The Big East, the old Big East, was the first league I ever loved. Though, in this conference, the Hoyas sometimes struggled through tough seasons lined with ranked conference opponents, there was never a shortage of excitement. Weeks rarely went by without an opportunity for a big win, and thus, a season-changing moment.
The face of college basketball fell apart last year when the league was dismantled in the name of football and media deals. Teams were looking to jump ship, and made plans to depart to the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hoyas, along with the other schools in the Big East without Football Bowl Subdivision football teams, split from their old conference, which was struggling to find replacements for Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Louisville, to form a new league which would retain the Big East name as well as the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The conference became a ten team league with the regular season consisting of home and away matchups between every team. There is little debate that even with the additions of Creighton and Xavier (two of the newcomers, the third being Butler), who are sitting first and third, respectively, in the conference, as well as the resurgence of Villanova, the conference is weaker than it once was. Say what you may about it having the fourth best Ratings Percentage Index in the country. When you go from watching what was, objectively, the best conference in basketball to seeing what has turned out to be a supercharged mid-major league, it is a disappointment.
The Hoyas’ strength of schedule has managed to stay away from taking a major hit, but it is now clear that prestige of opponent is only half of what makes a game exciting. Of course, Kansas and Michigan State are some of the superpowers of the basketball world, but the emotional investment that existed within the old conference doesn’t come to the surface in random non-conference matchups.
There was always something different about when UConn made the trip to town, or when a big game with Notre Dame or Louisville loomed on the schedule. No matter how bad things got in the old Big East, the chance for redemption was always just around the corner.
Of course, our brightly-clad friends from upstate New York have to be mentioned. The Orange, who spent the past few weeks atop both national polls, have been in the news as part of the “new best rivalry in college basketball,” a reference to their two heated and closely contested games with Duke this year. Games against Syracuse were different from the rest.
In grade school, I turned down plans with friends, skipped rehearsals, and made every preparation necessary in order to see the Hoyas face their perpetually strong nemesis. The pregame hype at the Phonebooth before Syracuse games gave me chills. I felt crushed after losses and euphoric after wins. That’s the way that college basketball is supposed to feel. Rivalries don’t come overnight because two good teams play each other and ESPN promotes the game: they are built on tradition.
There is little tradition in the new Big East, and as a result, very little reason to be excited. The Hoyas have every game on national television, but on Fox Sports 1, the ugly stepchild of the sports world, a channel with subpar commentating teams that has delayed a Hoya game to show practice NASCAR laps. You read that right.
A spot on “national television” and the occasional big-name opponent can’t compensate for the extermination of rivalries. This year is particularly disheartening because the conference shift has lined up with the worst Georgetown season in recent memory.
I’ve seen Duke and North Carolina, and even UVA, a school with a non-existent basketball tradition, snap up our opponents, and with the help of ESPN, monopolize the national spotlight while the struggling and now Fox-sponsored Hoyas quietly shrink into irrelevance. And, like a scorned lover, I can’t help but hate everybody that is drawing happiness from the source of my pain. We did get the raw end of the deal, and now all we can hope for is that the Hoyas, hopefully sooner rather than later, play themselves to a level of relevance that cannot be ignored.
If we have seen anything from what has happened to the Big East, the ACC, and the AAC, it’s that all of the people who are really concerned about the basketball world are powerless to control its landscape. The men calling the shots couldn’t care less about entertainment or nostalgia or tradition. They don’t care that you care.
And that’s a damn shame.