Delving Into The Competitive Structure of the New Big East

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 17th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

At its humblest origins, the Big East was founded in 1979 behind the fundamental purpose of consolidating the East Coast’s best basketball programs into one competitive league. It began with seven members – Providence, St. Johns, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College – and within the next three years added Villanova (1980) and Pittsburgh (1982). While some of that founding core remains, conference realignment has caused massive changes to the league’s membership. Most of the league hopping – almost all of which can be attributed to football-motivated decisions – has taken place in the 21st century. The latest move saw Notre Dame, who housed its basketball and Olympic sports in the Big East but kept its football independence, declare its intentions to join the ACC. There is no timetable yet for the Irish’s move, but for an athletic program as proud and as financially-supported as Notre Dame, there’s little chance school administrators will linger around in Big East territory for any extended context, even if leaving requires a hefty exit fee. As currently constructed, the Big East will feature a 15-team hoops league in 2012-13. Two years from now, when all the realignment pieces are settled into their new homes, the league will field a decidedly different blend of disparate programs. The hectic realignment frenzy of recent years forced me to research the Big East’s jumbled future membership, an exercise that left me nostalgic about the endless hoops drama the league has produced and discouraged for a bleak future.

A reckless compilation of new programs, the Big East was assembled so that Aresco could present an appealing package to prospective media rights negotiatiors (Photo credit: John P Filo/AP Photo).

Starting in 2013, this is the mixed bag of hoops castoffs the Big East will proudly own: Cincinnati, UConn, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Rutgers, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, South Florida, Temple, Houston, SMU, UCF, and Memphis. That’s assuming Louisville or UConn or Villanova or any other programs that could fill a potential future opening in the ACC (if Notre Dame joins as a full member, or if commissioner John Swofford looks to add a 16th basketball-only member) don’t jump ship before then. It’s hardly the grizzled band of geographically-fitting programs we once knew, the one with the hostile rivalries and legendary coaches and highly-appealing hard-nosed brand of hoops. But it’s merely life in the new Big East, the latest example of the detrimental and usually unintended byproducts of conference realignment. A league brought together for basketball purposes was largely undone by the allure of football money. Lest I digress on the evils of conference realignment (a column for another day), the reality – that the Big East, from a basketball standpoint, is now a shell of its former self – warrants a reassessment of the league’s power structure and its future standing among other power conferences. SI.Com’s college hoops’ analytical extraordinaire, Luke Winn – in response to new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco’s comment that, despite realignment-related losses, “We’re still the strongest top-to-bottom basketball conference in the country” – quantified the Big East’s realignment efficiency rate and found the reconfigured league to be the “weakest top-to-bottom major conference, not the strongest.”

The numbers paint a grim picture, to be sure. But the damage transcends collective win-loss records or NCAA Tournament bids. The Big East has not only lost arguably two of its best teams. It has lost the hoops-focused identity that prompted its very founding. There is no sense of geographical unity or name-brand affiliation with this transnational mixture of diverse programs. It’s a potpourri of buoyant mid-majors hoping to make their mark in the power-conference world, plus a few holdovers left out of the realignment flow thanks to their lack of an FBS football program. Some of the migrants have enjoyed sporadic bouts of success, but the league as a whole no longer carries the tradition or exalted character it had for so many years.

The Big East, like other basketball leagues, was once defined by a distinct competitive pecking order. There were hierarchical tiers in the conference’s power structure: the super-elite, the strong-willed bourgeouis, the fluid middle pack, and the bottom feeders. These distinctions helped substantiate the Big East’s national status. The groups (and the standards of entry for those groups) would fluctuate in any given year, but the ranks and divisions remained largely the same over time. Programs retained their status due to a number of factors – recruiting, location, history, coaching, you name it. There were no specific criteria for something so arbitrary. It was more about cachet, about aura, about perception. This drawn-out explanation suggests just how indefinable and invented my categorical structuring really is, but I think you get the idea. Case in point: There’s just something about Syracuse basketball that elevates it above Rutgers basketball. It’s not just the NCAA Tournament track record of success or the Hall of Fame head coach on the sideline. There’s that certain je ne sais quoi with the Orange, something indescribable that Rutgers simply doesn’t have.

That arbitrary structure will undergo a massive revamping in the coming years, and while it’s difficult to predict how the newcomers will take to their new company, I’ve come up with a completely invented and wholly fickle structuring of the nouveau-Big East. This, I remind you, is entirely subjective, and should be taken as nothing more than an opinion-based ordering of basketball programs. What follows, then, is my most modest effort to try and make sense of a new, bizarre Big East conference.

  • Elite: Louisville, Georgetown, UConn
  • Challengers: Villanova, Marquette, Temple, Memphis, Cincinnati
  • The rest: UCF, South Florida, Providence, DePaul, Rutgers, SMU, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Houston

What’s important here isn’t as much the categories themselves – this, remember, is a fabricated ordering of teams, and you may very well have your own ideas for how each team should fit in the Big East’s new pecking order – as it is the sheer lack of national appeal within the conference’s ranks. The only additions that, on paper at least, increase the Big East’s competitive value are Memphis and Temple. But the realignment reshuffling has robbed the Big East of many of its incipient participants, the programs that made the Big East the Big East. It’s not just the geographical oddity of the new membership that feels out of touch. The pieces just don’t fit. In the midst of its realignment deterioration, the Big East scrambled desperately to fill its membership. It grabbed a handful of spunky mid-majors, programs looking for a chance to insert themselves in the power-conference landscape. While the new ingredients could coalesce into an interesting and altogether more enticing competitive selection, it’s safe to say the league would have preferred its old membership. The newcomers were salvaged in a last-ditch effort to gain security in advance of the league’s crucial media rights negotiations this fall. The Big East needed stability, and so it signed on with the best programs it could find. These are the programs that league administrators believed gave the Big East the most leverage – given its hasty timetable, and its football-first desires – in the upcoming television deal, not the programs that will salvage the Big East’s basketball brand. For years basketball was without doubt the Big East’s flagship. Conference realignment has destroyed that ideal. With all due respect, Mr. Aresco, the new Big East is not the “strongest top-to-bottom basketball conference in the country.” In fact, far from it.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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