On Saturday night, Louisville beat Cincinnati, 50-44, to win the Big East championship in what was one of the more singularly preposterous matchups of the entire run-up to the NCAA tournament. Prior to this weekend, these two teams had played each other in championship games in two other conferences - the Metro and Conference USA. One of those conferences even still exists.
All weekend, there was about the tournament the slightly musty smell of encroaching obsolescence. There was a time, and not so long ago, when the Big East was a spotlit thing, playing its tournament in New York, its original membership constructed from schools with long basketball traditions and large eastern media markets. It made stars, like Pearl Washington at Syracuse, and it made people like Patrick Ewing who already were stars into superstars. This year, its championship game was a contest between two teams from the Ohio River basin.
Pierce goes on to complain that the Big East is losing its identity with Pitt and Syracuse decamping for the ACC and West Virginia headed for the Big XII. My first reaction to this piece was that Pierce is writing from his roots. College football now dominates college basketball and the various moves that schools are making are all based on football. The Big East lost the aforementioned teams not because the conference is weak in basketball, but rather because it was imploding in football (especially with the prospect of BCS auto-bids going away) and the ACC and Big XII presented better options. In fact, the Big East brought about its own demise by ignoring the importance of college football, most notably when they turned Penn State away in 1989. Shockingly enough, a writer from Massachusetts - a college football wasteland - cannot quite come to grips with this reality.
My second thought is to wonder whether the addition of Pitt and Syracuse will make the ACC a better basketball property and re-energize the league. The obvious answer is that it will. If Syracuse remains at its current level, then it will, at a minimum, turn a bi-polar league into a tri-polar one. More good teams means more good games, which in turn means more interest. On the other hand, what Pierce is talking about with the Big East is the loss of its brand as a Northeastern basketball conference. He does not feel the same attachment to the conference when two teams from the Ohio Valley are playing at MSG in a tournament final. If Pierce is representative, then adding Pitt and Syracuse poses a challenge for the ACC. The league's identity has always been as a Southern basketball conference. Does the brand suffer when it adds excellent basketball programs from outside of the region?