After Syracuse: The death and football-subsidized life of Big East basketball

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D.J. Kennedy. (via redstormsports.com)
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It is easy to feel as if something irretrievable has been lost for college basketball fans. The Big East Conference, the best in the game since its founding in 1979, just added five new members.

The conference that conferred the title of basketball mecca upon the Northeast welcomed Central Florida, University of Houston and Southern Methodist University as Big East participants in all sports. Boise State and San Diego State joined the conference for football.

Only from the perspective of the Pacific Ocean can the Big East be considered east anymore. A conference built in 1979 by seven northeastern schools now stretches across four time zones. A conference designed to become a basketball powerhouse—and which sent 11 of its 16 members to the NCAA Tournament last year—has added some decidedly mediocre basketball programs in pursuit of football riches.

If you like your road trips short, your college football secondary, and your rivalries traditional, your Big East is dead. The conference's goal, as stated in the first paragraph of the press release announcing the additions, is “staging an annual conference football championship game.”

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But that change was unavoidable. The only way to mitigate the loss of identity now is to preserve what basketball rivalries remain.

The death of the original Big East, after all, happened long ago. The group of 16 that comprised the finest basketball conference in NCAA play already included decidedly non-northeastern teams like DePaul, Marquette, South Florida and Louisville. No matter which schools the conference added, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two keys to the Big East's longtime identity, weren't coming back, having bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The reason for the departure of those two schools was a simple one: there was more money to be had elsewhere, in conferences built around another sport.

Even the most profitable college basketball programs make a small fraction of what most large college football programs bring in. And the Big East, with a group that didn't even start playing football until 1991, constantly ran up against the real possibility that they'd fall below the minimum eight football programs necessary to keep a Bowl Championship Series bid (where much of that college football money can be found).

At one point, the Big East was actually down to five football programs, when West Virginia followed Syracuse and Pittsburgh out the door this fall. But with the new additions to the conference, the Big East remains safely above the BCS threshold unless a majority of their remaining football programs—Rutgers, Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida—decide to bolt.

In short order, the Big East wants to add another two schools, for a total of 12. Navy and Temple appear at this point to be the likeliest additions.

But where does all this leave the conference, hoops-wise?

Central Florida, Houston and S.M.U. join DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida in an 16-team basketball conference. There are some decent rivalries in there, and not just among the five original members (Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Connecticut) and Villanova, which joined the conference in its second year.

Louisville has been to eight Final Fours and won two championships, both coming before their move to the Big East. Marquette has three Final Fours and an NCAA title, all won prior to joining the Big East as well. Houston participated in five Final Fours, and produced Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Much of what makes the Big East the great power it set out to be in 1979 has little to do with the colleges that founded it.

And what of those great original powers, the Georgetown Hoyas of John Thompson Sr., the St. John's of Lou Carnesecca and Chris Mullin, Rollie Massimino's miraculous Villanova and Jim Calhoun's defending-champion Connecticut? In the cases of Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Marquette, Providence, DePaul, and Seton Hall, they couldn't even dream of entry into a high-powered basketball league these days. The lack of a Division I football program would stop them at the door.

So no, there is no going back. Manley Fieldhouse, famously closed by the elder John Thompson, is the scene of a criminal investigation rather than a venue for epic battles involving Patrick Ewing and Pearl Washington. 

But remember that every time Georgetown comes to Madison Square Garden to face St. John's, or every time Jay Wright and Villanova square off against Seton Hall, they're only able to do so because somewhere, thousands of miles away, Boise State is going to be playing football against San Diego State.