It has been a roller coaster few months for the Big East conference, to say the least. New reports this week, however, indicate that the Big East may finally be adding teams rather than subtracting them, sending invitations to Houston, Southern Methodist, and Central Florida, as well as football-only invitations to Navy, Air Force, and Boise State. While these programs may not be the sexy solution Big East fans were hoping for, they still have good reason to cheer up.
The announcement that Pitt and Syracuse would leave the Big East for the ACC sent shockwaves throughout the conference’s basketball community. West Virginia reaffirmed this paranoia with its declaration of intent to join the Big 12. Many naysayers and pessimists felt that losing three perennial powers would surely cripple the conference, changing the face of the Big East forever, if not completely undoing it.
But while the basketball implications of these departures dominated the minds of Georgetown fans, the real damage was done to Big East football. The conference still maintains an ample number of quality basketball programs, but the football-playing members now total just five, surely not enough to warrant an automatic BCS bid, which is perhaps the most significant factor keeping the conference relevant in college football.
Adding these football-playing members revitalizes the conference, providing replacements for the departed teams in addition to assuring other potential detectors like Cincinnati and Louisville that the Big East is here to stay.
However, even with the necessity for stability in the conference’s football lineup, most Georgetown fans still only care about the implications of realignment insofar as they impact the Hoyas’ basketball schedule and prestige. Thus, while previous reports of inviting TCU, Boise State, and the service academies to join as full members offered some semblance of stability, there was a hesitance to get excited about adding schools that would be almost guaranteed basketball duds every year.
The new conference plan, however, wants to add these schools (minus TCU, which has since joined the Big 12), as football playing members only. Meanwhile, Houston, SMU, and UCF will be leaving Conference USA to join the Big East as full members, playing both basketball and football.
Many fans will roll their eyes, seeing this approach as more of the same. We don’t need another DePaul or USF; we need to replace three schools that account for four of the last seven Big East Tournament champions.
Though it is unlikely that the proposed basketball replacements will live up to their predecessors anytime soon, they are far from being as dismal as people suggest. UCF, for example, started 14-0 last year, beating schools like Florida and Miami, before stunningly losing eight straight games in a rather Georgetown-esque collapse. Their location is also a bonus, setting up a potential rivalry with USF and growing the conference’s profile in a recruit-rich state.
Few will care about SMU’s 1956 Final Four banner, but the school’s presence does open the Big East to the immense Dallas market and another recruiting hotbed. Entry into a major conference like the Big East could change their fortunes with former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty at the helm.
Houston, meanwhile, is perhaps the most interesting addition. Most will have little recollection of Houston as a relevant basketball program, but historians and connoisseurs of the game will be eager to point out consecutive NCAA Tournament Finals appearances in 1983 and 1984 (including a loss to Georgetown in the championship game) by the famous “Phi Slamma Jamma” squads. Recent years have been tough for the program, but, with a legacy of five Final Four appearances and several NBA Hall of Fame alumni such as Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Cougars are potentially a sleeping giant for the Big East.
While none of these programs are set to enter the Big East framework as title favorites in the coming seasons, they are each loaded with potential in their own way. More importantly, however, the Big East will almost certainly persist through the realignment apocalypse. The Big East can afford to lose some competition in basketball anyway. The real danger to the Hoyas was the uncertain existence of the conference as an entity at all. If this plan goes ahead successfully, the Hoyas will still have Big East basketball, and that’s what really matters.
While the conference may never be what we grew up with or make any geographical sense whatsoever, no one can deny that competitively, the conference can still salvage its rich basketball heritage. Somehow, the future of the Big East looking up again.