Friday, March 21, 2014
Did realignment actually change anything?
By Dana O'Neil
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A Big East meeting was assembled here this weekend, bringing back the band for one final set.
Tom Odjakjian, the league’s vice president, is here.
Ditto John Paquette, the conference’s longtime public-relations man.
Coach Jim Boeheim's third-seeded Syracuse squad went 14-4 in its first season in the ACC.
Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright will coach in games on Saturday. Jim Calhoun won’t coach, but he’s here, surreptitiously stealing everyone else’s thunder with news that maybe he wouldn’t mind trying this coaching thing again.
Of course, Wright and Paquette are the only ones still in the Big East. The rest are ex-employees, reshuffled in the dissolution and recreation of the league.
But they’re all here, Odjakjian and Calhoun with UConn and the American Athletic Conference, Boeheim with the ACC -- a strange bedfellow of a reunion party.
So is Dayton, survivor of the Atlantic 10 reorganization that was supposedly going to doom the league to the basketball basement.
Which begs a simple question: Did any of it matter? The handwringing, the fretting, the shouting into the wind about the end of loyalty and the beginning of the end of college athletics?
It all made perfect sense for football, which is why it all happened, but did it really make the dire impact on basketball that everyone suspected?
Those four teams are all wearing different logos on the back of their uniforms now, but they’re all still here, in the NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a team’s success.
No. 3 seed Syracuse will meet No. 11 seed Dayton in one third-round game, with No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 7 seed UConn in the other.
"It’s a little different in basketball," Boeheim said. "There are enough players now where everybody is able to be good, so you can survive as a basketball team no matter what conference. Where it matters is for the athletic department and for football, but basketball is different."
It’s a message certainly that is delivered with emphasis at this time of year, when upsets are commonplace. On Friday, one of the most storied programs of all time lost to a team that hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1985. And No. 14 seed Mercer didn’t beat No. 3 seed Duke with a miracle shot; the Bears mostly dominated the game.
The Atlantic Sun now moves on to the third round for the second season in a row; the Blue Devils of the mighty ACC head home after one game for the second time in three seasons.
Which would be akin to Georgia State and the Sun Belt beating Alabama and the SEC in football.
Impossible in one sport, unlikely but possible in another.
Because, in part, of what Boeheim said. You only need five players in hoops, the right five to be good.
But in basketball, you can also control your own destiny a little more. A 30-plus game schedule offers a few more opportunities than 12.
So teams in lesser leagues can beef up their chances by scheduling well.
"It matters more for football," Boeheim said. "You always need a place for football. For basketball, it’s good for the stability. You need stability, but you can make it. Of course, if a league keeps losing teams, it’s to be determined."
That, of course, is the rub. Conference stability takes the guessing out of the equation, as UConn might find out soon. The Huskies, the last pick in conference dodgeball, have managed to stay afloat in the new American, but the future is less than certain. Louisville moves on to the ACC next season, leaving UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU to keep things afloat.
The league this season felt the sting of its top-heavy and bottom-light rankings. The Mustangs were left out of the NCAA field, Louisville docked with a 4-seed.
Meantime the A-10, more established, pushed six into the tourney -- even if Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t agree.
A good league does buoy a team’s schedule strength. Maybe lessens the need for a murderer’s row nonconference schedule, too.
"We’re building a program," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "This is where we want to be, and we have to build around our league. I think, right now, the great thing is we can build a schedule around an at-large bid league."
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No one, of course, did it better than the old Big East, using its brand-name teams and its brand-name conference to gobble up at-large bids.
The conference mattered because it had history and tradition but mostly because it always retained its relevance.
“There’s just something very special about the Big East," Wright said. "So conference means a lot when it comes to the Big East, the old Big East."
But the Big East died and was reborn, and the world didn’t crumble. Teams that stuck around and teams that moved on are still tasting success, the disastrous consequences turning out not to be so disastrous after all.
It’s nice that all those folks are here. They can talk about the old days, rehash the "30 for 30" "Requiem for the Big East" documentary, but that’s about all there’s left to do.
Boeheim, ever the romantic, probably put it the best.
"You’ve got to move on," Boeheim said. "It’s like, you don’t ask questions about someone’s ex-wife, do you? There’s a good reason for that. You can only get in trouble with answering that question if you’re married again."