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Big East basketball: Back to the future

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When exactly did the Big East stop breathing? Was it when it expanded into Idaho and California in an attempt to remain relevant in football? More likely it was when it went shopping for schools such as Central Florida, SMU, Houston and Tulane. At some point, it was all becoming too much for the seven league schools who make their money from basketball but don’t play big-time football.

Apparently that time has finally come. According to multiple reports, those seven — Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Villanova, DePaul and Marquette — have informed the league that they’re taking their basketballs and going home. Or, more accurately, leaving home.

Those schools let Commissioner Mike Aresco know their intentions to leave during a conference call Thursday during which Aresco tried to convince them to reconsider.

One has to feel sorry for Aresco, who was hired in August to become commissioner of college athletics’ version of the Titanic. With Syracuse and Pittsburgh defecting to the ACC, Aresco was given the task of holding the league together and trying to carve out a new TV deal that would satisfy the league’s university presidents’ insatiable appetites for money.

Instead, he watched helplessly as Notre Dame (a basketball-only member), Rutgers and Louisville added to the carnage by jumping ship. Trying to replace those three schools with the likes of Tulane, Central Florida and Memphis wasn’t going to cut it with the basketball schools. And while Temple has a great basketball history and a very solid program, Villanova wasn’t thrilled with the arrival of the crosstown Owls.

All of that led to Thursday’s decision to bolt. The only question now is what form their leaving will take. There are a number of options — all of them tied to money. If the seven leave en masse they will not, by rule, have to pay an exit fee. On the flip side, they won’t share in the roughly $50 million owed by the five schools that have previously departed. They could vote to dissolve the league. It takes a two-thirds vote, and only South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati also have votes on dissolution (Temple is a voting member but not on dissolution). So the votes would be there if needed. Of course it would be difficult then to try to demand exit fees from a league that no longer exists.

More important, long-term, is where the seven schools go next. They could join the Atlantic 10 and create the ludicrous specter of a 21-team conference. Imagine the slogan for the A-10 tournament: “The most exciting three weeks of championship week!” Or, more logically, and more likely, they could cherry-pick several schools that are similar in profile: Dayton, Xavier, Butler, Saint Joseph’s and even Creighton have been mentioned. Those five plus the old-Big East seven would be a formidable basketball league. Even three of those five would make for a conference that will be very attractive to a TV network. There will be no Tulane-Houston games in that package.

The best thing about this decision — regardless of what form it takes — is that it will allow the seven schools to get back to the roots that formed the Big East in 1979. Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence were founding members, and Villanova joined a year later. Syracuse, Connecticut and Boston College were also founding members and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. Only Pitt and BC from that group of nine has not made a Final Four since the league began.

The league helped make the schools, and the schools helped make the league. Commissioner Dave Gavitt’s vision was to create a basketball conference in big TV markets built around eastern schools that had long-standing basketball traditions. Once football entered the picture in 1991, everything changed. All of a sudden, football schools such as Miami, Virginia Tech and West Virginia were in the mix and the conference had a very different feel to it. Then, when the ACC began pillaging the Big East to try to improve its football profile, the league completely abandoned the original blueprint and suddenly had members such as Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati — all brought in to try to save football.

In the end, Big East football couldn’t survive, especially when the ACC kept coming back for more: Losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh 15 months ago was probably the death knell, but the league remained on life support until Thursday.

Now it is really only a question of when and how the plug gets pulled. The luckiest man in all of this may be Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk, who had made what could have been an ill-fated decision to join the Big East in football in 2015. If there is no Big East to join, Navy might dodge that bullet.

The best bet for the soon-to-be-non-Big East seven would be to try to work out a way to retain the Big East name and their contract to play the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. They should then invite three to five of the potential candidates to join them. Keeping the league name would also mean retaining an automatic NCAA tournament bid, although that’s not crucial to a conference likely to send multiple teams most years.

Somewhere in heaven late Thursday afternoon, you can be sure that Gavitt popped a cork and proposed a toast: “The Big East is dead!” he no doubt roared. “Long live the Big East!”

For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/
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