Bill Raftery and the Big East basketball renaissance on Fox

Fox analyst Bill Raftery and broadcaster Gus Johnson

Fox analyst Bill Raftery and broadcaster Gus Johnson pose for a photo. (Credit: Handout)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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College basketball is back, James Naismith's enduring gift to cable TV executives desperate to fill long, dark nights with live sports programming.

But this season comes with a twist on the long slog to March: The Big East has returned as a coherent, hoops-centric, mostly Northeastern, mostly Catholic-school entity, rowing against the tide of football-driven realignment.

Securing "Big East" for its name and Madison Square Garden for its tournament were key steps in its back-to-the-future re-emergence, but there was another helpful development for the original made-for-TV conference.

Fox Sports 1, the league's new primary home, had the sense to name Bill Raftery its lead analyst, providing instant credibility and a bridge to the past. It was nice for Raftery, too.

"That was part of the interest from my end, having been there at the beginning and then seen this grow to enormous proportions in stature," he said.

"Football dictated a Band-Aid approach to try to keep the league alive. To see it go back, pick up a piece here and a piece there, aroused my interest, so to speak."

Raftery was the coach at Seton Hall when the Big East was founded in 1979. But for most of its history he has been associated with it as an analyst for CBS and ESPN, becoming one of the sport's most popular voices.

When Fox bought rights to the new/old Big East, it quickly moved to sign Raftery, pairing him with Gus Johnson as its top team. They debuted together last Friday for Boston College vs. Providence, one of 35 to 40 games Raftery will work for Fox.

Bonus: Given Fox's self-appointed mandate as home of sports TV "fun," the playful, catchphrase-spouting Raftery, who is 70 but does not act his age, is a nice fit.

He also will continue to work for CBS, including the NCAA Tournament, a perk he said made his decision to go to Fox easier, calling it "a carrot at the end of the road, being active all season, then doing the tournament for CBS."

Raftery will work Tuesday's Bucknell-St. John's game with Dick Stockton. What does he think of the Red Storm's prospects?

"Judging by the Wisconsin game [an 86-75 loss], trying to find a rhythm is something they'll have to establish, and there's no worse team to start against than Wisconsin," he said. "They're very good at taking apart inexperienced teams.

"But [St. John's] could be really good as the year progresses. To rate them on the early season would be unfair. I think they'll be a factor."

That would help as the conference looks to re-establish itself in the eyes of New York-area fans and media outlets. But everyone in the league is under scrutiny in these early stages.

"The Xavier-Tennessee game [Tuesday], for example, on the surface that's just another win [for Xavier, 67-63], but those kinds of wins are very helpful in reinforcing the public's image of what's going on," Raftery said.

"They may not get 10, nine, 11 teams like they did a few years for the NCAAs. But I think they will get their fair, equitable share, because there are some really strong programs here."

Raftery said Fox's commitment to the Big East reminds him of its early days on ESPN, where the league played a key role in the evolution of a new media entity.

"The nice thing for everybody is that it's the only college conference they have total rights to," he said. "Fox has input into what games they want on, and the league starts with financing, which they didn't have when Dave [Gavitt] started it."

There is one enduring attraction Gavitt did have then, on the Seton Hall bench, and that the conference still has now in a role with considerably more stability than coaching.

"I use the word 'renaissance,' " Raftery said "The rebirth. It's like being there when it started and seeing this thing grow and now being part of it beginning again."