What a difference a year makes
The Garden is still the The Garden but it will be a little different for the next four days. Memphis knows how to host basketball tournaments but the town has never hosted a conference tournament like this one.
It was March 8, 2013, when the Big East conference announced its formal plans of separation. The seven Catholic schools in the league, many of which had been with the league since its inception in 1979, would break away to form their own basketball-centric conference. The remaining schools would navigate their own way through the maze of national conference realignment.
It’s been 369 days since the reconfigured Big East and the new American Athletic Conference, which didn’t have its name at that time, were born.
The two leagues kick off their conference basketball tournaments Wednesday, the Big East in its traditional home at Madison Square Garden in New York and the American playing at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
Xavier was playing in the Atlantic 10 last season but is the third seed in the Big East this year and will play No. 6 Marquette Thursday night. Cincinnati, which was a member of the Big East the past eight seasons, is the top seed in the American after sharing the inaugural conference title with Louisville. The Bearcats are waiting for the outcome of tonight’s Central Florida-Temple game to see who they will face Thursday night.
There is a bigger picture when it comes to the overall landscape of college athletics, a picture that isn’t clearly defined yet, but for the next few days when that landscape can focus simply on the basketball court, things are okay with both leagues.
"I know it’s everybody’s job to ask about it but I think there will be great excitement in Memphis," said UC head coach Mick Cronin. "I know there’s not going to be a conference tournament with three better players."
Cronin was referencing his own senior guard Sean Kilpatrick as well as senior guards Russ Smith of Louisville and Shabazz Napier of Connecticut. Five of the 10 teams in the American are ranked in this week’s Top 25 coaches’ poll: Louisville (5), UC (12), Memphis (19), UConn (21) and Southern Methodist (23). All five are expected to be playing in next week’s NCAA tournament but a good weekend in Memphis will only help their seeding.
"For those of us who only have to play three games, it’s going to be three quality wins in a row you’re going to have to have, which is not easy," said Cronin. "At the end of the day, execution will decide who wins it. I think everybody in this league plays pretty hard and I know everybody is extremely well-coached in our conference. It’s about players rising to the occasion and we’ve got some great players in this league. I expect the level of play to be high in Memphis."
UConn coach Kevin Ollie played in the Big East as a member of the Huskies from 1991-95. He helped UConn win a pair of Big East titles his junior and senior seasons and he was a third-team all-conference pick as a senior. This will be his first time playing or coaching in a conference tournament away from MSG and he’ll get to do it against host Memphis on Thursday.
"I know Memphis is a great town, a great basketball town but being in Madison Square Garden where more of our fans could get there has always been a treat, it’s been a luxury that we’ve had for a long time," said Ollie. "Memphis is going to be a great crowd. It’s going to be sold out. It’s a great town to host it. I’m really looking forward to it. You can’t go back and look at the past. Our future is ahead of us and the future is in Memphis. Hopefully we can go out there and get the first tournament title starting this week."
The Big East members have been beating up on one another all season, which has left them in a strange position. The analytics of basketball say that the Big East is the fourth-best conference in the country from top to bottom with Villanova and Creighton leading the way. Creighton’s Doug McDermott is the leading candidate for national player of the year honors no matter who is handing them out.
Villanova and Creighton will be playing with high seeds next week. Everyone else, including Xavier, is fighting to ensure a spot in the tournament.
"We all know there are so many permutations with teams that get in the tournament and it can happen so many ways that I just kind of feel that the numbers will play out," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "If Butler and Seton Hall are the two bottom teams in our league, there is no one in the country that would want to play one of those teams for a one-and-done game. I just think it’s a very unique year and I think the numbers will play out."
Georgetown won the Big East regular season title last year. The Hoyas have non-conference wins against Kansas State, Virginia Commonwealth and Michigan State as well as having beaten Creighton and Xavier within the league this season but still finished seventh in the regular season.
"I’ve said this from day one, that once the dust settles — and everyone goes through growing pains in year one — but we’re one of the better basketball conferences in the country," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "I don’t know if there are too many teams across the country that want to play the teams at the bottom or middle part of the Big East."
Xavier had a streak of seven straight tournament appearances snapped last year but has gone 20-11 this season, including a 10-8 record in the Big East. The Musketeers have wins against Creighton, Georgetown and Providence in conference as well as beating UC and Tennessee outside of the league. A win against Marquette would likely secure an NCAA bid. Head coach Chris Mack thinks that shouldn’t be in question but he’s not on the selection committee.
"This league is a lot better than is given credit for," said Mack. "I find it really ironic that Doug McDermott statistically is one of the greatest players to ever play college basketball and yet he’s shown on SportsCenter about as often as Frisbee golf is shown. But yet if Tim Tebow were announcing that he’s coming back to the NFL as an offensive coordinator, it would be every single story. It would take up every second of airspace on SportsCenter. And so one man’s opinion — the Big East may be losing the PR battle but we have teams that are deserving of the NCAA tournament."
It’s been a long 369 days. A lot has changed. There are still plenty of changes to come in the future when it comes to college conference realignment but for now it’s just a matter of playing games.
"Obviously it will be different," said Cronin. "We won’t have to allot for as much time to get to the games and try to navigate traffic. That will be a plus."