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March 26, 2014

Big East's Brutal Weekend


I don't typically like writing about the same topic in back-to-back columns. But, being that it is "March Madness," I feel it important to follow up what could go down as one of the most important weekends in Big East history.

While my bracket is still relatively intact, it was a sad weekend for me and fellow Big East fans. In last week's column I wrote: "There is a worst case scenario for the Big East this weekend: nobody makes it to the Sweet 16. That would be a massive blow to the Conference's legitimacy going forward." 

Well, that's exactly what happened. To add insult to injury, one of the conference's premier coaches, Buzz Williams, left Marquette for Virginia Tech. This was a historic weekend for the Big East, and for all the wrong reasons.

The Big East Conference has had at least one team make the Sweet 16 in each of the past 20 years, and multiple Sweet 16 teams in each of the last eight years. But, last week Xavier lost its play-in game to N.C. State, Providence lost in the second round to North Carolina, then Villanova fell to old foe UConn in the third round, while Creighton was crushed by Baylor on Sunday.

As an alumnus who watched Villanova play all season long, I never felt like the team was the equivalent of its ranking (top 10). They were blowing through a soft schedule, combined with some impressive non-conference wins to boost their national standing. Creighton was soft defensively and was too reliant on the three-pointer.

The next tier of the Conference (Providence, Xavier, St. John's) was just above mediocre. The results from this past weekend will hurt the Conference as it tries to maintain national credibility going forward. But, the comparisons between the old and new "Big East" begin and end with the name.

Meantime, Williams saw the writing on the wall, and left for Virginia Tech. This would have been unthinkable two years ago. Marquette was a competitor in, by far, the best conference in America. But, as Williams said on CBS over the weekend, he is now "heading to the premiere conference in the country."

That can be debated, after only one team from the ACC (Virginia) advanced to the Sweet 16. But I took his statement as more of a referendum on his former conference: "The Big East is dying." Williams saw a sinking ship, and jumped.

There are two solutions to the Big East's problem. The first is to poach teams from the Atlantic-10. The A-10 actually had more teams make the NCAA Tournament this year (6), than the Big East (4). Targets should include Shaka Smart's VCU Rams, along with Saint Joe's, UMass, and George Washington.

The goal would be to stick with East Coast teams in major metropolitan areas to create/build upon rivalries; Villanova/St. Joe's, Georgetown/George Washington, Providence/UMass. The other option would be to combine the Big East and the A-10 into a basketball super conference, and keep the Big East name, along with the Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

My guess is this would be welcomed by the A-10; especially since they're in the market for a new Conference Tournament location, because the ACC Tournament is moving to the Barclays Center in 2017.

My preference would be to poach the best teams, rather than combine both conferences, because the bottom of the A-10 Conference is loaded with bad basketball. But, either option would improve the current standing of the Big East. Every team involved would see an improvement in recruiting. 

Either way, this offseason should be a chance for Commissioner Val Ackerman and her associates to go back to the drawing board. Their goal should be: figure out how to turn this once-powerful conference back into a league that is highly competitive, full of regional rivalries, nationally relevant, and boasts multiple teams advancing far into the NCAA Tournament. Standing pat won't do.

Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He's currently a Sports Anchor at WCBS 880 and WFAN radio in NYC. He can be reached via email at peterfmundo@gmail.com.

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