Big East dying so its teams can live

If your head has been stuck in the sand for the past year and you just popped up to check who the biggest powers are in college basketball this year, it would seem like a banner year for the Big East.

Five Big East teams are ranked in the AP top 25, more than any conference outside the Big Ten. Another five current or former Big East schools are on the cusp of breaking into the top 25. Every team in the Big East has a better than .500 record, something no other conference in college hoops can boast.

A simple glance at the standings obscures the barely-breathing state of Big East basketball. After this weekend’s news that seven Big East Catholic schools voted to leave the conference — capping a year in which top basketball powers Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville also took the first ticket out of town — the Big East is a dead man walking.

Yet at the same time, a new version of the old Big East is being born.

The Big East as we’ve known it has been on life support for a while, but Saturday’s vote by the seven Catholic schools — a belated and admirable show of strength by those left-behind schools, who finally decided to band together and exert their basketball strength — officially pulled the plug.

What’s left of the Big East? When next year’s basketball season starts, the Big East will include one school in the Pacific time zone (San Diego State) and one in the Mountain time zone (Boise State). Next year’s Big East will have more schools in the South (Houston, Southern Methodist, Memphis, South Florida, Tulane and East Carolina — not counting Louisville, which will leave a year later) than in New England, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey combined. After Louisville leaves for the ACC in 2014, followed in 2015 by Notre Dame to the ACC plus the seven Catholic schools to a yet-to-be-determined conference, the Big East will be a conference that’s neither “Big” nor “East.”

The genius of what these seven Catholic schools decided to do is that they’re setting the clock back 33 years and re-creating Dave Gavitt’s original Big East dream in the modern college sports marketplace. These schools never had a chance to compete in college sports’ big-dollar game of today where anything other than football is a footnote. So instead of continually being left behind, these basketball-loving schools — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova — are saying they’ve had enough. They’re saying it’s time to start over. Instead of playing by the rules of everyone else, they will create their own basketball-first conference, and, hopefully, their own set of rules.

It will be a place where the original idea of the Big East can live on. It’s getting back to the Gavitt-inspired roots of the Big East, only with a new conference identity attached to it.

“Earlier today we voted unanimously to pursue an orderly evolution to a foundation of basketball schools that honors the history and tradition on which the Big East was established,” the presidents of the seven Catholic schools said Saturday in a joint statement. “Under the current context of conference realignment, we believe pursuing a new basketball framework that builds on this tradition of excellence and competition is the best way forward.”

It was an anodyne statement considering that this was the final nail in the coffin for what was once our nation’s greatest collection of college basketball powers.

This wasn’t just another place where basketball was played. This was 16 Final Four appearances and six national championships. This was Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, Derrick Coleman and Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony. This was Jim Boeheim and John Thompson and Jim Calhoun and Lou Carnesecca. This was Syracuse and UConn going six overtimes, and Kemba Walker dashing UConn through the Big East tournament and to a national title.

One of the most painful ironies in modern-day college sports is that a conference founded 33 years ago to be a basketball power will be felled by the realization that today’s college sports revolves instead around football and the money that comes with America’s favorite sport.

The biggest mistake the Big East made? Not anything that happened in the past few hectic and disorienting years of conference realignment. Its fate was set in motion in 1991, when Big East programs started playing football for the first time. That was when the Big East began trying to be something it wasn’t.

Yes, the Big East may survive in name, with schools like East Carolina and Tulane replacing longtime Big East basketball powers Georgetown and Syracuse. But the seven Catholic schools, when they strike out on their own, will take the lineage of the Big East with them. People are already dreaming of other Catholic basketball powers joining up: Xavier and Gonzaga, Butler and Creighton. Do this and these seven schools will take Gavitt’s basketball-first dream of the Big East and improve on it. With luck and a basketball-first mentality, the new Big East — or whatever these Catholic schools decide to call their conference — could even improve on the old Big East.

The Big East is dead.

Long live the Big East.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com