Sizing Up Three Potential New Basketball-Centric Members for the ACCPosted by Chris Johnson on September 13th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
If we’ve learned anything about the recent conference realignment craze, it’s that the two principles governing inter-league swapping – football, television rights deals and the thick crossover between them – have unintended and often detrimental consequences for the parties involved. Case in point: the Big East, unraveled at its foundational core by realignment forces, has seen itself morph from a tightly-knit group of basketball-oriented schools along the northeast corridor with legendary coaches and historic rivalries to a geographically disparate medley of culturally and academically incongruous programs, cobbled together in a last-ditch effort in the hopes of leveraging a lucrative media rights deal this fall. The deterioration has fueled the ACC – much like in the early 2000s, when it poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East – into becoming one of Division I college athletics’ premier power brokers, along with the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. More relevant to this space, the ACC, once all the moving pieces settle into their new league, is poised to field arguably the best compilation of hoops talent we’ve ever seen.
Commissioner John Swofford added another gem Wednesday in Notre Dame, who plans to join the ACC in all sports except football (the Irish will play five games annually against ACC gridiron competition, but maintain their independence). This addition brings the ACC to 15 teams, an unwieldy number that could have nightmarish scheduling implications. Swofford told ESPN.com that the league has no plans to add a 16th member, citing the disruption of football division equality, among other factors. Since the league isn’t divided into divisions for basketball, there is no immediate impetus to add another team, but it stands to reason that the ACC will eventually look to move to an even number of hoops teams, and what better place to address the problem than the beleaguered, battered, on-life-support (ok, maybe it’s not that bad) Big East? What follows is a brief analysis of a few potential candidates for that 16th spot, should it open up in the coming years, with an eye toward each team’s purported value from a hoops perspective.
*Unless Notre Dame decides to relinquish its football independence, it would seem unlikely that the ACC will take on another fully engaged football member so as to preserve its current seven-team divisional configuration. This analysis, therefore, is limited only to basketball-centric schools without major football programs.
The foundation of the Big East conference was prompted by a collective desire to bring together some of the East Coast’s best basketball schools. Villanova joined in 1980, just one year after the league’s inception, and it has since exemplified the league’s foundational mission. A basketball school through and through, the Wildcats would bring another hoops powerhouse with the means and will to challenge the likes of Syracuse, North Carolina, Duke, NC State, Notre Dame and Maryland in the top ranks of ACC competition. Coach Jay Wright has long held a reputation for being a better recruiter than coach, but for the purposes of building lasting success, that’s hardly a terrible reputation to have. While superior tactical wisdom may have produced a few more NCAA Tournament wins, it’s obvious Wright has no problems effectively persuading some of the nation’s top high school talents. The Wildcats are in the midst of a minor rebuild, and may very well miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year after qualifying in seven consecutive seasons (2005-11). But with Wright’s recruiting, plus an established track record, it won’t be long before the Wildcats are ready to challenge the upper levels of Big East competition.
Academically, Villanova makes an excellent fit in ACC waters. The move would also mark an expansion of the league’s geographic footprint into an untapped but lucrative Philadelphia television market. With Temple’s impending move to the Big East, the Wildcats have added incentive to bolt for the ACC, where its membership in a stronger and more competitive league would provide a recruiting advantage against the other Philadelphia-area schools. The one potential pitfall lies in the Wildcats’ football program, which has been adamant in its desire to make the FCS to FBS leap. The Big East flirted with the idea last April, but revoked its invitation when it found other willing members with more established programs. If it revisits adding the Wildcats into the football mix, that could override Villanova’s desire to flock to a more enticing basketball league. Still, the potential exists for a productive marriage. The ACC could add another contender to its hoops super-league; Villanova knows the Big East lost most of its hardwood luster to realignment-related defections. It just plain works.
In what’s quickly gaining rightful consideration for the now watered-down title of “best Big East basketball program,” Georgetown has parlayed its illustrious coaching history and NBA-talent-producing ways into a nationally revered East Coast hoops brand. The Hoyas are the unofficial flagbearers for DC-area basketball, with high-ranking congressional officials sporadically making their way to the Verizon Center to catch John Thompson III’s squad in action. While it has just two conference championships in the past decade, Georgetown has finished with an above-.500 record in conference play in every season but one (2008-09) since 2005-06. Thompson has forged strong ties in the fertile DC recruiting grounds, and it’s not hard to figure out why: The Hoyas have consistently groomed high-level NBA players. Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, Jeff Green and Dikembe Mutombo highlight the list.
A founding Big East member, the Hoyas have enjoyed a fruitful existence in the once-proud hoops league. With Memphis and Temple joining the fray, the Big East has added two promising basketball-centric programs, but it’s still a far cry from the unified outfit of hoops powerhouses that joined together more than 30 years ago. The Hoyas lost their longtime rivalry with Syracuse, but can rekindle that riveting series with a move to the ACC. That bitter feud is alluring enough on its own merits to warrant a switch; it would provide yet more intrigue to the league’s already stellar basketball membership. There’s little doubt the Hoyas make a great fit from an academic, cultural and geographic standpoint. One holdup could stem from Maryland’s (or Virginia’s) potential reluctance to add a formidable recruiting challenge in the DC area. These schools already wage prospect-hunting battles for local talent, but mutual membership would intensify the collective bidding wars. There are few East Coast basketball strongholds as consistent and as formidable as Georgetown. The ACC would do well to welcome in an excellent all-around institution, from its nationally-relevant basketball program to its sterling academic stature and everything in-between.
This is no doubt a huge long shot, but stay with me here. Conference realignment holds no geographic limitations; the forces pushing the realignment wheel minimize travel inconvenience and regional disunity. To wit: Boise State, beginning in 2013, will play its football in the Big East and its other sports in the Big West. As outlandish as it sounds, these sorts of geographic mismatches are commonplace in today’s post-realignment world. So it’s not at all crazy to suggest Marquette, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could join the ACC. From a basketball perspective, the ACC would be remiss to not at least kick around the idea. The Golden Eagles have gone .500 or better in conference play every season since joining the Big East in 2005, with seven NCAA Tournament appearances in that span. Coach Buzz Williams has instituted an up-tempo style and recruited specifically to maximize its effectiveness. Last season, with Darius Johnson-Odom running the break and versatile forward Jae Crowder providing interior scoring punch and an efficient mid-range game, Marquette made its second straight Sweet Sixteen. It’s almost impossible to overstate the import of their departures, but Williams has developed the sort of consistency needed to overcome losing star players. The Golden Eagles will keep on churning in the Big East as long as Williams doesn’t leave for a higher-profile job.
Embracing Marquette would give the ACC another Midwestern hoops stronghold, and a natural scheduling tandem with Notre Dame. It made a seamless transition into power-conference hoops territory after a strong run in Conference USA. Making the next step into the nation’s best hoops conference (pending realignment finality) would only propel its ongoing emergence as one of the Midwest’s premier programs. It holds longstanding rivalries with two soon-to-be ACC teams, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, and regularly ranks among the nation’s leaders in attendance despite having just over 8,000 undergraduate students. The ACC embraced the Midwest – and all the logistical underpinnings it entails – by adding Notre Dame. Marquette is less intriguing in more ways than one, but with a rabid hoops fan base and a proven level of consistency, the Golden Eagles are one of the nation’s few basketball-centric programs whose addition would bring added value to the league’s on-court product.