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The New Big East will never be the Old Big East, and that’s a good thing

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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.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.