How breakup of original Big East still influences Gonzaga, Wichita State and UConn in NCAA Tournament

Eddie Timanus, USA TODAY
·5 min read

To jump or not to jump? That was the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to stay in your usually one-bid conference and remain the proverbial big fish, or make the leap of faith and join a league that often gets multiple bids in the hope of improving your chance to dance, or possibly your seed once you arrive.

Eight years after the breakup of the Big East Conference, this year’s NCAA Tournament field in men’s basketball offers case studies in the value of staying put, the possible benefit of moving, and, in one instance, the joy of coming home.

The conference landscape has been constantly shifting for the past several decades, of course, though much of that movement has been football driven among the so-called Bowl Championship Series Power Five leagues. For this thought exercise, we’ll focus primarily on basketball-centric decisions. Naturally, there are two sides to such — er — courtships. A school might want to join a new league, but the conference has to want you.

The most significant development in the hardwood realm in recent years was the breakup of the Big East in 2013, the result of a schism between the schools that sponsored Bowl Subdivision football and the so-called Catholic Seven whose roots went back to the league’s founding as a basketball power conference. That group of primarily hoops schools retained the league name and sought other members to join.

This brings us to our first subject, Gonzaga. There was more than a little speculation at the time that one target for inclusion in the new/old Big East was Gonzaga. In terms of philosophy and mission it would be a fit, but its Spokane, Washington, home is well outside the league’s geographic footprint. In the end, the Big East went with an expanded Midwest presence adding Butler, Creighton and Xavier.

So Gonzaga remains the flagship program of the West Coast Conference, having just claimed its ninth league tournament title in the past 11 years and 19th championship in all. The Bulldogs are the top overall seed in this year’s field and are a No. 1 region seed for the fourth time in the past eight years. Aggressive non-conference scheduling has helped, of course, and the addition of BYU has improved the WCC’s depth. It’s safe to say that staying put in the WCC hasn’t hurt the Zags’ tournament positioning.

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Wichita State Shockers: WuShock
Wichita State Shockers: WuShock

Those left behind by the Big East departures comprised a more than viable league, but they had to come up with a new name. Thus was born the American Athletic Conference. While still trying to get a seat at the table with the Power Five football leagues, programs with strong hoops history like Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis make it an attractive basketball destination, particularly for a program looking to build on recent postseason success.

Enter Wichita State. In 2017, WSU accepted an invitation to join the AAC after a 72-year membership in the Missouri Valley Conference. Has it helped? Well, sort of.

WSU’s last few years in the MVC were quite memorable. In 2013, the Shockers made a run to the Final Four, taking down a top-seeded Gonzaga team along the way. A year later with most of that team back, including future NBA champion Fred VanVleet, they were seeded No. 1 but bounced by a ridiculously underseeded Kentucky squad in the second round. They appeared in the next three tournaments, including another Sweet 16 run, but were seeded no higher than seventh in any of those trips.

Following the 2017-18 season, their first in the American, they secured a better No. 4 seed but were victims of a first-round upset at the hands of Marshall. This season’s top finish in the AAC was WSU’s first since joining the league. But a semifinal loss in the AAC tournament left them on the very edge of the field. In the end, their top-tier win against Houston was a deciding factor that got them in, but the irony that they are matched in the play-in round against Drake, one of their former MVC opponents, is hard to ignore.

The Big East, meanwhile, has claimed two national championships and sent plenty of strong teams to the Big Dance since its restructuring. When the football fortunes at Connecticut, the Huskies sought to part ways with the American altogether. It was time to come home.

UConn rejoined the Big East before this season and now is the league’s only public institution. Still, the move brought the program back to competing with its more traditional northeastern rivals. The Huskies are back in the Big Dance as well after a solid third-place finish.

Other schools have made conference changes after deep tournament runs with mixed results. Butler, then representing the Horizon League, hasn’t been able to match its back-to-back runs to the championship game in 2010 and 2011, partly attributable to Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens moving on to playing and coaching careers in the NBA. But the Bulldogs did make the NCAA Tournament each year from 2015-18 since joining the Big East.

The Atlantic 10 also has been an attractive destination, but again, new members have had mixed results. Davidson, then in the Southern Conference, went to the Elite Eight in 2008 as future superstar Stephen Curry burst onto the national scene. The Wildcats have been a good fit for the A-10, winning the league title twice since joining in 2014 but couldn’t get past the round of 64 either time. George Mason, known for its Cinderella Final Four trip in 2006 representing the Colonial Athletic Association, hasn’t had nearly as much success in its eight years in the A-10. You won’t find any of those names on this year’s tournament bracket, however.

So what ultimately is the answer to the Clash’s immortal question, "Should I stay or should I go?" As with everything else in life, it’s complicated. The best advice for athletics directors to consider is, go if it makes sense, but stay if it doesn’t.

Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gonzaga, Wichita State, UConn flourish 8 years after Big East changes