New Big East begins new tournament TV identity

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

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

The Big East men's basketball tournament should not be difficult to find this week. It will be contested where it has been every year since 1983: Madison Square Garden.

But for many fans, finding it on their televisions might be a bit of a challenge -- or at least an adjustment.

ESPN? Not anymore. CBS? Um, no. The new-look conference has a new TV home, Fox Sports 1, which like other cable sports outlets, counts on attractive live events such as this to put it on the crowded media map.

"The most important thing is for people to know where it is," said Gus Johnson, the lead play-by-play man for the tournament. "It's just going to take some time. But eventually, sports fans, they find their teams. They find live events.

"Once they do that, over the course of time, it is going to be fun, and it is going to be a station fans can go to as a different choice."

FS1's credibility will be helped immensely by the A-list announcing crew it has deployed for the seven prime-time games Wednesday through Saturday: Johnson, analyst Bill Raftery and reporter Erin Andrews.

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All three are hugely popular, including in social media and among young fans. Johnson and Raftery have shown over about 20 games this season that their distinctive approaches blend just fine.

"I think our styles mesh because we're both guys that just love the game of college basketball," Johnson said. "We are both excitable, and Coach is so knowledgeable. It's my job to set him up to do his thing and just kind of pick my spots like a point guard and get it to the big fella."

Johnson already had been working for Fox before the Big East reconstituted itself around non-football-playing (primarily) Catholic schools. Fox then wisely went after Raftery.

"They brought Raf in and it was just serendipity to have a partner like Bill who I have known so long who I really get along with famously," Johnson said.

One thing Fox cannot control is the basketball product, which, though it offers intriguing teams and players -- from third-ranked Villanova to Creighton's Doug McDermott, who leads the nation in scoring -- is not what it once was.

Of the past 13 Big East champions, only one -- Georgetown in 2007 -- is in the revised version of the league. Only two of the past 18 tournaments have been won by a current Big East team (St. John's in 2000).

"It is different," Johnson said. "You don't have some of those power teams . . . I'm curious to see what it's going to be like."

With teams such as Connecticut and Syracuse that have huge followings out of the mix, the vibe might not be what it used to be. But at least there is still a name and a past to build upon.

"Thank goodness," Johnson said, "the business heads were sharp enough to be able to keep the name, the Garden and the tournament."

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Requiem for a conference

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The night after the new Big East crowns its first men's basketball champion, ESPN will look back at the old-school version in "Requiem for the Big East," premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday.

The "30 for 30" documentary recalls the birth, meteoric rise and eventual fall of a conference that sought to tie the loose ends of Northeast college hoops into a modern media colossus, featuring interviews with everyone from Lou Carnesecca to John Thompson to Jim Boeheim, and from Chris Mullin to Patrick Ewing to Pearl Washington.

Most of the tale focuses on the early years, nostalgia catnip for those of us over 40. Those younger than that might learn a thing or two, and find the entire thing difficult to believe.

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