New Big East gets back to its core value: 'Basketball is our religion'
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.
"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."
Smart added that the term "mid-major" is becoming outdated because of the NCAA Tournament success of so many non-BCS schools, and certainly, the Big East schools would reject that description. Xavier coach Chris Mack, whose school left the A-10, said the new Big East has earned its credibility on par with the top conferences in the country.
Comparing the Big East with the A-10, Mack said, "From top to bottom, this is a much better conference. It's not even close. The resources that every program puts into their basketball program, the national exposure FoxSports1 is going to give this conference and our conference tournament is at Madison Square Garden. It's apples and oranges."
The Midwest schools that were added bring Creighton's 17,000-seat CenturyLink Center, Xavier's 10,000-seat Cintas Center and Butler's fabled 10,000-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse. "As you look through the top 10 in attendance in the country, Creighton jumps out as No. 6," Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. "It's a special place, and it will be fun for the nation to hear our story through Fox Sports."
Some coaches who worried about how the new Big East might be perceived made sure to play a hard non-conference schedule to build a strong RPI rating, one of the key components to making the 68-team NCAA field.
"This year, we have way overscheduled," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "If we play really well in the non-conference, we may have a better seed than we've ever had because of what we scheduled in November and December."
But the toughest part is from January to mid-March, when Big East teams play a full 18-game round-robin. Surveying the coaches around him recently at Big East media day, Thompson said: "I'm just as scared sitting here this year as I was last year. You have some of the best programs in the country. Big East basketball is still going to be Big East basketball."