LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The new Big East got an unofficial early start Saturday night. The NCAA Tournament game between Marquette and Butler certainly was more than an exercise in the here and now. It was a preview of the revived conference that figures to get a huge boost because Butler is now in it.
That the game aired in prime time said something about the drawing power of the former mid-major that moved to the Atlantic 10 this season and agreed to switch again for next season. It will bring extra cachet to the perennials -- the Catholic 7 schools -- that pulled out of the foundering current Big East and took the name and the March tournament slot at Madison Square Garden.
Nostalgia is fine for those traditional members, but Butler -- which officially joined this week -- carries the appeal of Middle America's Team, earned by its upstart appearances in the 2010 and 2011 NCAA finals.
"Number one, coach Stevens is a Hall of Fame coach. He's just not old enough for you to call him that yet,'' Marquette coach Buzz Williams said, referring to Butler's 36-year-old (and even younger looking) Brad Stevens.
Williams also complimented the coaches at Creighton and Xavier, who also will join St. John's, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova and other stalwarts. "I think all of those teams bring something to the league. I think it changes the ambiance of the league for sure,'' Williams said.
The reconfigured league will need all the ambiance it can get without national brand names such as Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame -- all bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I think Butler . . . they play extremely hard,'' said Marquette big man Chris Otule, whose team lost on a last-second shot to Butler in a November tournament in Maui. "When you play in the Big East, each team plays extremely hard. You're capable of losing to any team, whether it's DePaul, South Florida. Any team is capable of beating you on any given night. I think Butler brings that extreme toughness. They'll fit in well.''
Teammate Trent Lockett said, "I think in the last four, five years, Butler has obviously proven they're a top-tier program that demands respect. So I think it will bring a lot to the Big East.''
Of course, it isn't a one-way street. Butler expects to benefit from being with established teams in a conference that has a recognizable name. Rotnei Clarke, the senior who made the winning shot against Marquette, said: "It just starts with the players in the past. They've led us up to these opportunities that we have now. Playing in the Horizon League, playing in the Atlantic 10 and these guys coming up behind us are going to have a chance to play in the Big East. I think it's a tribute to all the players and everybody that's a part of Butler.
"You know, they've set us up for what we're enjoying right now. We hope to do that for the guys that are going to be able to get a good experience in the Big East.''
Stevens did not have the luxury of looking months or years ahead. He was doing his trademark thorough preparation for another do-or-die game for this season.
"If that's the beginning of a rivalry,'' he said, "that would be great.''