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Big East to Big Least: Departure of Syracuse and Pittsburgh was only a matter of time

September 19, 2011  |  By Benjamin Miraski

The Big East became a little more the Big Least on Sunday morning. The impending departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh cut the heart of of the league that had two personalities.

The Big East dominated the college basketball landscape, the behemoth gorilla that gladly took the title of best conference after the ACC was willing to cede the throne to pursue football glory. And the Big East played nicely on the sideline in football, guaranteed the big payday each year in the BCS despite calls for other conferences to have their ticket.

But it was the grab for basketball glory that might have killed the conference in the end. After losing three football teams to the ACC, the Big East decided to go big. Instead of just taking Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati, the league gutted Conference USA of its other basketball powers -- DePaul (yes, back then) and Marquette.

It was a bold move designed to keep football relevance, while creating something special in basketball.

Only no one ever thought about the logistics of a 16-team league. The Big East, while dominant on the court, always seemed to big for itself.

It had scheduling problems, brought on partially by its television contract with ESPN. The World Wide Leader wanted the best matchups on television. So the teams that were considered the best were pitted against each other more often, setting up wide differences in the strength of schedule, and leaving some Big East teams feeling left out of the mix.

And the league's footprint became ridiculously large, a common complaint about Conference USA when it was formed. By the Big East grabbing the best of that league, it transferred the problem to itself.

The whole thing left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Why should the 10th best team from the league get a spot in the NCAA tournament? They were clearly a good team, but rewarding mediocrity just doesn't seem right, even if the talent is a step above.

But the biggest issue might have been the impeding addition of TCU. The Big East was set to go to 17 teams overall, with 9 in football. Scheduling was going to get worse, and the links between the members became more tenuous. Now not even being the best basketball league in the country could hold things together.

That is why you can't blame Syracuse and Pittsburgh for leaving. It is easy to imagine a back room conversation between Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski happening once the TCU addition was announced. You can see the two basketball coaches talking about how to save basketball in this massive grab for football supremacy.

It certainly isn't hard to imagine Coach K telling Jim to come on down to the ACC and bringing back the spirit of the league that was once sold out for football purposes.

And just like that, it was done.

With the loss of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, there is a death rattle in the Big East. The basketball core is still there, but the conference will be back down to seven in football. And that means either pushing Villanova to get its act together, or grabbing yet another team from a smaller conference.

Can anyone truly see the Big East going back to Temple and asking forgiveness? Or will it dip down again and grab another Conference USA team? Is it time for Memphis or Central Florida to get their call?

Because of the basketball side of the house, it is hard to see the league just surrendering. Most of the top remaining basketball programs are the ones that play football. Losing Connecticut, West Virginia and Cincinnati would leave the league with very little to hang its hat on, although DePaul might finally be able to win a game.

Yet the remaining league is so fragile precisely because of the duality of its membership.

That was the elephant in the room during this expansion. Some websites can cry all they want about the ACC being vulnerable to the vultures, but the Big East was always the league whose foundation was the shakiest. Perhaps it was their SEC-biased look at things to make them think that their football little brother could just be picked on.

But this should be a lesson for the rest of the leagues. Expanding to 16 teams doesn't solve problems. It creates them.

Even at 12 teams, leagues were learning it wasn't easy. Scheduling is still a nightmare. The differences between the haves and have nots become greater. Who knows how 14 teams will work? At 16, those issues are magnified, especially because every school has its own agenda for joining the league.

Look at Colorado, which went West to the Pac-12 to gain access to California. If its former conference mates also move to the Pacific, a realignment in the league is almost certain, with Colorado becoming part of the Eastern half. They get shut out of the one thing they wanted from the conference move.

Bigger isn't always better. Sometimes it is just bigger -- bigger headaches, bigger problems and bigger battles of egos in the boardroom.


Posted September 19, 2011 12:23 PM

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