TAMPA — USF's stay in the Big East, which started with such promise in 2005, looks like it will end sooner than expected.
The conference's basketball-only members, referred to as the "Catholic 7," have negotiated an accelerated exit to leave this summer and take the Big East name with them, according to reports Thursday. That would leave USF in a new, unnamed conference in the fall.
Multiple reports had the presidents and athletic directors from the league's all-sports schools meeting today in Atlanta to discuss the proposed split, with negotiations continuing on how much the basketball schools would pay for the Big East name and how the league's exit fees, among other things, would be dispersed.
The fracture would leave USF and other existing Big East members Cincinnati and Connecticut in a football and basketball league with Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU and Temple. Louisville and Rutgers would play in the new league for one season before leaving for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, in the summer of 2014.
Notre Dame, which had planned to move from the Big East to the ACC in 2014, could accelerate that move to this summer or spend one year in the new football-basketball league before moving. All its options remain open, the Chicago Tribune reported.
East Carolina and Tulane are scheduled to join in 2014, and Navy is expected to join as a football-only member in 2015.
The departing basketball schools — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova — are expected to add at least two but likely three teams to their new conference. ESPN reported Xavier and Butler would join, with Creighton the most likely 10th team.
That league would have its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York, with what would be the former Big East left to find a new home for its tournament.
This split should be the final step in what has been the unraveling of the Big East, with 16 teams leaving or announcing they're leaving in the past two years. Besides the seven basketball schools and Louisville, Rutgers and Notre Dame, that group includes West Virginia, which left for the Big 12 last year; Pittsburgh and Syracuse, which join the ACC this summer; and TCU, Boise State and San Diego State, which agreed to join the league but never arrived.
With the basketball-only schools leaving, USF's basketball programs should be in line for better success but in a lesser league. The men's team, which reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years last season, has struggled this year with a 1-14 record in league play. USF's women are in contention for an NCAA berth, with an 8-6 conference record entering Saturday's game against Connecticut.
The basketball departures should also have a negative impact on Sun Dome crowds. Home games involving the departing Big East programs have averaged 6,381 fans, 37 percent more than home games involving other opponents (4,639).
USF joined the Big East in 2005 after two years in Conference USA and eight seasons of football. The Bulls have never finished with better than a 4-3 record in football conference play and have gone 1-6 each of the past two seasons, leading to Skip Holtz's firing as coach in December and the hiring of Willie Taggart.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.
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The reported new-look, nine-team Big East starting July 1, with a possibility a 10th team could be added:
Butler DePaul Georgetown
Marquette Providence St. John's
Seton Hall Villanova Xavier