Big East speeds toward uncertain future

Like it or not, the Big East is changing. Will the shifting landscape spell the downfall of the conference?

NEW YORK –- On the eve of Big East basketball media day, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey found himself looking at one New York City landmark from a different perspective. Madison Square Garden may be the world's most famous arena, but Big East coaches and players have acquired a special sense of ownership and a true bond with that building over the past 30 seasons.

With 15 conference teams gathering on the south side of Central Park, Brey was reminded of that powerful symbolism.

"Just being in this city today and going by the Garden last night, I'm going to miss the Big East," Brey said Wednesday at the New York Athletic Club. "There's part of me that says, ‘I hope we can stay another year.' I'm not too anxious to run to Greensboro. ... I'm in no hurry to get out of this thing. I love this."

Brey, of course, has no specific grudge against Greensboro. That North Carolina locale just happens to be headquarters for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the future destination of all Fighting Irish teams with the exception of football.

The ACC has a way of looming over Big East events like a threatening dark cloud about to erupt in a powerful storm. That feeling of change was in the room again Wednesday. Syracuse and Pittsburgh were making their final Big East media day appearances. Those programs, led by Jim Boeheim and Jamie Dixon, will leave for the ACC after this season. West Virginia has already departed for the Big 12. And Notre Dame's recent announcement means the Irish will join the realignment shuffle -- but a date for that move has not been set.

There may be a national perception that the Big East is crumbling. Coaches and administrators at media day couldn't deny that change is coming, but no one from the conference seemed to be searching for a panic button. In fact, there was tremendous optimism that seemed to override any twinge of sadness.

"After the smoke clears and the changes are made, we will have gone from unquestionably being the best basketball conference to arguably being the best basketball conference," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "The perception that we have fizzled down to a lower tier as a conference is completely false. And time will show that."

Mike Brey's Fighting Irish will be leaving the Big East ... at some point.

Thompson's father, in terms of coaching, was one of the founding fathers of the Big East. And as JT3 followed in the footsteps of John Thompson in his personal evolution from a youngster to a head coach, he saw that change happens –- and happens often.

The first time his father wasn't in the room for media day there was a void because John Thompson was one of the faces that gave the Big East character. It was the same with Lou Carnesecca at St. John's and Rollie Massimino at Villanova. Wednesday was different because Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun wasn't in the room. The Hall of Famer with 17 Big East titles and three national championships retired last month.

"It's very different," Brey said. "I'll really miss (Calhoun). He was a mentor to me as a young coach in this league. He was helpful to me and he never had to do that. And if we're back here next year and I look at the Syracuse table ... well, there won't be a Syracuse table. That's going to be different too."

The dominant discussion at media day was the future. The Big East has already agreed to add Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist and Temple in 2013-14. But do those programs have strong enough brands to replace the exiting teams?

"I grew up watching Syracuse, I grew up playing against Syracuse," said first-year UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who was recruited out of Los Angeles by Calhoun and his staff based in large part on the selling point of Big Monday games Ollie watched when he got home from high school. "It's going to definitely hurt to see those great programs leave, but I think this conference is unified and we still have some great teams."

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was a player in the Big East for three seasons at Pitt under his father, coach Ralph Willard. He has watched the league evolve and says people have to realize conference alignment is unstable now.

CHANGE IN THE AIR

A number of changes are on the horizon for the Big East basketball lineup:
2011-2012 members Cincinnati, Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pitt, Providence, Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall, South Florida, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia
Leaving West Virginia (already joined Big 12), Syracuse (2013), Pitt (2013), Notre Dame (TBA)
Joining UCF (2013), Houston (2013), Memphis (2013), SMU (2013), Temple (2013)

"When Notre Dame first came in the league, people said that's not really a Big East school," Willard said. "When Boston College left they said how are they going to survive BC leaving? Do you replace Syracuse and Jim Boeheim? Not right away. It's almost like replacing your great senior. You're not going to do it with someone else. It's going to be weird at first, but I guarantee you everyone is going to move on."

Boeheim's Syracuse team will be in the hunt for the Big East regular season championship one final time this season. In the coaches' preseason poll, the Orange were picked second behind unanimous conference favorite Louisville. Boeheim and his protégé, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, will spar twice this season on the court but the gloves came off already at media day.

Pitino called Temple a sleeping giant and pointed out Memphis has annual top-10 success as a recruiting program.

"The Big East will be just fine," Pitino said. "I fought very hard to try and get people to understand how much Temple and Memphis will mean to this conference. If you look at the tradition of Temple and Memphis, it equals Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Those are awesome programs.

"Now, we will miss Syracuse. Syracuse is Madison Square Garden and New York City because they bring so many fans to the city. ... But all (Memphis and Temple) needed, much like Louisville 12 years ago, was a great league to go to and now they have that."

In the true spirit of political debating, Boeheim was asked to respond.

"Rick's full of (expletive), if that's what he really said," Boeheim told reporters. "If he was in the Big 12 right now, like he wanted to be, he'd be saying the Big 12 is the best. ... I'm really tired of him saying what Syracuse should be or should have done because (Louisville) would have left in a heartbeat. Everybody knows it."

Rick Pitino thinks the likes of Temple and Memphis will fill in just fine for the departing schools.

Pitino and Boeheim proved once again that breaking up is hard to do. But after every quarrel, the Big East finds a way to pick itself up off the mat. That moment Wednesday came when new commissioner Mike Aresco announced the Big East and Madison Square Garden have agreed to a multi-year extension that will keep the Big East championship in New York City.

The current deal with the Garden runs four more years. The conference did not reveal the length of the extension, but a source told FOXSportsNext.com that it calls for an additional 10 years. Given the current environment of college athletics, 14 more years is a significant statement for the Big East.

"We are happy that our teams will continue to bring the excitement of Big East basketball to the Garden," Aresco said.

Happy indeed. ACC commissioner John Swofford had made comments about his conference's interest in occupying the Garden. That didn't go over well with the Big East office in Providence. Knowing the ACC can't take that away comes as a comfort to Big East officials.

After a spirited media day, sentimental Big East fans might be pulling for a final showdown between Louisville and Syracuse at the 2013 Big East tournament. The Garden would be rocking for that.

But somewhere in the future, can anyone truly imagine SMU playing UCF in a Big East championship game? Would the Garden rock for that one?

"It's going to be different," Brey said. "But those people from Texas and Orlando are going to come here to experience the Big East tournament. It will be kind of a new venture for many of them."

It will be new for everyone.

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