September 18, 2011
Ask any Syracuse or Pittsburgh fan how they feel about their schools' sudden departure from the Big East for the ACC, and how they respond will probably depend on whether they're thinking with their heads or their hearts.
The potential financial gains and the promise of longterm stability make joining the ACC a prudent decision, but that doesn't make the demolition of the Big East or the sacrifice of its traditional rivalries any less bittersweet.
Syracuse is a founding member of the Big East, a school that has been at the center of more iconic moments in Big East basketball than any other. Pittsburgh is the Big East's newest powerhouse, a program whose trademark physical style epitomizes the league.
Now both of them are leaving for the ACC, a stunning blow to the conference that had been a college basketball power throughout its existence and the nation's best league the past few years. Although some of the rivalries between Syracuse and Georgetown or UConn and between Pittsburgh and West Virginia or Villanova may survive via annual non-conference games, it's inevitable others will disappear for good.
Indeed, the ACC's announcement of its two new additions on Sunday morning is the latest sign that the landscape of college basketball may be altered beyond recognition before this chaotic era of conference realignment is over. The leadership void atop college athletics has created a free-for-all in which individual conferences and schools feel they must prioritize monetary gains or financial self-preservation ahead of geographic rivalries and tradition.
"I can say that in all my years of collegiate athletics administration, I've never seen this level of uncertainty and potential fluidity in schools and conferences," ACC commissioner John Swofford said Sunday. "Schools, they're looking for stability, and when that stability doesn't exist, for whatever reason, as long as that's going on, I think the conferences that appear to be stable moving forward are going to receive inquiries from schools that desire having that kind of stability."
What made Syracuse and Pittsburgh attractive to the ACC is the footholds they provide in two lucrative TV markets. The ACC can now demand more money from TV networks in future contract negotiations, putting the league in better position to fend off interest from other conferences in plucking one of its members.
Bolstering ACC basketball was by no means the primary impetus behind adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh, but there's little doubt the league will again become the nation's strongest once the newcomers arrive in either 2012 or 2013.
If the decline of NC State and Wake Forest and the mediocrity of Maryland and Georgia Tech had transformed the ACC into essentially a two-team league the past few years, the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh immediately changes that. Pair Duke and North Carolina with those two schools, and the conference immediately has four of the nation's top 15 programs from the past decade.
"I think it's great for our conference football-wise, even better basketball-wise," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN.com. "Wherever this is going to end up, four big-time conferences or five, whatever it is, you want to be perceived as No. 1 in football and basketball.
"The last few years the ACC has lost some of that but over the last 25 years if you had to pick the best conference in basketball it is the ACC. Lately, it hasn't been that. It's been a really good conference. But to me this is in some ways a coup for basketball."
Whereas the ACC can now focus its attention on deciding whether adding a 15th or 16th member makes competitive and financial sense, the Big East must focus its energy on avoiding a total collapse.
Even before Syracuse and Pittsburgh bolted, speculation had been rampant that the SEC may target West Virginia as its 14th member. And ACC commissioner John Swofford acknowledged Sunday that he's "not philosophically opposed" to increasing to 16 teams, which means we can expect Connecticut at Rutgers to be two of the schools mentioned frequently as potential targets.
The Big East could survive if it lures some current members of the tenuous Big 12 or if it goes basketball-only a la the Atlantic 10, but the league will never be the same as it was during its heyday.
Enjoy Syracuse-Georgetown, Syracuse-UConn, Pittsburgh-West Virginia and Pittsburgh-Villanova next season. There's no guarantee we'll see all of those storied matchups on a regular basis again.