Big East paying for forgetting its roots

Seven schools have decided they aren’t going to take it anymore. Seven schools have decided they can no longer wait around as a once-proud basketball conference crumbles around them.

So they are reportedly breaking free, ending the Big East Conference as we once knew it.

Sure, it’s tough to watch for those who grew up with the Big East of Patrick Ewing, John Thompson III’s dad and Chris Mullin, but that league was gone a long time ago as teams increasingly popped in and out around the margins. Now is not the time to pity the Big East; the league brought this upon itself.

DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova – otherwise known as the Catholic Seven – are on the verge of separating themselves from the football-first schools of the Big East and in doing so, setting themselves up for long-term success.

By acting now and acting together, all seven will obtain security, something that wasn’t guaranteed in the mass chaos of conference realignment that has consumed college athletics.
Just two years ago, the Big East sent a record 11 basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament. Despite adding teams from the Midwest since its 1980s heyday, the league was still the place to be for college basketball.

It’s shocking, but two years later the race to become a stronger football conference has left the basketball-only schools scrambling to find a life raft. And sticking together, plus possibly adding similar-minded schools Butler and Xavier and even Creighton, Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton or St. Louis is a pretty nice life raft.
The importance of this decision for the schools involved can’t be understated. Though this wasn’t the only option, it is the best-case scenario. It’s not the Big East of old, but the new league will be much better than what was left of the old one. After all, Marquette-Boise State or DePaul-Tulane is a pretty tough sell to basketball fans.

Though much is left to be finalized, fans of the Catholic Seven should be ecstatic. Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova lead a group of some of the most tradition-rich basketball schools in the country. There was no good way to maintain that tradition when Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh jumped ship and the Big East got caught up trying to protect its football brand. So, hello Tulane, and goodbye to schools that wanted to keep basketball front of mind for the conference.

“I was not pleased that we issued an invitation to Tulane without any diligence to what effect that would have on our basketball product, the draw on our RPI and other such things,” Marquette athletic director Larry Williams said in a recent radio interview on ESPN 540 in Milwaukee. “I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to participate as a member of the conference in the deliberation that went into adding that. There might be well articulated and very deep reasons why you would do it otherwise.”

Sorry Tulane, but Williams is spot on. There was no reason for the seven to stick around, especially after rumored television contract figures were as low as $60 million.

And yes, the departing seven all benefited from the conference, but this is certainly not what they signed up for. They are better off on their own, choosing themselves whom to add to what has the makings of a strong basketball conference.

Left behind in all this are Connecticut and Cincinnati. But excuse the Catholic Seven if they feel no pity for their soon-to-be former conference brethren.

Both schools were looking for the easiest exit from the Big East and simply didn’t make it off the boat first. They now sit in the same boat the Catholic Seven would have been in if they hadn’t joined together — stuck in a below-average conference with no immediate way out.

Of course, questions still remain. Who gets the Big East name? Will the new league get to keep its postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden? Which schools will round out the conference? Xavier, Butler and some of the aforementioned others seem like a natural fit, but how big will it grow? And how quickly will the lawyers settle the details in court?

One thing is for sure: When the dust settles, the Catholic Seven will be happy with their decision. NCAA rules will allow the new league to keep its automatic tourney berth because the minimum of seven teams have played together for at least five years. Prior NCAA Tournament earnings will carry over from the Big East to the new conference. This really was a no-brainer.

Maybe Dave Gavitt, the founder of the Big East Conference, is looking down angrily, watching his league fall apart, but maybe, just maybe, he’s smiling instead, knowing that there’s at least one conference out there that is putting basketball first again.

Follow Andrew Gruman on Twitter.