Re-Introducing the Big East

With 4.7 seconds left, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige made an off-balance three-pointer, tying the game against Villanova in the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball final. In the crowd, UNC and Villanova fans both thought the game was going into overtime. But as Wildcat point-guard Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled up the court, he passed the ball to fellow senior Kris Jenkins, who pulled up for a long 3 with one second left. Jenkins made the 3 pointer, leading Villanova to a buzzer-beating victory, 74-77, over ACC powerhouse UNC. It was a stunning moment, and one that was significant for plenty of reasons. Among them was that Villanova’s victory in the national championship validated the ‘new’ Big East, coming out from behind the success of the ‘old’ Big East.

The ‘old’ Big East teams consistently competed to be the best league in the country; it was known for having basketball powerhouses like UConn and Syracuse. In July of 2013, the Big East as fans knew it was split. Seven schools left the conference in order to maintain their football programs. The remaining schools, joined by a few additions, formed a new, basketball-focused Big East. DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova all decided to remain, while strong programs like Louisville, Syracuse, and Notre Dame all left for the ACC. This set the stage for inevitable comparisons with the ‘old’ Big East. That era had seen phenomenal success, exemplified by the conference’s record in its second to last season. The conference managed to send a record 11 out of 16 teams to the NCAA Tournament, with UConn going on to win the whole thing. The ‘new’ Big East had some rather large shoes to fill. 

In addition, the reconfiguration of the league resulted in ESPN dropping the Big East and selling it to Fox Sports 1. The Big East was on ESPN from 1980-2013. The Big East joined ESPN when ESPN was just a new, small television network operating out of Bristol, Connecticut. Fox Sports does not have the same following that ESPN has. This past season, the Big East games have had a disappointing turnout on Fox Sports 1, averaging less than 100,000 viewers per game. Conferences that include Division I football, such as the ACC, SEC, and Big 10, are still on ESPN, making it difficult for the Big East to compete. Having to contend with its former success and the success of the ACC, where several of the Big East teams moved to, has made it more difficult for the ‘new’ Big East to establish itself. Villanova’s championship title has brought more attention to the less publicized progress of the ‘new’ Big East.

Prior to Villanova’s win in the championship, the ‘new’ Big East had been strong. However, much of its success went unrecognized. For instance, the Big East sent half off of its teams to the NCAA tournament since the realignment of the conference three years ago. For the 2016 season the ACC sent seven out of 14 teams to the tournament, while the Big East sent five out of 10 teams to the tournament. In other words, both conferences sent the same ratio of members. In the past three seasons, the Big East has been one of the top four strongest leagues in Division 1 based on RPI. The conference was fourth, second, and then third this past season.

Villanova’s win in the NCAA tournament has gone done as one of the most thrilling wins in the history of the finals. This reflects on the Big East as a whole, showing that they are a conference to be reckoned with. The conference already had the talent, it just needed more publicity to put the conference back on a national stage. It has especially benefitted Xavier. The Musketeers were a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, not exactly a prominent locale, prior to realignment. In CBS Sports’ Top 25 Rankings for the 2016-2017 season, two Big East teams, Xavier and Villanova, were both in the top five. Only the results of the coming seasons can show the effect of Villanova’s win on the story of the Big East.

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