NCAA BK

Big East newcomers drop the 'mid'

Image: Big East school presidents (© Bebeto Matthews/AP)
Big East school presidents gather to announce the league's new alignment.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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CINCINNATI

The First Four was being played up the road in Dayton, the NCAA tournament proper was starting the next day down the road in Lexington, but Xavier University’s basketball team was stuck in between. The Musketeers were at home Wednesday, left out of the Big Dance for the first time since 2005.

So why was everyone here smiling?

In the upstairs ballroom at the Cintas Center, the high-major arena that’s the home of the mid-major darling Xavier Musketeers, the school’s fight song was blaring. A cheer squad pumped up the audience of some 1,000 Xavier fans. Head coach Chris Mack beamed in the front row as a message from the school’s president played on a video screen.

Forget a bid to the NIT. This was the ultimate consolation prize in what has been a disappointing basketball seasons at Xavier: The school officially is going to the New Big East.

The worst-kept secret in college hoops became official on Wednesday, as Xavier, Butler and Creighton joined the seven private, Catholic, basketball-focused schools that will make up the Big East 2.0 starting next year. The announcement of a 12-year television deal with FOX Sports was announced with much hoopla in a televised news conference.

It’s easy to be cynical about big-time college sports, but don’t be cynical here, especially if you’re a basketball fan. All this hoopla was deserved. In the midst of football-driven realignment that’s decimated college basketball’s traditional conferences and rivalries, the new version of the Big East — officially named the New Big East until July 1, when licensing restrictions will allow it to be called just the Big East — marks the first time basketball-focused schools have purchased their own bus and hopped into the driver’s seat. And their bus will head toward Madison Square Garden, where the new version of the Big East will hold its conference tournament starting next season.

"We applaud all the Big East schools for taking responsibility for their own destiny and forming what is clearly one of the top college basketball leagues in the country,” said FOX Sports Media Group co-president and COO Randy Freer. “The quality of the competition is obvious. Five teams who will play in the renewed Big East next season are playing in this year’s NCAA tournament, and seven qualified for postseason play overall.

"We’re extremely proud and fortunate to offer college basketball of this caliber on FS1 next season and for many seasons to come.”

It was the culmination of a courting process for the private schools that wanted to be a part of the new Big East party. And it hearkened back to more than three decades ago, when Dave Gavitt had the crazy idea of getting a bunch of East Coast schools together for a great college basketball conference centered in urban markets.

Sure, it’s about money. It’s also about survival, of these schools’ athletic programs as well as of college basketball at non-football schools.

"That’s what started all of this realignment, is what football schools are chasing the money, what football schools can get in the right cable viewership package, what conference commissioners can figure out fiscally what’s the best long-term solution,” said Marquette head coach Buzz Williams, one of the seven schools to break off into this new conference.

“I think that’s eventually what happened to what’s now the new Big East. Those presidents and ADs said, 'Hey, that’s not enough; we’re not even in that conversation. Let’s get together with some people that have the same institution, the same situation, the same commitment (to basketball) that we do.' ”

While the official announcement is great news for schools like Georgetown and Marquette, it’s paradigm-shifting news for the three schools that were more recently added. Xavier, Butler and Creighton have long wanted to be considered one of the big boys. Instead, they’ve always been the kings of the little boys, the mid-major darlings who hated being put into that limiting category.

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"It is a great long-term move from the marketing standpoint of not only the athletic program but the school,” Butler University head coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday in Lexington, a day before his team would play Bucknell in the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament. “The markets that we’re getting a chance to be associated with obviously speak for themselves.

“It’s been an unbelievable 13 years (since beginning as a Butler assistant coach),” Stevens continued. “To think about some of the places we’ve been and some of the places we’re going is kind of mind-boggling. And being in the middle of it, I just tried my best to focus on our team. And I know that sounds boring, but if I didn’t, man, I could be pretty distracted right now.”

Xavier needn’t worry about distractions. Its season is over, but the Musketeers now have something to look forward to: the type of acceptance that comes with being part of a large, stable conference, which is something this school has hoped for for decades.

“It’s about understanding the national level universities that we are now going to be in the mix with,” Xavier provost Scott Chadwick said. “The heart and soul of Xavier has not changed one bit. Who we are, and how we will act has not changed one bit. We are still Xavier.

"What will have changed that is the rest of world will have awakened a bit and say, ‘You are Xavier. You are a national university.’ ”

And even though the Musketeers will be watching March Madness from their couches, Xavier still had something big to celebrate.

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

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