Archive for March 17th, 2013


Last night was the last Big East Tournament Championship.

Louisville, which I still can’t think of as a Big East school, won the title for the 3rd time in the last 5 years, defeating a real Big East school, Syracuse.  After this year, about half the conference will have fled for the ACC, others will head to the Big 10.  Some will remain as sort of a rump conference, nicknamed the “Catholic 7.”  But it’s really the end of the conference.

One of the game announcers defied the conventions of his job and offered actual insight: conferences used to be regional associations of like-minded schools, usually of similar size, but not always.  So the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Big 10, and the Pac 8/10/12 all had personalities.  So did the smaller conferences.  Now, with all the shuffling to get TV money, they’re really just division of the NCAA.  There’s little regional about them (Maryland, enjoy that trip to Lincoln).  Syracuse looks nothing like Clemson, except for orange, and the longstanding rivalries have been diminished by not playing home games every year.

I’m not a conference luddite.  Adding Georgia Tech made sense for the ACC, and it always seemed like an ACC school.  Southern, reasonable size, good academics.

But I freely admit I’m a college sports reactionary.  I like the idea of conferences as being incubators for meaningful rivalries.  I like the conference tournaments to mean something.  In 1976, for example, Virginia won the ACC, and in the field of 32, the conference got two slots: U.Va. and UNC.  The Big got two teams: Indiana and Michigan, and they ended up meeting in the Championship.  Now, for better or worse, Duke or UNC loses the ACC final, and we’re told it won’t even cost them a No. 1 seed.  The conference tournaments are basically reduced to a second-chance lottery for the teams on the bubble, or even those on the outside looking in.  In 1976, UNC got in anyway, but Maryland, the #2 seed, probably got bounced by losing the Virginia.

If a conference chose not to pick its champion by having a tournament, that was their call.  For decades, the Big 10 and the Pac 8/10/12 didn’t have conference tournaments.  Growing up with the ACC, I thought that was weird, but ok, it was also their business.

Conferences also had distinctive styles of play, distinctive personalities.  The Big East was a tough, physical conference of big centers and tall front-courts.  For a while, they went to 6 fouls per player, and it probably ended up hurting them in the tournaments.  The ACC was about guard play and ball-handling.  They started the 3-point line experiment.  The hated Four Corners (keep-away, really, but it did still require serious ball-handling skills to pull off), could only have come out the ACC, and eventually led to the college shot clock.  The Pac-8/10/12 was UCLA, and then not much else for a long time.

Twenty years ago, when the independents started fleeing for cover – Florida State to the ACC, Penn State to the Big 10, Notre Dame to NBC, it should have been clear that something was afoot.  What was afoot was that, with the protection of a conference and its TV contracts, teams wouldn’t feel a need to schedule these teams, and lose to them for, well, nothing.  Eventually, the same logic extended to conferences.  When the “mid-majors” started getting better, the “power conferences” wouldn’t schedule them any more, since that easy payday was starting to look riskier to national title hopes.  All those extra NCAA bids which were supposed to go to the #3, #4, #5 power conference teams suddenly started going to the #2 and #3 teams from the mid-majors.

Rather than accept the more level playing field, the power conference solved their problem by luring away the best of the top mid-major teams and expanding.  Football was driving the bus on the major conference re-alignment, like sending Utah and Colorado to the Pac-8/10/12, but don’t think Big East basketball didn’t see the advantages of getting Marquette safely under its wing.

So now, in world that supposedly celebrates diversity, conferences, teams, and tournaments will all look more the same than ever.

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