The New Big East is never going to be the Old Big East.
That is where this conversation — college basketball’s argument du jour, whether the New or Old iteration of a 40-year old league is better — needs to start and end.
I grew up on the Big East. My first sports memory as a kid was watching Ray Allen and UConn make a game-winning floater to beat Allen Iverson and Georgetown for the Huskies first Big East title. I loved that conference.
This league will never be that league.
And it doesn’t have to be, nor should it want to be.
The Old Big East was a league defined by the characters and rivalries that built it. John Thompson Jr., Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Lou Carnesecca. That league was changed long before the likes of Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and West Virginia departed for greener football fields. Once the TV networks figured out that their cash cow was going to be football, the end was inevitable. Hell, the New Big East is, quite literally, a new conference. The infrastructure of the Old Big East is now the American.
The seven schools that left that league started their own conference, called it the Big East, kept the rights to Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and poached the three best programs east of the Rockies that weren’t yet in a power conference to start anew.
Hell, it’s not all that different from what the seven charter members of the league did way back in 1979.
Point being, this is a new conference. We should look at it as such. We should embrace it for the characters that are building it: Jay Wright and his tailored suits. Chris Mack and the DGAF-mantra his teams play with. The leftover Butler Way from the Brad Stevens era at Butler. Greg McDermott, an Iowa country-boy that somehow made a program in Omaha, somewhere in Middle America, relevant in a conference made up of private schools in major, mostly east coast cities.
Instead of arguing over whether or not a conference that has been dominated by a Villanova program that has grown into one of the most impressive dynasties in recent memory is better than the 16-team behemoth that was its predecessor, we should embrace what has been borne out of the new league.
Case in point: Xavier-Butler has turned into one of the games that I look forward to most every year, and Tuesday evening did not disappoint. The Musketeers jumped out to a 29-11 lead midway through the first half. Butler came storming back on the heels of four-year star Kelan Martin, who finished with 34 points, and Sean McDermott to take a six-point lead late in the second half. Xavier responded with a run that seemed to seal the win, but the Bulldogs used a 9-2 run in the final minute to force overtime.
In the extra frame, Trevon Bluiett buried a pair of threes, including this 28-foot dagger, to seal a 98-93 overtime win:
That was a great game, and I don’t say that lightly.
And it’s one of what’s been an incredible run of highly-entertaining games in the Big East this season. It’s a league that is loaded with high-powered offenses that play at a fast pace. There are always going to be points put on the board in Big East games. There are always going to be thrilling, thoroughly watchable and aesthetically pleasing games on TV. Case-in-point: Everyone of the top seven conferences has at least one team allowing less than 1.00 points-per-possession in league play … except the Big East. We’re a little more than halfway through conference play and Creighton, at 1.052 PPP allowed, has been the best defensive team in the conference.
This a league where six teams seem destined to get a berth to the NCAA tournament again, a league that looks like it is going to finish in the top three on KenPom for the fourth consecutive season.
The Big East is also one of just two power conferences, along with the Big 12, that play a full round-robin schedule. Nothing stokes a rivalry better than a home-and-home in conference games that matter.
Which leads me back to Villanova.
What the Wildcats are doing in this conference should not be used as a weapon to bring the league down. This has been, unequivocally, one of the three best conferences in America for the last three seasons, just as it is this season. Assuming Villanova wins the league’s regular season title again this year, it will be their fifth outright conference title in the five years since the split. In the last four years, they’ve won the league by a combined 11 games. They have two Big East tournament titles in that stretch. In total, if you include two Big East tournament losses, Villanova has lost 12 games to Big East foes since the split.
And they’ve done all that as a member one of the three best leagues in America, one of two leagues that is small enough to force every member play each other twice.
Oh, and they won a national title in that stretch.
That should be celebrated for the incredible feat that it is.
Just like the New Big East should be celebrated for what it is: A new conference with an old name that has so much more left to give us.
I will never not be nostalgic about the Old Big East, but that doesn’t mean I won’t thoroughly enjoy this Big East for as long as I can.