Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TCU: The Savior of Big East Basketball?

It's not a secret that the authors of this blog are from the Northeast, root for things that occur during Eastern Standard Time, and thoroughly enjoy college basketball. And given that we grew up during the era of Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Billy Owens, and Rollie Massimino, we're naturally Big East basketball guys.

Which is why we're finding it a bit unbelievable that a conference where St. John's-Georgetown and Big Monday used to be the biggest things it had going...just added to its roster of schools Texas Christian University, located in the eastern locale of Fort Worth, Texas.

How the hell did we get from Pearl Washington and Dana Barros to Yogi Gallegos? Let's take a trip down memory lane and do a little tracing of the history of the membership of the Big East from the basketball perspective. We'll ignore Temple's brief period as a football whipping boy and the goofy association that the conference has with Loyola-Maryland, and instead focus on how the expansions and changes affected what was originally a pure basketball conference, but now seems to have morphed into an intercollegiate hydra.

1979: Conference is founded with the "Original Seven" teams: Boston College, Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Providence. This sets up a conference that takes its inspiration from the old Amtrak Metroliner corridor, with teams from NYC, Boston, DC, pit stops in Rhode Island and North Jersey along the way, with large schools in the hinterlands joining the equation. When the league started, Georgetown and Syracuse were top-10 schools in basketball, the Carrier Dome was getting built, and Lou Carnessecca was wearing ugly sweaters.

1980: The Metroliner theme picks up as the conference adds Villanova.

1982: Pittsburgh makes the Big East a nice 9-team conference, meaning 16 intraconference games every year. This kicks off 10 years of the conference's heyday, where six of the nine teams make at least one Final Four, UConn has one of the NCAA tournament's signature moments when Scotty Burrell and Tate George beat Clemson on a buzzer beater, and Jerome Lane attends Pitt for 9 straight years.

1991: The Big East creates a football conference, which has only one impact on the basketball league: the perennially crappy Miami Hurricanes now join the league. It takes the Canes about 2 years to win their first league game (over St. John's--I remember the game well because Constantin Popa was prominently featured), and until they get some real players in the late 90's, Miami is essentially the league's doormat. This is something of the wilderness years for the conference where they had no good teams until the late 90's, in large part because the conference institutes a "six foul" rule for conference play and makes the basketball completely unwatchable. In terms of expansion, while Miami isn't particularly close to any of the other 9 schools, it's still on the I-95 corridor, and seems somewhat logical if the conference wants a foothold in the South.

1995: Buoyed by the success of the football conference--and by success, we mean that it didn't close shop in 3 years--the league makes "football only" members West Virginia and Rutgers part of the conference, and allow Notre Dame to join for all sports except basketball. This creates a rather unwieldy 13-team basketball league where the round robin dies. It also means that the conference is now in a second time zone for Notre Dame, though with the exception of Notre Dame and Miami, none of the schools are really geographically awkward.

2001: Virginia Tech goes from football only to basketball also. This makes a goofy 14-team arrangement in two divisions, where two teams don't make the Big East Tournament. It's also another case (like Miami and Rutgers) of adding a basketball team that isn't any good. This arrangement holds up for 4 years until...

The Great Re-organization: In a failed bid to become a relevant football conference, the ACC raids the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech and the somewhat unlikely Boston College bolt for the ACC. The Big East retaliates by grabbing every halfway decent basketball program that lacks a football program of consequence. Come on down Louisville! Step right up Cincinnati! Welcome to the conference Marquette! DePaul and South Florida....well, we need 16 teams!

What has ensued for the last 5 years is a "conference" where the teams are as closely connected as partners in a multinational law firm (that is, only tangentially) and only are guaranteed to "see" each other once a year at the Big East tournaments. The conference declines to make divisions, which would actually make sense and give the league some structure, and instead have the teams finish 1 through 16. With 15 possible opponents but an 18-game conference schedule, there's no guarantee that you'll play any given team in a given year, and the strength of schedule from team to team varies wildly. On top of that, we get a Big East Tournament every year where the bottom 8 seeds have to win five times in five days to win the damn thing. Shockingly, this hasn't happened.

So because of football, what started out as a tight basketball conference for the Metroliner corridor first evolved into a eastern regional league, which has now morphed into a Northeastern sports conglomerate with a bunch of crappy football teams. That at least was the case until yesterday when...

2010: The Big East announces that TCU will join the conference in 2012.

Now look, we all know of the expansion that we've discussed is college football driven. We will completely ignore the fact that until they added TCU, Big East football was about as relevant as MAAC golf: even when Cincinnati went undefeated last year, nobody took them seriously, and they were right not to do so, since Iowa blew their doors off in a bowl game.

But we're circling back to our original question: what does the TCU addition mean for men's basketball, i.e., the original purpose of the conference? Are they actually going to have seventeen teams compete in a "conference" where one school is closer to Phoenix than to Storrs?

We think no. We think the Big East is going to find a 10th football school--be it convincing Villanova to go D-1, or--more probably--getting Central Florida to join, and will bid good day to the non-football schools. Because while there's some money in college basketball, there's no money in the other sports, and the real money is in football.

So assuming Villanova doesn't jump to D-1, who's getting kicked out? Here's the list of schools that would have to find a new home. See if you can identify what these schools have in common:
  • St. John's
  • Seton Hall
  • Georgetown
  • Villanova
  • DePaul
  • Marquette
  • Notre Dame
  • Providence
Yes, besides all being schools with zero football tradition...they're all Catholic schools! Coincidence or not, this could lead to one of the more fortuitous and fun new conferences ever: the Catholic League! Group these schools together, add in two Northeast Catholic schools with rich alum bases--we suggest Holy Cross and Fordham--and you'd have 10 Catholic schools in a basketball conference that would actually be entertaining to watch. They could stage a nice 18-team round robin, and what would be an entertaining tournament. Because as we know, bigger is not better for college basketball conferences.

And if this happened, the fracture would leave behind a Big East conference that all of a sudden becomes a fun, compact basketball league:
  • Cincinnati
  • West Virginia
  • UConn
  • Syracuse
  • Pitt
  • Louisville
  • Rutgers
  • TCU
  • South Florida
  • Central Florida
In short, if the Big East actually does split in half from being too ungainly, we stand to get two really nice basketball conferences. The TCU addition to the Big East may be a huge boon for college basketball.


Teddy said...

I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but including Notre Dame on the "schools with absolutely no football history" list was brilliantly mean.

El Angelo said...

An oversight, but given my animosity towards the Fighting Irish, it's staying.

John M said...

If this sort of split ever happened, there are several Catholic schools who would be MUCH more desirable than Fordham or Holy Cross. Start with Xavier and St. Louis, who have much better programs and play in huge, new arenas - not outdated bandboxes like Fordham and Holy Cross. St. Joes also would be a much better choice.

Anonymous said...

I think Holy Cross would be a great choice bringing in the Boston market left void when BC left. HC has long histories with all of the current members and, in such a league they would be able to recruit better and would be competitive in no time.

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