 million payouts in the old Big East.

    That's plenty of money to go around, and plenty of exposure too. In addition to games on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, the Big East worked out a sublicense deal with CBS. The package will get marquee regular-season games on the over-the-air network, continuing a relationship that dates back to the Big East's earliest years.

    There will also be games on the CBS Sports Network, a coup for a cable channel that has struggled to match its rivals for distribution. CBSSN will have Big East, American, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West games this season. It's a strong hand to play, and it could get the network a higher profile on pay-TV platforms.

    Villanova will make five appearances on CBSSN this season. In total, 32 of the Wildcats' 33 regular-season games will be nationally televised. Most will be on Fox Sports 1, which will also broadcast the Big East tournament in its entirety. Two of Villanova's biggest contests will be on CBS over the air: a December 28 trip to old rival Syracuse and a March 2 home game against Marquette.

    So there are reasons to be optimistic about the Big East. There are reasons to believe its teams will win, and there are reasons to believe its teams will matter.

    It may be stretching the metaphor, but it seemed appropriate that the Big East hosted its media day at a place with a maritime theme. At least for one day, the banks of the Hudson River served as a safe harbor from the football-induced maelstrom that has wrought havoc on college sports.

    Big East Men's Preseason Poll Results

    1. Marquette (74 points, 5 first-place votes)
    2. Georgetown (70 points, 2 first-place votes)
    3. Creighton (61 points, 1 first-place vote)
    4. Villanova, 58 points
    5. St. John's, 56 points (2 first-place votes)
    6. Providence, 41 points
    7. Xavier, 38 points
    8. Seton Hall, 20 points
    9. Butler, 19 points
    10. DePaul, 13 points

    Big East Men's Preseason Honors

    Player of the Year

    Sr. F Doug McDermott, Creighton

    Rookie of the Year

    Fr. G Rysheed Jordan, St. John's 

    All-Big East First Team

    Sr. G Markel Starks, Georgetown
    Sr. G Bryce Cotton, Providence
    Jr. G D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's
    So. G Semaj Christon, Xavier
    Sr. F Davante Gardner, Marquette

    All-Big East Second Team

    So. G Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
    Jr. F JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova
    Sr. F Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall
    Sr. F Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
    Sr. F Jamil Wilson, Marquette
    So. F JaKarr Sampson, St. John's

    All-Big East Honorable Mention

    So. C Chris Obekpa, St. John's
    Sr. F Kadeem Batts, Providence

    Big East Women's Preseason Poll Results

    1. DePaul (79 points, 8 first-place votes)
    2. Creighton (67 points, 2 first-place votes)
    3. St. John's (62 points)
    4. Villanova (56 points)
    5. Marquette (55 points)
    6. Georgetown (36 points)
    7. Butler (31 points)
    8. Providence (25 points)
    9. Xavier (20 points)
    10. Seton Hall (19 points)

    Big East Women's Preseason Honors

    Player of the Year

    Jr. F Brittany Hrynko, DePaul

    Rookie of the Year

    Fr. F Shayla Cooper, Georgetown

    All-Big East Team

    Sr. G Daress McClung, Butler
    So. G Marissa Janning, Creighton
    Jr. G Tori Rule, Providence
    So. G Aliyyah Handford, St. John's
    Jr. G Ka-Deidre Simmons, Seton Hall
    So. G Caroline Coyer, Villanova

    Sr. F Sarah Nelson, Creighton
    Sr. F Jasmine Penny, DePaul
    Sr. F Andrea White, Georgetown
    Sr. F Katherine Plouffe, Marquette

    All-Big East Honorable Mention

    Jr. G Arlesia Morse, Marquette
    Sr. G Ashley Wanninger, Xavier
    Sr. G Eugenia McPherson, St. John's

    Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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