Realignment No Cause for Panic
Published: Friday, November 30, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 30, 2012 03:11
Even the Big East’s biggest cheerleaders will find it difficult to spin either Louisville’s decision to leave the conference or Tulane’s decision to join it as anything but body blows to the league Georgetown helped found in 1979.
What seems to remain — although the vexing question of what role football will play in the new league remains central — is a conference with a roster of solid, if not spectacular, basketball schools.
The Cardinals fled Conference USA in 2005, hoping to take advantage of the Big East’s status as an Automatic Qualifying conference for football’s Bowl Championship Series. But with football’s moving to a playoff system, the Big East no longer has that valuable draw.
Louisville now joins a long list of soon-to-be former Big East members; Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia have also bolted in the last two years.
Those teams made up the heart of the conference, from the orange-clad fans that filled Madison Square Garden for the men’s basketball tournament to blustery November nights on the gridiron in Morgantown, W.Va.
For the past year, Louisville coach Rick Pitino — whose coaching career took off at Providence and eventually found its way to Louisville — has pushed to save that Big East. But with his school’s leaving, it looks like it’s gone forever.
With that, college basketball’s center of gravity has moved farther away from Georgetown. To the south, the ACC is now the premier basketball league, while to the west, the Big Ten (whose name is increasingly incongruous for a 14-member conference) is as strong as ever.
The ACC, once centered on Tobacco Road, now includes the four most accomplished active coaches: Pitino, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and, yes, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. Combined, that gang has 27 Final Four appearances.
As a resurgent Indiana showed in besting Georgetown last week, the Big Ten is also a powerhouse. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad seems to always stick around deep into the tournament, while coaching masterminds helm Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well.
Georgetown’s name cannot be found among these schools, primarily because it does not play BCS football. And without world-class facilities, athletic scholarships or a large, established fan base, it is unlikely we will see Hoyas football advance to a higher level any time in the near future.
Instead, University President John J. DeGioia, Athletic Director Lee Reed and the rest of the administration must double down on the sport most important to the Hilltop’s identity — basketball — while ensuring that other sports, such as lacrosse and soccer, continue to play in a competitive environment.
Underscoring the importance of basketball above all else, however, are the two iconic images on the backs of this year’s men’s basketball jerseys: university founder John Carroll and longtime basketball coach John Thompson Jr.
That’s appropriate, as Thompson — with some help from our nation’s 42nd president and our school’s favorite son — has helped bring Georgetown to national prominence over the past four decades.
With a changing landscape, keeping that prominence is paramount.
In the one area where they have total control — facilities — Reed and DeGioia are making the right moves. The nation’s top-tier basketball programs, minus Georgetown, not only play in decked-out arenas but boast world-class practice facilities, too.
Reed’s plan to build the Intercollegiate Athletic Center, which will hopefully soon be christened with a name that rolls more easily off the tongue, is laudable. A commitment to investing in the school’s athletic infrastructure is the only way the Hoyas will continue to bring in top talent.
What Georgetown cannot control, however, is the ongoing process of realignment. Some shrewd observers — like acclaimed sportswriter John Feinstein of The Washington Post — have argued for a small league centered on basketball. Pitino, for instance, argued that such a conference would be made up of Catholic schools because “nobody has more money than the Vatican.”
Having recently toured Rome, however, this writer deems it unlikely that Benedict XVI will hawk Michelangelos to ensure the lights stay on at Verizon Center.
But as long as the cameras are rolling and the band keeps playing, concerns over realignment for Georgetown will remain overstated.
Of course, the critics are correct in assuming that the current superleague of 20 teams — which stretches more than 2,500 miles from Providence, R.I., to San Diego — is unsustainable. Let’s assume for a moment, though, that a few of those teams, such as Boise State, Cincinnati and Connecticut, all of which have experienced some football success, eventually head elsewhere.
That leaves the Hoyas in a Big East that looks a lot like the old Conference USA. It would combine basketball schools like Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova with BCS football schools that probably will never make the sport’s playoffs, such as Memphis, Houston and Tulane.
That is a recipe for instability if those schools make a huge jump in football quality, but it would lend stability for at least a decade. And for Georgetown, it would be a satisfactory outcome.
The old Conference USA, before Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette left in 2005, was an excellent basketball league. Stars like Quentin Richardson, Kenyon Martin and Dwayne Wade all hit the hardwood there, while esteemed coaches like Tom Crean, John Calipari and Pitino paced its sidelines.
Even after the Bearcats, Cardinals and Golden Eagles jumped ship, the league was still good to Memphis, who had a period of dominance leading to a (later vacated) Final Four run. They proved to be the ultimate big fish in a small pond.
Because schools like Memphis and Marquette are likely to stay in the conference, Georgetown would still be playing in a competitive league — just one not quite as brutal as the Big East used to be; that can still lead to success.