Rebuilt Big East faces test on, off the court


No one needs to tell Bill Raftery what was lost.

He was there from the beginning, coaching Seton Hall in 1979 when the Big East was formed as the model of a basketball-centric league. And Raftery was there through the glory years as a TV analyst, watching three teams reach the 1985 Final Four and 11 land invites to the 2011 NCAA tournament.

But then came the breakup.

“No question about it, everybody misses the Syracuses, UConns, Pitts, Notre Dames. But life goes on,” said the Fox Sports 1 analyst. “I think the competition is very healthy and very similar to the old days.”

But not the same.

Despite “not a miraculous, but a really solid turnaround,” as Raftery put it, the new Big East is no longer the juggernaut that dominated the college basketball landscape for decades.

It remains a formidable presence after its first regular season — standing fourth in conference RPI — as the league tournament begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

But the newest incarnation may have forever lost the glamour and national standing it once held.

“I think the potential is there to be a very solid league — certainly never where it was,” said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former St. John’s coach.

This tournament will be dissected as a short-term referendum on the revamped league, watched equally for the buzz and crowds it draws as for the quality of basketball.

“It’s arguably the first time that all of the teams in one setting are able to show who we are and what we’re about,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “So yeah, I think it’s really important.”

There’s plenty of intriguing story lines, including: Villanova’s fight for a No. 1 seed, at least four teams on the NCAA bubble and how Player of the Year favorite Doug McDermott of Creighton will handle the big stage.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III — like many league coaches — view the conference as the same revered force.

“The Big East is still the Big East,” he said. “You have tough games night in and night out.”

But the comparisons to the old Big East still sting.

Fraschilla projects it to be only “a top seven or eight league, even a top six” going forward.

Many miss the signature rivalries and star power that departed when Syracuse, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida left the league.

That means no more Jim Boeheim, no more Rick Pitino.

Only No. 3 Villanova (28-3) and No. 14 Creighton (24-6) are NCAA tournament locks — the Big East likely will earn no more than four bids — in a season dominated by “parity,” according to several coaches. They contend the 10-team conference is comparatively strong in the middle and bottom, resulting in several close games.

But others think it’s mediocrity.

“I’m not sure I see parity as much as I see some average teams in the middle,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “The breakup of the old Big East saddened me for a variety of reasons. But one of the reasons that’s manifesting itself this year is I’ve never come across a quieter (28-3) team than Villanova.

“You don’t see Villanova very much (on TV) because they don’t have games against Syracuse or UConn. Those things are gone now.”

Tournament ticket sales “are good” and saw “a nice spike after the bracket was announced,” according to a Big East source. Creighton alone has sold about 2,300 tickets and expects 3,000 to 4,000 fans to attend, coach Greg McDermott said.

But the event traditionally sells out in advance. Of course there were 16 teams then, not 10.

“Things won’t be the same,” commissioner Val Ackerman said. “This isn’t the Big East of 1979 when Dave Gavitt created it, or the Big East of 1985 or the Big East of 2000.

“But I think all of the things that the old Big East stood for, we will stand for.”

And it does have reason to celebrate as Year One nears its conclusion.

It kept its revered brand and the Garden. It retained its identity as a physical, competitive league. And Creighton, Xavier and Butler have integrated seamlessly.

Raftery sees “a great foundation.”

“Establishing an identity from a (public relations) or media sense is one thing,” he said. “To their opponents, it’s established already. Ask Michigan State. Ask Kansas.”

Ackerman is taking a long-term view.

“There was much fanfare and scrutiny this year about how we’re going to do and how many schools are they going to get into the tournament,” she said. “It will be a journey. We’re in as good a spot as we can be right now.”

 

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