New Big East gets back to its core value: 'Basketball is our religion'

Georgetown head coach John Thompson III instructs his Georgetown head coach John Thompson III instructs his team in the first half against UCLA in the Legends Classic Monday. (Nov. 19, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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When word spread a year ago that basketball-only schools in the Big East were planning to break from the BCS football schools to form a basketball-centric league, they were dubbed the "Catholic Seven." What evolved was a 10-team league that retained the Big East name and an attachment to the history and tradition it represents.

But when someone recently asked Georgetown coach John Thompson III if the new Big East is a comfortable place because nine of its schools are Catholic, the coach made it clear this is no glorified CYO league. With a sly smile, Thompson said: "The identity is basketball is our religion. It's a basketball conference."

Indeed, that priority was the force driving Big East members St. John's, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Marquette and DePaul to seek a return to the league's roots. They strengthened that commitment with the addition of such quality programs as Xavier, Creighton and Butler, the only non-Catholic member.

Basketball is the main revenue-producing sport. Thanks to a 12-year deal with Fox Sports worth a reported $500 million, they'll earn more than $4 million per school each season, exceeding their take in the old Big East, where the big table was reserved for football schools.

Big East schools no longer are subject to the instability associated with football-driven conference realignment. It doesn't mean they don't have to worry about BCS football leagues one day grabbing a lion's share of the NCAA Tournament pie, but at least, Big East members share a common purpose as basketball-first schools representing metropolitan areas in major television markets.

"I have much more confidence in the fact we have a stable conference," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "There's still a lot of change in college athletics that is going to happen, not just realignment but in football playoffs or whether you're going to pay players or add to the value of a scholarship, a lot of change.

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"But to know we're all going to be together and we all have the same philosophy and it's about basketball, I have a lot of confidence in that. Everything else, we'll let it play out."

By breaking from the football schools, most of which rebranded as the American Athletic Conference, the new Big East gave up its designation as a BCS power conference. That might prove damaging at NCAA Tournament time unless the Big East establishes itself as a new kind of "power conference."

"Just because a league has the BCS label, they've still got to come on the court and play us," Thompson said. "And I've got a feeling we're going to win more than we're going to lose."

Despite the risk, others in a similar situation certainly understand the necessity of the move. "Those guys did what they had to do," said Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, who took his school to a Final Four as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association but moved last year to a stronger basketball conference in the Atlantic 10. "I think it's going to be fascinating to watch and compare their league and our league. They probably want to distance themselves from us. I'm not saying we're better, but I'm not so sure there's a huge difference."