As if conference realignment hadn’t injected enough uncertainty into the Big East’s future, two recent major offseason decisions will go a long way toward shaping Georgetown’s league in the both the near future and the long term.

First the Big East excluded Connecticut from the 2013 Big East tournament, meaning that the Huskies — who will already miss the NCAA tournament as a punishment for low graduation rates — won’t get to travel with the league’s other 14 teams to New York City for championship week.

The punishment came as no surprise and was absolutely fair. As many among the Huskies faithful acknowledge, UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun failed in his responsibility to meet the NCAA’s fairly lax Academic Progress Rate standards. With the team excluded from the Big Dance next season, it would have made no sense for Connecticut to compete for an automatic bid by playing in the Big East tournament.

But UConn will return to regular competition after next season, something that cannot be said of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, who stick around for the 2012-2013 season after their contract dispute with the Big East proved intractable (West Virginia, another casualty of realignment, has already left for the Big 12.)

So while the Orange and the Panthers will help offset the Huskies’ absence next season, more work had to be done to ensure the league’s survival. Commissioner John Marinatto has pounded the pavement, and by 2013, the league will actually increase its size to include 18 basketball schools.

While the key driver of college sports revenue is football, the additions of Memphis and Temple — and their strong basketball traditions — make sense from a hoops perspective. What many fans were wary of, however, was the admission of Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist.

For much of the league’s predominantly Eastern Seaboard fan base, it was pretty jarring to see the names of those schools flashed across the video screens at Madison Square Garden. But it isn’t just geography that gives basketball enthusiasts pause.

The best of the trio, UCF, finished last season with a record of 22-11 and lost in the NIT first round. Houston struggled to stay at .500, ending the year 15-15, and SMU actually had a losing season at 13-19.

And that’s why the announcement that Hall of Famer Larry Brown will head to Dallas to helm SMU is such good news for the Big East.

Brown is best known for his work in the NBA, and his championship season with Detroit in 2004 will surely be an asset in the era of wooing one-and-done recruits. But he was also a solid college coach, even though the last time he worked an NCAA sideline was in 1988, when he won a championship with Kansas.

I have my doubts about Brown, especially because he’s benefited from favorable set-ups everywhere he’s gone. Leading blue-chip programs at UCLA and Kansas is a far cry from trying to revive a moribund school that hasn’t seen an NCAA tournament bid since 1993.

Still, the announcement does signal a commitment from the Big East’s new basketball members to improving their programs as they join the league. UCF has tried to do the same within Conference USA, although a recruiting scandal has tarnished the school’s image. Houston, also, will do what it can to recreate its glory days of the 1980s.

Regardless of his success in the near future, Brown constitutes yet another gem in the array of coaches the nation’s premiere basketball conference has collected. That should be a benefit in years to come as the Big East navigates more uncertain territory.

Rumors are rampant that the Atlantic Coast Conference will displace the Big East’s cherished basketball tournament at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Beyond obvious contractual obligations, the heart of the ACC lies much closer to Tobacco Road than to 33rd Street in Manhattan, so this development seems unlikely.

A bigger threat might be continued realignment. Louisville and Cincinnati have both been suggested as possible additions to the Big 12. While Louisville has been temporarily placated by the additions of Memphis and Temple, which Cardinals Head Coach Rick Pitino championed, it might be hard to entice the pair of Ohio River schools to stay if the Big 12 makes a better offer.

The NCAA might also be tempted to give the conference less respect, especially as some of the teams best known to the selection committee — such as WVU, Syracuse and Pitt — depart.

But for now, the Big East still has a bright future, especially if the new teams make the same move as Southern Methodist and elevate their level of play in preparation for a jump to the Big East’s brighter lights.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and deputy sports editor of The Hoya. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.

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