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Big East hopeful of easing the hit from losing Syracuse, Pitt

Fans of the Syracuse Orange wear giant masks

Fans of the Syracuse Orange wear giant masks with the likeness of Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim against the Kansas State Wildcats. (March 17, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

In the beginning, the Big East Conference consisted of seven northeastern basketball-only schools when it was formed in 1979. The path Big East evolution has taken since then includes a cast of members that has expanded and shifted across the intercollegiate map like a sand dune with the winds of change.

Now the nation's premier basketball conference is on the verge of another template shift as conference stalwarts Syracuse and Pittsburgh enter their final season before departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame will follow to the ACC in two years unless a deal is reached to exit sooner.

Reinforcements will arrive next season in the form of Temple, Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist in all sports plus the addition of football-only Boise State and San Diego State. But Big East devotees moan that it never will be the same again without those northern powers.

That wistful sense of loss is shared by many at the exiting schools. Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon said his experience shows the Big East gave the schools their identity, not the other way around.

When Dixon joined Pitt's staff as an assistant in 1999, he said: "We didn't have the arena and the tradition and the great players. What we sold was the Big East Conference and New York. We told players, 'You get to play in the best conference -- the Big East.' That was our selling point.

"It defined our program, and it defined our university. We have a great medical school, but your conference affiliation defines you more than anything, and it's been great for us."

Of course, there's always a kicker. "At the same time," Dixon added, "every other school would have done the same thing. They may not say that, but we all know it."

Don't blame the schools that are leaving. Blame the ACC for making them a financial offer too good to refuse.

Back in 2005, the ACC raided the Big East for football schools Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The Big East added Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, South Florida and DePaul, and the result was that its basketball grew even stronger, a situation that rankled ACC powers.

Dixon said the ACC's desire to regain basketball pre-eminence was the driving force behind the decision to recruit Pitt and Syracuse. "I don't think they're going to promote that as a reason,'' he said, "but it's a fact."

Notre Dame is slightly different because its football team now will play five "non-conference" games per year against ACC opponents in addition to being a member in all other sports. But Irish basketball coach Mike Brey supports Dixon.

"The ACC has watched the Big East get eight and nine [NCAA] bids, and it's been a little hard to swallow," Brey said. "So they said, 'Let's take a few people from the Big East.' It wasn't rocket science."

Whether Notre Dame remains for one year or two doesn't matter to Brey. "I really am going to savor my last moments in the Big East," Brey said. "I'm not rushing to get out the door. I love this league, and I'm going to miss it because it's been my identity."

No one has been more firmly identified with the Big East than Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim. When he recently heard that Louisville coach Rick Pitino said replacements Memphis and Temple are the "equals" of Syracuse and Pitt, Boeheim huffed and said Pitino was "full of ----."

But in the next breath, he added: "The Big East is a really good basketball conference, and it survived losing a lot of other teams. It's going to survive and be good."

The biggest difference will be "brand" change. Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, who was an assistant under Pitino when Louisville entered the league in 2005, understands the transition.

"When we were at Conference USA and Louisville came to the Big East, it took us two or three years to get engulfed in the Big East and have people look at us as a Big East program," Willard said.

Now, coming off a Final Four appearance and ranked among the national title favorites this season, Louisville is the cream of the Big East crop. The Big East brand helped Pitino build the Cardinals' program, and it will do the same for Memphis, Temple and other new members.

The conference always will have a strong New York presence because of St. John's, Seton Hall and Rutgers. Pitino said those schools should profit from the loss of Syracuse and Pitt. "It really benefits them because now they don't have to start at the bottom every year and battle to the top," Pitino said.

Rutgers coach Mike Rice agreed, saying: "I don't go home crying in my soup that I don't have to face three top-20 programs . You'd like to have the best, but it doesn't mean the three metropolitan teams can't take that next step and become annual top 20 programs."

That's the goal for St. John's coach Steve Lavin, who expanded his recruiting base into Texas and Florida even before the membership shift.

"For the traditionalists, it's going to take a while to adapt to the new Big East," Lavin said. "The most important element comes back to the programs in this conference performing at a high level."

No one is more familiar with Big East evolution than Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who watched his father build the Hoyas to national prominence. "If you look at who we have coming in and who we have in this conference, we have gone from 'unquestionably' the best basketball conference to 'arguably' the best basketball conference," Thompson said. "I think we're going to be strong. Absolutely."

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