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The Bigger East

November 6, 2003 Columns No Comments

The Bigger East

by Adam Shandler

I just saw this commercial for a razor with four blades, which one-ups its competitors with only three blades. How soon before we’re shoving our faces into a John Deere wood chipper for the closest possible shave?

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to my argument about the new Big East. Or should we call it the Big East-of-the-Mississippi River? (And should we now call Conference USA Conference Southern Miss?)

To paraphrase what you might have already gleaned from the press, the Big East conference welcomed C-USA defectors Louisville, Marquette, DePaul, Cincinnati and South Florida. The Big East, which by way of football enticements lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC, has created a basketball Frankenstein. The C-USA newbies hop aboard in 2005-06.

Currently, The Big East is a 14-member organization, but come 2005 league membership increases to 16. That’s six more than the average conference and double that of the Ivy and Patriot Leagues.

So is a monster conference good for college basketball? There are several quibbles to be had on the topic. For instance, a good chunk of the best of teams will be herded – or hoarded – into one stable. For a good part of last season five teams from the future Big East were fixtures of the Hoopville Top 25. This bodes a problem for mid-major teams who might find themselves on the bubble when March rolls around. Why? Here’s my out of the box theory: only one Big East Conference champ can be crowned every year for an automatic bid, but you still have a whole bunch of other teams from the conference – ranked and unranked – warranting dance cards. In last year’s tourney six teams from what would be the 2005 Big East made appearances.

Maybe six teams in the dance is not unusual for the current Big East, but will the committee give the conference even more latitude when it becomes the mother of all conferences? Will the committee have less tolerance for the 19- or 20-win mid-major school that – to no fault of its own – didn’t have the beefier schedule?

Then you have to examine the issue of intra-conference play. As of now, the Big East competes with two divisions: an East, featuring powerhouses UConn and Villanova; and a West, glittered by the likes of Syracuse, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Each team plays division opponents twice a season, while games against teams from the opposing division will occur only once. It’s a system that seems to be working even if the West has proven to be the stronger division of late.

But with a 16-team conference, an ugly head may rear itself. In order to get two games with all division rivals scheduled, plus one game each with extra-divisional foes, (that would be 14 games against teams from the same division, plus an additional eight games from the other. That’s almost a full season of 22 games!) teams might have to cut back on out-of-conference games and long preseason tournaments.

If these “Bigger East” teams do make room for all the preseason and non-conference hoopla, then the conference may run into a situation where, yes, each team will play intra-division teams twice, but may have to pick and choose opponents from the other division, like some college football conferences do annually. That means a potentially thunderous contest might never be played in a given year. Wouldn’t you feel stymied if you were begrudged Georgetown-Marquette? Pittsburgh-Cincinnati? Heck, even Syracuse-UConn?

The solution, which may not be popular among fans, is for every Big East school to play each opponent, in-division and out-of-division, just once a year. Unfortunately that doesn’t leave much room for the whole revenge factor and the “We’ll get you when you come to our house” bit, but then again such a format raises the stakes of each game. And, hey, maybe a little one-time-only will be good for the conference. Games will be more marquis, more marketable.

This conference cannibalization in order to build a mega-conference may be a new trend, but it won’t end here. By Darwinian principle, it can’t. C-USA has just been eaten alive, so the league needed to replenish itself. It just went out and got Marshall, Rice, Tulsa, Southern Methodist, and Central Florida. Rice, Tulsa and SMU hail from the WAC. Will it be long before the WAC goes foraging through the NCAA forest looking for new members to join its tribe?

Pretty soon you’ll be down to one conference with a depleted membership peeping mournfully in the night for some companionship. Or, just a three-blade razor looking to slice hair with a fourth…


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