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Big East basketball continues its rise after revamp

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman at a press

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman at a press conference in 2014. Credit: AP

Two things we know: The Big East Conference never will be what it once was, and it never will be as powerful and wealthy as the college conferences that still play big-time football.

But this is true, too: The more fans and alumni of the 10 schools -- especially the ones that are original members -- accept and embrace those realities, the happier all concerned will be.

There are signs we are headed in that direction as the new Big East enters its second men's basketball tournament this week at Madison Square Garden, a mere 103 weeks after its rebirth officially was announced.

"We're feeling very good about the progress," said commissioner Val Ackerman, who acknowledged that last season was "a bit chaotic" as the conference retooled from scratch. "I think things have settled and we have that behind us."

Time only has confirmed the wisdom of the "Catholic 7" members deciding late in 2012 that enough was enough and that it was time to disassociate themselves from the football-driven follies of conference realignment.

Soon they were striking a deal to keep the Big East name, keep the Garden as a tournament site and add Butler, Xavier and Creighton.

"It was bucking the trend [of alliances motivated by football]," said Ackerman, who joined the conference in the summer of 2013. "Our schools said, you know, that's not us. It was sort of courageous."

Agreed. It also was unavoidable if the non-big-time-football schools hoped to retain their relevance -- and dignity.

It helped that Fox happened to be launching a new cable channel called Fox Sports 1 in August 2013 and needed programming. Deal!

Much like the NHL's marriage to NBC, some visibility undeniably is lost when a league leaves the ESPN firmament, but there also is something to be said for being a relatively bigger fish in a smaller, more appreciative pond.

"Fox has been a great partner," said Ackerman, who noted higher ratings than last season and more games on Fox's broadcast mother ship, including Duke at St. John's for Mike Krzyzewski's 1,000th career win.

"As equity develops in their dial position, we think viewers will continue to find them,'' she added, "which is great for our schools and our coaches and our student-athletes."

It was a bonus when Fox named Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, two guys with loyal fan followings, as its lead announcing team.

Ackerman likened the Fox partnership to the mutually beneficial role the original Big East played in the early years of ESPN. "So it's possible that history may be repeating itself," she said.

Uh, oh. Let's not get too carried away!

Again, the key to modern Big East happiness is realistic expectations and appreciation for a conference that still plays very good basketball -- not to mention other non-football sports -- and is projected to land six teams in the NCAA field.

The members took steps this season to bolster their non-conference schedules, and the conference has a high-profile standard-bearer in Villanova, which still could use a deep tournament run to validate itself.

Plus, St. John's should be back in the NCAAs. That can't hurt.

"We've got strength elsewhere as well, but basketball is clearly the lead dog and I do think we're going to be just fine, and then some," said Ackerman, who was founding president of the WNBA.

"If there's a Football Five, there's a Basketball Six in my mind. I think we are going to be right there. I think our schools have proven they can play with anybody in the country."

The Big East, long based in Providence, moved into new offices at Third Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan in September, further cementing the notion of a new era.

But Ackerman said there is a "history wall" there that includes past members such as Syracuse and Connecticut.

"Their accomplishments have to be noted; now it's just different," she said. "I think it can be as good if not better, and let the memories be memories. But we'll have to create new ones, and I think we're in good position to do that."

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