Big East Puts Basketball on a Pedestal, and Likes How It Looks

Big East Puts Basketball on a Pedestal, and Likes How It Looks


To put that in perspective, the Big East has had two of its members placed on the bracket’s top line in the same year only three times, including in the days of Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe that this idea was achievable,” Ackerman said. “That you could stay relevant, stay competitive — without football.”

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Kyron Cartwright of Providence, center, drew an offensive foul on J.P. Macura of Xavier, in air, in the final minute of overtime on Friday in the Big East semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Friars came back from a 17-point, second-half deficit to stun Xavier, 75-72.

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Elsa/Getty Images

A scene from Friday: A 17-point second-half lead for top-seeded Xavier had vanished. A floater in the lane from Rodney Bullock of Providence tied the score, 64-64. A capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden roared. A “Let’s go, Friars” chant resounded.

“I love it!” Ed Cooley, the Providence coach, cried, clapping his hands. “I love it.”

The game went to overtime before the Friars sprinted off the court having handed Xavier only its sixth loss of the season.

“What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league,” Cooley said afterward.

It was easy to forget that the Big Ten Conference had just commandeered the Garden for its conference tournament a week earlier. (Ackerman, conveniently, escaped to Chicago for the Big East women’s tournament.) The TV ratings for the Big Ten final, between Michigan and Purdue, and won by Michigan, were the lowest since 2009, down 13 percent from the previous year, according to the website Sports Media Watch.

Harder to ignore, however, is the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament running concurrently across the river in Brooklyn. On Friday, the A.C.C. commissioner, John Swofford, told The Associated Press that he felt it was “important” for the league to hold its tournament in New York, after two strong years at Barclays Center.

Pressure from competing leagues trying to encroach on the Big East’s turf is just one of Ackerman’s persistent concerns. The other is financial solvency, she admitted.

“Long term, for a conference like ours, without football revenue, the question will be whether that will matter over time,” she said. “Right now, it hasn’t mattered. We’re in good shape. But over time, I think that’s the question.”

The return of Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing to the conference to coach at their alma maters, St. John’s and Georgetown, has reinfused some tradition into a league that was in danger of growing too unrecognizable for its old-school fans. Then again, the three newcomers, Xavier, Butler and Creighton, have been consistent winners.

In Ackerman’s mind, so has the league’s partnership with Fox Sports 1, which puts its games on national television, and with Madison Square Garden, a deal that runs through 2026.

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Villanova guard Phil Booth shot against Butler’s Henry Baddley in Friday’s game.

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Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

And for a fledgling league, even a small, somewhat semantical triumph such as being able to maintain the old Big East record books is not insignificant.

“It seems to be making a difference in terms of the selling of the conference,” she said.

Ackerman said the league was content with 10 teams, although Gonzaga, of the West Coast Conference, has been consistently rumored as a candidate to extend the conference’s reach to the opposite coast.

“I think the low number together with the common nature of our schools has been a contributing factor” to the league’s success, she said.

“I don’t think I could’ve ever envisioned it was this big,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said.

Wright, the most devoted and vocal pitchman for the conference, in either iteration, said what was exciting about the old league were the frequent intraconference matchups between highly ranked opponents. Many thought those days were gone.

“Well,” Wright said, “we’re doing the same thing now.”

How to explain it?

“We were doing O.K.,” Ackerman said. “We had four teams in the first year,” referring to the N.C.A.A. tournament.

“But the year that Villanova won, that was the holy grail,” she continued. “That’s what you dream about. And it really validated the vision of the presidents.”

Late Friday, Villanova routed Butler, the sixth seed, to advance to the final on Saturday night. It would meet Providence for a chance to win its second Big East tournament title in a row. These days, once again, that’s a laudable accomplishment.

“This is pretty cool,” Wright said. “I’m excited where this league is right now.”



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