Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Requiem for the New Big East

It took three decades, the deregulation of televised college sports, the explosion of college football, the BCS, raids by the ACC and Big Ten and a devastating smear campaign by ESPN to kill the original Big East.

It took about five months kill the new version.

sad jay wright
When UConn prepared to play Villanova on Saturday in the second round – ugh, third round – of the NCAA Tournament, I was confident. I didn’t think Villanova was any good. But I am usually so very, very wrong in my predictions – examples here and here – that I had driven myself to madness before tip.

As someone who lives two blocks from the Verizon Center, I paid attention to Georgetown only out of curiosity this year. With UConn no longer in their conference, the zombie Big East barely registered to me. I had predicted doom for the conference in the preseason but top 10 rankings achieved by Villanova and Creighton appeared to be proving me wrong.

Then I tried to watch some Big East basketball. I was aghast. The league, well, it wasn’t any good. The elite players, past Doug McDermott, didn’t realize exist. When Memphis played UConn for the first time – a Thursday night affair in FedEx Forum – I was impressed by how athletic and how talented both teams were. When I watched Georgetown play St. John’s, I couldn’t believe either was even on the bubble.

Villanova had been propped up all year on the basis of a win against Kansas…in November…in a casino hall. Everyone pointed to that as validation for them, not their complete inability to compete with Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Creighton? I saw Creighton lose to my alma mater, GW, over Thanksgiving. Creighton and Villanova were good. But they were mid-major good, not traditional Big East good.

Ah, that word, “mid-major,” we’ll revisit that.

So when Villanova and UConn tipped off, I was alternately confident and scared to death. When Villanova took a 10-point lead as Shabazz Napier hit the bench with two fouls, I feared the worst. I turned on the classic Wisconsin/Oregon game and tried to talk myself off from the ledge.

There would be no need to. Because once UConn defended the three-pointer, the game was over. Villanova had nothing. They were a plucky 11 seed, not a true 2 seed. They didn’t score a field goal on 15 (!!) straight possessions. They scored only three two-point field goals deep into the second half.

As the game wore on, it became readily apparent that UConn wasn’t just a better team – they were a far superior team. If Napier doesn’t face foul trouble and an injury, it’s likely that UConn wins by 20 or more.

The Villanova loss came as part of a truly awful few days for the conference, as its house of cards has been exposed.

Buzz Williams left Marquette for Virginia Tech, the worst team in the ACC. Chris Mack, Xavier head coach, is linked to the Wake Forest and Boston College jobs. Shaka Smart was rumored for the Marquette job, which was met with mock derision on Twitter and a subsequent denial from Shaka.

After Villanova’s painful loss, Creighton was wiped right off the floor by Baylor in a game that was a fitting end to the conference’s first season. You know, 3 seeds aren’t supposed to lose by 30 to anybody.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Sports Media Watch compiled the ratings for every college basketball game this season and we finally had proof of how far the Big East had fallen. Hopping into bed with Fox Sports 1 had essentially erased the conference from the national consciousness. 9 of the 10 lowest rated games of the entire season featured the Big East. Big East games rated roughly the same as Atlantic 10 and Ivy League games on NBCSN.

What was the point of this conference again?

The new Big East formed to the delight of college basketball purists who loathed the fact football now ran college athletics. They had a valid gripe, but they backed the wrong horses.

Teams in the new Big East have combined to win zero national titles in the past three decades. If you remove Butler and its two Brad Stevens-led trips to the title game, the last title game appearance by a new Big East member was by Seton Hall – in 1989!

It’s hard to overstate just how little the Catholic 7, with the exception of Georgetown, means to college basketball. Even Georgetown has fallen into that “Notre Dame football in 2000s” zone where everyone wants them to be good, but every year they fail to be relevant.

As we look ahead to Year 2 of the conference, I pose a simple question – what’s the difference between the new Big East and the West Coast Conference, other than location? They are both 10-team leagues, made up mostly of religious institutions that do not play football, with the exception of BYU. They are solid to good basketball leagues that will get 2-4 teams in the NCAA Tournament ever year. The WCC has Gonzaga, the new Big East has Villanova.

There is nothing wrong with being the top mid-major in the country – the Atlantic 10 just got 6 teams in the tournament – but there is something wrong with not accepting this.

ryan boatright happy
The biggest problem with the new Big East is that it lacks a true standard bearer. The proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. We saw in year one of the American Athletic Conference what that can mean to a conference. With UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati, the AAC has the surprising strength of three annual Top 20 programs and benefitted from the one-year stopover of Louisville.

So what happened? SMU, led by Larry Brown, turned its program around. Houston is apparently looking at Kelvin Sampson. USF is about to hire Manhattan’s coach, a Rick Pitino protégé and one of the hottest young names in the coaching profession.

The AAC and the Big East are two ships passing in the night. The AAC, shackled by zero expectations, is proven and poised to remain a basketball power. The Big East, weighed down by massive expectations, has zero teams in the Sweet 16 and coaches are fleeing. Is there any doubt recruits with follow?

It seems almost cruel that the ACC is coming to Brooklyn for its tournament. I joked that the Big East Tournament was the second best one in NYC this year, with the Atlantic 10 in the Barclays Center. In 2017 and 2018, no one will be joking.

In college athletics, perception is reality. The reality is that the Big East wasn’t very good this year. The perception is that they don’t matter anymore.

I’ll finish this post the same way I started one in November:

You have to wonder what Georgetown is thinking.

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1 comment:

  1. Great piece. New Big East is a joke.

    Do you think they'll even stay in MSG? Has to suck for MSG that Brooklyn gets the ACC and they're stuck with this league.

    ReplyDelete