In era of conference realignment, basketball is an afterthought
Schools jumping conferences fueled by football, hoops left behind
Traditional powers like Georgetown, Kansas on outside looking in
In a way, basketball had this coming because it did same thing with Big East
It will be hard to regard the forthcoming Big East season as anything but a deathbed vigil. I don't say this because of the literal demise of league founder Dave Gavitt during the offseason. I say this because Pitt and Syracuse announced that, beginning in 2012, they're leaving for the ACC.
There's collateral damage from the insane conference realignment that has blighted college sports over the past six months, and at the top of the casualty list is Hoops As We Know It.
To get a sense of what's about to be lost, think of all this for a minute in what might be called Raf terms. First as a coach, then as a broadcaster, Bill Raftery's easy, urban-inflected voice has been an essential part of Big East basketball since the league's founding.
Pitt basketball is Jerome Lane, memorialized by Raftery's uttering, after a Lane dunk, "Send it in, Jerome!"
Syracuse basketball is Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, captured perfectly in Raftery haiku fragments:
In the lane
With the kiss
Pitt and Syracuse in the ACC is like ... well, let's consider the topic through the lens of the converse. It's like Wake Forest relocating its campus to South Orange, N.J. It's like Bones McKinney telling tales down at Toots Shor's. It's like ... Tar Heel Paranoia.
Alas, as the football tail wags the basketball dog, college sports appears unwilling to cut any slack to a school that unabashedly places hoops first.
When a clock strikes 13, it calls into question all that has come before and all that will come after. And it's after midnight in college basketball's town square.
Catholic colleges like St. John's, Villanova and Georgetown? They scarcely played football back in 1985, when all three made the Final Four. Now, without a football pedigree, they're regarded as second-tier losers.
Mid-majors like VCU, George Mason and Butler? Against huge odds, each reached the Final Four during the past half-dozen years. Now, without the bowl resources to build the weight rooms, locker rooms, tutoring rooms and Romper Rooms (a.k.a. "player lounges") that every big-time athletic department regards as standard equipment, their deep runs into the NCAAs are less and less likely to happen.
As for Kansas, does anyone care that Lawrence is the cradle of Naismith and Allen, of Rupp and Dean Smith, of Danny and the Miracles? Now, because they have the temerity to content themselves with a football stadium that barely seats 50,000, the Jayhawks will soon have little more than a shell of a Big 12 in which to play.
And to think of all that we, as followers of college basketball, have had to acclimate ourselves to, including the prospect of Boise State in the Big East. Well as former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese recently told my colleague Seth Davis, "Every piece of expansion that has taken place over the last 20 years has been about football. Period."
Why is basketball such an afterthought? Thanks to the bowl system, football money can flow directly to a much smaller coterie of big-time schools. It needn't be laundered through the NCAA, to be spread among the masses the way basketball lucre is.
We're getting used to Nebraska in the Big Ten and Colorado in the Pac-12. We'll probably get used to Texas A&M in the SEC and West Virginia in the Big 12, and even Missouri in the SEC.
Indeed, if the future of college basketball is no more than five huge superconferences, we'll have no choice but to resign ourselves to three days of play-in games just to get to the round-of-eight of a conference tournament, and NCAA revenue checks that need to be split 20 ways.
If this is the era of realignment, I cut my teeth on college basketball during the '80s, which was the era of spontaneous generation. Gavitt and the Big East created the model, and soon anyone with a phone line, some spiral-bound demographic data, and a lease on an exurban office suite could get a dozen ADs on a conference call, form a league, and petition the NCAA for an automatic bid. Even the names of the leagues that cropped up back then had a fly-by-night feel, redolent of that decade. TransAmerica, American South, Gulf Star, AMCU-8 -- they sounded like trucking lines and vaccines and the kinds of financial services firms that would eventually give us marshmallow mortgages. (When all else failed, there was always "Big." The Big Your-Name-Here. The Big South didn't get much bigger than Armstrong State and Winthrop, but back in those heady days the most implausible pipsqueak could lay claim to anything and no one let slip a snigger.) You waited the obligatory few years and, shazam, found your league guaranteed a spot in the field.
The lucky schools -- and often the most avaricious ones -- made sure to keep the company of others in "major media markets," the better to hold up that other new player on the scene, ESPN, for some of the cash that had begun to slosh its way into the sport. Tradition mattered little and education counted for less. Schools fell over one another to agree to a 9 p.m. weeknight tip time, for a boost in the profile and a shot to the coffers, the next morning's classes be damned.
A few killjoys dared to point out that, with TV revenue parceled out to leagues according to how many NCAA tournament games they won, the entire system contained a huge incentive to cheat, even as the NCAA piously incanted its boilerplate about integrity, character and amateurism. Georgetown AD Frank Rienzo famously derided the prospect of equal tournament shares as "socialism."
Never mind that these conferences-of-convenience, and the favor they came to curry with the NCAA tournament committee, constituted blatant cartelism. Suddenly institutions that were supposed to be in the business of education began obsessing over marketing and anti-competitive gamesmanship. We're the Big East and you're not: No one much minded at the time, because the ball was entertaining, and everyone could hate Georgetown, and the bond traders would knock off early for a few days in March to scream themselves silly at the Garden, while down in Greensboro the people who loved the ACC did so precisely because Pitt and Syracuse weren't members.
I bore you with this history in service of a larger point. Which is that, once upon a time, not so long ago, colleges were using basketball to make money as heedlessly as they're using football to make money today. So, in a sense, college basketball had this coming.
It may not be a deserved fate. It may be unusually rough justice. But in many ways, the Big East is being hoist with its own petard.