Mandel’s Musings: Big East At A Crossroads In The National Conversation

Published on: 8th March, 2012


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New York – It’s the second day of the 2012 Big East basketball tournament, here at Madison Square Garden. This tournament and this building has been the scene of some of the most memorable stories in the history of the sport. Here are the results of todays’ games:

Connecticut 71 West Virginia  67

Georgetown 64 Pittsburgh 52

Louisville 61 Seton Hall 55

South Florida 56 Villanova 47

That pretty much covers what has been happening, so far in the Big Shindig from the Big East in the Big Building. The real excitement in this event will begin tomorrow, we hope, when the quarterfinal games start. We’ll be looking at UConn vs. Syracuse, Georgetown vs. Cincinnati, Louisville vs. Marquette, and University of South Florida vs. Notre Dame.

Now, these are games to look forward to, right?

I’m not so sure, to tell you the truth.

You see, the Big East, once the greatest, most talented, most dramatic and most watched of basketball conferences does not have any of that sort of cache, any longer. There’s been a pall hanging over this once legendary sports conference, its member colleges and it’s athletic heroes for a few years now, when schools like Boston College, one of the original members of the conference, decided to look for greener (as in the color of money) pastures and take their balls and bats and helmets to other leagues like the Atlantic Coast Conference. Soon, Syracuse University, currently ranked #2 in the country in basketball, will be departing for the A.C.C., as well and the University of West Virginia is on its way to the Big 12 conference. It’s a shot to the heart of the Big East that has set in motion, a series of machinations of school movement that can only be described as the conference’s attempt to survive as a viable entity in college athletics.

We all know the conference has been fractured, almost beyond recognition, by the changes its member schools have inflicted on it these past couple of years. The great sports competitions between these eastern institutions of higher learning have dissipated into decidedly inorganic battles on the athletic fields between universities who have barely heard of one another, let alone established any sports-related rivalries that could garner fan interest.

After knocking off the No. 2 team in the country in front of a partisan Syracuse crowd at MSG, The Cincinnati Bearcats advanced to the Big East Tournament final with a huge win over the Orange. After the game, I had the chance to talk to Cinci point guard Cashmere Wright as well as Dion Dixon and Justin Jackson. These young men deserve a lot of credit for coming out with a ton of energy and holding off a late game flurry by the Cuse. Enjoy the interviews.

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When Patrick Ewing ruled the earth in these parts, he and John Thompson, his Georgetown coach, had perfect foils in St. Johns, with Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Mark Jackson, Walter Berry and Lou Carnesecca. There was Syracuse and Boeheim along with Pearl Washington and a whole lot of other NBA stars-to be. Boston College, Seton Hall and PJ Carlesimo, Providence and Ernie D and the unforgettable Marvin Barnes. Villanova and Rollie Massimino.

Legendary players. Equally legendary coaches.

Now, it appears the Big East credo of the day is simply based on the primal need of survival of the fittest. Live to play another day, even if the product may be diluted beyond recognition.

While the Big East showcase tournament is going on in the mecca of basketball, New York’s Madison Square Garden, the league was also announcing the addition of the Temple University Owls FOOTBALL TEAM to the conference to replace the departing Mountaineers of West Virginia. This change goes into affect next season. Temple football replacing West Virginia football? This may be a perfect example of subtraction by addition or, as my great grandmother used to say in times of trouble, “OY.”

Temple never could and probably never will hold a candle (or a pigskin) to the West Virginia Mountaineers in the sport of football but the Big East, now comprised of such western-based schools as Boise State, University of Houston, and Southern Methodist University, is in survival mode and had to find a school to fill the scheduling requirements of the conference. The other Big East football schools needed to replace their big games next season against the departing Mountaineers with another football power.  The best Big East commissioner John Marinatto could do was the Temple Owls. Not exactly a football program that strikes fear in too many schools or makes the top ten of most high school recruits.

You see, Temple football played in the Mid-American Conference last season, while all other programs, including their powerhouse men’s basketball program, are in the Atlantic 10. Temple’s hoops stars will be joining the Big East one year from now. The Owls will pay an exit fee of $6 million to the MAC and $1 million to the A-10, with the Big East providing financial assistance in the form of future revenue distributions.

“This is arguably the greatest day in the history of Temple Athletics,” athletic director Bill Bradshaw said in a statement. “We look forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the Big East and its member schools.”

Temple was a Big East member in football only from 1991 to 2004, but was forced out because the program was one of the worst in major college football. The Owls failed to meet minimum requirements for membership, most notably in attendance, facilities and fielding a competitive team.

Temple played as an independent and eventually landed in the MAC in 2007. While there, it turned its program around and ran off winning seasons the past three years.

“Where we are right now, we’re not trying to fumble around and see if we can find our way into major college football,” coach Steve Addazio said. “This is a plan that’s been going on for quite some time.”

In the meantime, the big basketball tournament in New York seems not to have the same luster, the same buzz it has had in years’ past. Whether it’s because there are fewer great players or fewer legendary coaches, I’m not sure. But, I do know this. The Big East has these next few days to get the buzz back in the Mecca, the game stories on the back pages where they are used to being every March, and in raising national interest in all things Big East to a fever pitch, again because of the legend-making games and plays we are all used to seeing in this tournament.

Like when Ewing faced off against Pinckney and Villanova. Remember that one? Of course you do.

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