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Conference realignment leaves Big East basketball in flux

When Big East men's basketball started to crumble with the exit of West Virginia, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale says he was a little upset.

As football-first programs replaced basketball powerhouses, Vitale came to accept the once-unthinkable for a league built on hardwood that has six national championships and Final Four appearances by every program but USF.

"This will be the last hurrah in basketball," Vitale said.

The Pitt-West Virginia rivalry is gone. Syracuse-Georgetown is likely in its last year. Of the five Big East teams in this week's Associated Press Top 25, three — Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame — are on their way out of the league.

ESPN reported that administrators from the seven non-football schools in the 16-team league met with commissioner Mike Aresco on Sunday to talk about the league's future and rumors of a possible split between football and non-football programs. The Atlantic 10 has discussed adding the non-football members, ESPN also reported.

"The Big East obviously is in a state of chaos," Vitale said. "Total chaos."

To see just how far the Big East has fallen, consider where it was in 2011. A record 11 schools made the NCAA Tournament. UConn won a wild conference tournament and battered Butler to win its third national championship since 1999.

Of the seven Big East teams that finished in the top 21 nationally in the NCAA's RPI that year, only UConn and Georgetown haven't left or announced their intention to do so, though Huskies officials have lobbied for an invitation to the ACC.

Last year the league was mulling a nine-year ESPN deal worth a reported $155 million annually. That deal now could bring as little as $60 million a year, cbs­sports.com reported last week.

"It's definitely hurt it," said Jeff Nelson, an analyst at Navigate Research, a sports-sponsorship research firm. "You can't really view it any other way."

As the firm's director of analytics, Nelson has worked with schools and conferences to see what configurations could yield the best TV deals. For the Big East, a league that didn't begin football until 12 years after its formation, that has meant focusing on football markets at the expense of its basketball tradition.

"At some point, it has to be enough," said Chris Mullin, a three-time Big East player of the year at St. John's from 1983-85 and a current NBA analyst for ESPN. "You always want to get better and get bigger. But … searching for more, sometimes you get led astray."

From 2005-12, the six teams that recently left or will leave the conference — Syracuse, Rutgers, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Pitt and Louisville — combined for 31 of its 64 trips to the NCAA Tournament. Their replacements — Houston, SMU, UCF, Memphis, Tulane and Temple — made 13 trips to the tournament in that span. The latter schools' combined 2010 men's basketball revenue of $20.2 million was less than half of what Louisville brought in ($40.9 million), according to figures provided to the Department of Education.

With the watering down of Big East basketball, Mullin, longtime basketball writer John Feinstein and others have advocated that the Catholic schools consider poaching programs such as Butler and Xavier to form a basketball-centric league.

"If I were Georgetown … you can bet I'm trying to have my own private conversations with TV executives and putting out feelers," Nelson said.

How profitable such a league would be is unclear because of how much more money football brings. There's a reason Kansas and its five college basketball titles was nearly left without a league when the Big 12 almost collapsed in 2010.

The Big Ten makes more each year from its football contract with ABC, $100 million, than it will over six years with its CBS basketball contract, $72 million total.

Basketball programs from non-football leagues have had success without big-time football. Creighton, Butler and Gonzaga are the prime examples. But the profits might not be as high.

Their leagues — the Missouri Valley, A-10 and West Coast — netted a combined $27 million in the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to their conferences' tax returns. That's less than the $28.8 million the Big East doled out to its non-football schools that year.

"The whole landscape of college athletics has become, to me, an absolute farce," Vitale said. "It makes no sense geographically, many of these alignments. It's all about money, money, greed, greed, dollars, dollars."

And even in one of the sport's top leagues, rarely about basketball.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Conference realignment leaves Big East basketball in flux 12/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 9:18pm]
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