Villanova is one of seven schools that is on the verge of breaking away from the Big East (Getty Images)
In reality, that's not entirely true.
Watching the Big East splinter apart is indeed tough for anyone who grew up on Sherman Douglas and Patrick Ewing, but Dave Gavitt's basketball-centric Big East was doomed to vanish months ago. The Big East irreparably damaged its basketball brand the second it chose to respond to the departure of basketball cornerstones like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville by scrambling to salvage its football future with the additions of UCF, SMU and Tulane.
What makes the final step of the Big East's breakup a positive for college basketball is that a quality hoops-centric league now appears destined to emerge from the rubble of what was once the most formidable conference in the land.
The Big East's seven basketball-first members — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova — reportedly will sever ties with the rest of the league and branch out on their own. They'll likely raid the Atlantic 10 or other leagues to add three to five other basketball-focused schools.
That league may not be of the caliber of the Big East in its heyday, but college basketball will be better for the decision of the Big East Seven to break away from their football-playing cohorts. Annual matchups between Villanova and Xavier or Georgetown and Butler sound intriguing. Annual games between St. John's and Tulane or Marquette and UCF did not.
Like anything else in conference realignment, the ripple effect from the Big East Seven's departure will impact schools and leagues from coast-to-coast. A look at the winners and losers if the Big East Seven indeed decide to follow through with their plan to break away from the rest of the league:
A handful of programs have been mentioned as potential targets for the Big East Seven, from the Atlantic 10's Xavier, Butler, Dayton and Saint Louis, to the Valley's Creighton, to the CAA's George Mason, to the WCC's Gonzaga. Only the Musketeers appear to be a near-lock to receive an invitation. Xavier is a geographic and religious fit, plus it boasts high-major facilities and fan support, a winning pedigree and upward momentum. Three to five schools from the above list could join the Big East Seven, but the Musketeers are the most clear-cut asset.
Loser: The Atlantic 10
It was a good PR move by the A-10 to float the idea of inviting the Big East Seven to join the league as a 21-team conglomeration, but the reality is the breakaway schools were never going to cede that control. Instead the Atlantic 10 is likely going to lose some of its flagship programs to the Big East Seven, with Xavier being a near-lock and Dayton and Butler also looking like strong possibilities. Losses like those would not be easy for the Atlantic 10 to replace. It can still be a multi-bid league in that scenario like the WCC for example, but the days of 3 to 5 NCAA bids each year would almost certainly be over.
Winner: Louisville and Notre Dame
Any chance Notre Dame and Louisville would have to endure the full 27-month waiting period before formally joining the ACC probably vanishes if the seven Catholic schools opt to break away from the Big East. In fact, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey told ESPN he believes the Irish and Cardinals should now be able to join the ACC as soon as the 2013-14 school year, one year ahead of schedule. That's good for both Louisville and Notre Dame because it allows both to launch their new era rather than waiting around in limbo an extra year or two.
Loser: UConn and Cincinnati
No program will suffer more from the collapse of the Big East than UConn, which so far appears to be the most high-profile program left without a seat in this high-stakes game of musical chairs. The Huskies have three basketball national championships since 1999, yet they've been snubbed by the Big Ten and ACC in favor of schools with larger markets and stronger football programs. Now they're being separated from not just Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville but longtime league rivals like Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova. And worst of all, this comes at a time when the basketball program is in a state of transition with Jim Calhoun having retired and no permanent coach in place beyond April. In a word, ouch.
Cincinnati is slightly better off than UConn simply because it has some hoops history with Memphis and some of the other former Conference USA squads, but this is still a big step backward for the Bearcats. Like UConn, they tried desperately to win an invite from the ACC (and the Big 12). Like UConn, they failed for now. A league with Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis and Temple certainly won't be irrelevant in basketball, but rest assured the Huskies and Bearcats will continue to lobby other power conferences with greater football pedigree and TV revenue to snap them up.
Winner: The Mountain West
It's entirely possible San Diego State and Boise State remain fully committed to joining the remnants of the Big East in football and perhaps even explore all-sports membership now. But I would think this has to make both the Aztecs and Broncos more strongly consider scrapping their grand plans to be in both the Big East and Big West and opting to remain in the Mountain West. The allure of joining a conference with an automatic BCS bid, of course, is long over, as is the notion that the ruins of the Big East will provide vastly more TV revenue than the Mountain West could. Is that enough to make Boise State and San Diego State wary of transcontinental competition in football and stashing their other sports in the weaker Big West? We'll find out soon.
When Memphis received the invitation from the Big East it had long coveted earlier this year, the Tigers celebrated finally joining longtime rivals Louisville and Cincinnati and freeing themselves from middling Conference USA. Less than 12 months later, what they're joining appears more like more of the same than a step up. Oh sure, for now they'll be aligned with UConn and Cincinnati, which is already an improvement, but both those schools will be exploring every possible escape route. And with Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Notre Dame soon to be all gone and the likes of UCF, Tulane, Houston and SMU serving as replacements, the Big East could feel a lot like Conference USA for Memphis.
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