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The New Big East

November 5, 2003 Columns No Comments

The New Big East

by Michael Ermitage

Like a boxer entering the ring to “Cop Killer,” the new Big East is sauntering into the college basketball landscape with a significant swagger in its step. This is thanks to the addition of five schools to the conference (Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, South Florida), added to replace the three schools (Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech) pilfered by the greedy ACC. Speaking solely in basketball terms, the three-for-five trade was the equivalent of George Bell for Sammy Sosa. If this were the World Series of Poker, the Big East would be sitting with a full house and would be “all in.”

The traditional powerhouse conferences have to be looking over their collective shoulder, trying to get a handle on how good is this new basketball-heavy Big East. Preliminary reports have the Big East dividing itself into two divisions. The West division will feature Notre Dame, Marquette, DePaul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and South Florida. The East division would include Syracuse, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, Rutgers and UConn. Some speculation is that the behemoth 16-team conference will eventually split into two conferences, one consisting of just basketball-playing schools and the other forming with basketball and football-playing schools. But at this point, that is all heresy and rumor. The facts that remain now is that the ACC bullied its way to three new members so that it can benefit financially from a championship football game. This move simultaneously took the mojo right out of Big East football placing it in a position to lose its coveted spot as a BCS-member conference. And like a short guy in a bar, the Big East responded with a surly attitude. First, Syracuse mercilessly hammered departing Boston College in football, and then UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun stated he never wanted to play BC in basketball again. Finally, the Big East added its five schools and all but declared itself the best basketball conference in college basketball.

But is it? Let’s see how it measures up.

Since March is king in college basketball, we’ll start there. I’m no superstat guru like Rob Neyer or Hoopville’s own Jed Tai, but here are a few that should show us where the new Big East stands.

NCAA Appearances (1998-2003)
Big Ten 35 (53%)
New Big East 34 (35%)
SEC 33 (46%)
Big 12 31 (43%)
New ACC 27 (45%)
Pac-10 35 (53%)
*Percentage is number of bids received/number of bids possible

While the New Big East has definitely held its own in regards to invitations to the tournament among its 16 members, it ranks last in percentage of possible bids fulfilled in that six-year time period.

But getting invited to the tournament and actually winning games are two completely different issues. Let’s see how each of the major conferences fared in these tournaments.

NCAA Tournament Wins (1998-2003)
Big Ten 62 (65%)
New ACC 54 (67%)
New Big East 53 (62%)
SEC 45 (58%)
Pac-10 44 (62%)
Big 12 42 (58%)
*Percentage is winning percentage in NCAA tournament games

In terms of NCAA tournament wins and winning percentage, the New Big East ranks in the middle of the pack. Certainly very recent history, such as last year, would point to the Big East as being as good as any conference. It sported the NCAA champion in Syracuse, the NIT champion in St. John’s, and landed three teams in the Elite Eight, and two in the Final Four. It had four teams in the AP Top 15 entering the NCAA Tournament last season.

But is that success an indication of things to come, or just a hiccup, before the New Big East relaxes back into its middle-of-the-road big conference status. Its additions are a mixed bag. Cincinnati has dominated every conference it has ever entered, but has underachieved in March, allowing doubters to point out that the Bearcats can dominate lesser competition but struggle against the so-called “Big Boys.” Louisville and Rick Pitino seem on the cusp of a resurgence, but have yet to do more than tease its loyal following with a couple of undeserved high rankings. Marquette shocked the college basketball world last March and became the first C-USA team to ever reach the Final Four. But without standouts Dwayne Wade and Robert Jackson, coach Tom Crean will have a difficult chore proving last season wasn’t an anomaly. DePaul is only a shred of what it once was under Ray Meyer, and is still waiting to see if Dave Leitao can earn the school’s third NCAA tournament berth in the last 12 years. South Florida barely registers on the college basketball radar.

That group joins a host of Big East schools that enjoyed better times years ago. Georgetown has sputtered since John Thompson left. Villanova is still best known for its miraculous tournament run in 1985. St. John’s had a brief upturn in the late ’90s but has mostly scuffled since 1980. The Red Storm has won more than two tournament games only three times in the last 23 seasons. Seton Hall has never made a serious tournament run before or since its run in 1989. West Virginia and Rutgers have never been serious players. Pittsburgh’s recent run looks like it might be stymied by losing its coach to UCLA. And Notre Dame has succeeded under Mike Brey, but even making the Sweet 16 last year was a welcome surprise.

The class of the league lies with UConn and Syracuse, as each has won a national title in the last five years.

The 2003-2004 season looks promising, with seven teams in the preseason Top 25 including top-ranked UConn. And if basketball history were currency, the New Big East would be Bill Gates. But the conference will have to perform again in March to fulfill its wont of being the top basketball conference. Certainly the framework is in place for the New Big East to fabulously succeed. It has premiere coaches in Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Bob Huggins, Rick Pitino, and Tom Crean. It plays in some of the largest markets in the U.S. and should easily secure a giant television deal to broadcast those games. Many of its member institutions play in NBA arenas, an attraction to recruits, and an avenue to draw larger crowds.

It’ll be two long years before the conference is even a viable entity. It has plenty of time to perfect its swagger, to put that hop in its step. But it might be a rude few first rounds for the new uber-conference, because there is plenty of quality competition aiming to humor the reconfigured Big East. It may just turn out that the New Big East is just a sheep in wolf’s clothing.


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