Commentary

The king is dead; long live the king

Notre Dame's move shows Big East's instability and ACC's increasing strength

Originally Published: September 12, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

For years the ACC unofficially billed itself as the best basketball league in the land, often relying on ancient history in lieu of actual results to inaccurately boast its place in the pecking order.

The reality, of course, is that the ACC is home to two of the most successful and iconic programs in the nation. For the past quarter-century -- with a few exceptions such as Maryland a decade ago -- everyone else has been like an ugly stepsister riding coattails to the ball. In other words, with little to no chance to dance.

[+] EnlargeCameron Crazies
AP PhotoThose blue bloods in the state of North Carolina will soon see increased competition in the ACC.

The truly best basketball league in the land duked (pun intended) it out in New York every March in a weeklong slugfest that made the NCAA tournament look like a tea party.

The Big East, in all its blue-collar nastiness, may not always have offered the most aesthetically pleasing version of Mr. Naismith's game, but it was inarguably the deepest and toughest conference in the country.

So much for that.

The king is dead.

Long live the king.

When Notre Dame joins Pitt and Syracuse in the bagel-for-BBQ exchange program, the ACC will once again be able to claim it stands among the best basketball leagues in the country -- almost certainly the best.

Only this time, the claim will have merit.

Adding the Irish may not seem like such a drastic game-changer -- the last time Notre Dame won a national championship was never; the last time it got close was 1978 -- but the Irish are a steady and reliable contender that shores up a league that has lacked steady and reliable.

The top has never been a problem for the ACC. Duke and North Carolina, with the occasional "outside threat," have had that covered for years. It's the conference's middle that has sagged like a middle-aged paunch.

Since 1994, the ACC has placed a team in the Final Four 15 times. Pretty good run.

Except only three of them (Maryland in 2001 and 2002, and Georgia Tech in 2004) weren't named Duke or North Carolina.

The league has been righting that recently, thanks to the emergence of Florida State and the re-emergence of a once and former power, NC State.

Adding Syracuse and Pitt makes the top a little more crowded. Adding Notre Dame beefs up the middle even more.

Adding all three makes the conference legitimately lethal, not just a top-heavy fraud.

But it is the subtraction of Notre Dame from the Big East as much as it is the Irish's addition to the ACC that tilts the basketball axis.

While everyone else continues to get stronger, the Big East merely gets more muddled, forced to nickel and dime new members in the hopes of closing the gaping holes left by the ones that are leaving.

The league recently announced it would retain its name, citing its branding value. The truth is, the Big East is the Big East in name only, with a brand teetering toward generic. Its boundaries are stretched to comic lengths, and only the non-power schools (the ones without football) keep the league's traditional image alive.

When new commissioner Mike Aresco goes to the negotiating table for a new TV deal, he will be able to pitch Rutgers-Louisville and Central Florida-South Florida as his marquee football games and Catholics versus C-USA in basketball.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame has been to the NCAA tournament in five of the past six years.

And that's for now. Don't think for a minute Notre Dame's announcement didn't lead to frantic conversations deep in the offices of Tom Jurich (at Louisville), Tim Pernetti (at Rutgers) and Warde Manuel (at Connecticut). The three are currently the leaders in the Big East power broker clubhouse but have done little to mask their desire for a relo package.

I suspect there will be lots of departmental spit-shining and elbow-throwing here in the next few weeks as each preens even harder for a new suitor.

With them, there is still plenty of good basketball to be had in the Big East. Georgetown, Villanova, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis, Temple, Cincinnati, Marquette and St. John's make for a pretty good core group.

They will account for a fair share of NCAA bids in the future and perhaps even a national championship run or two.

But with each departure, the Big East loses a little bit of itself and, more important, its essence. The once perennial power with schools that fit the brand is now a hodgepodge of unclaimed orphans, basketball's Ellis Island, if you will.

Notre Dame's departure doesn't ruin the conference, but it surely diminishes it further, just as it surely betters the ACC.

The king is dead.

Long live the king.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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