by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Anyone who has been reading these pages for the last few years knows that we at TGS are not the least bit surprised at all of the recent conference maneuvering, especially involving the Big East. Almost three years ago, in our much-referenced initial Big 64 story, we foretold of a day not long in the future when the Big East would again become a basketball-only league, or at least see a separation of the traditional hoops schools from those on the football side. When that move looked imminent last month (TGS Hoops issue No. 5, and cover story “Is it the end of the Big East?”), we alerted readership as well that big change was just around the corner.

Sure enough, within two weeks, word came that the “Catholic 7" Big East hoops schools (Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, and DePaul) were bolting from the bloated conglomeration that the Big East had become.

Now, however, one has to wonder what comes next. The Big East’s unraveling process might not be done overnight. To be decided, among other things, are the naming rights to the league, and what might become of the exit fee dollars (estimated to be close to $50 million) owed to all current members of the league from past defections. Also which faction of the splintering league will get first call on Madison Square Garden for its conference tourney.

What we do know is that the Catholic 7 will break free from the rest of the conference no later than the 2014-15 season, and will likely be looking to add members to their ranks. We will speculate upon who those new members might in fact be in just a moment.

In the meantime, what’s left of the Big East on the football side continues to flail desperately as it seeks to salvage what has become a descent into the gridiron abyss. After the recent defections of Rutgers (to the Big Ten) and Louisville (to the ACC), joining ACC-bound Syracuse and Pitt as the latest to bail from the league, the Big East is left with UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida, Temple and soon-to-join UCF, Houston, SMU, Memphis, Tulane, East Carolina, San Diego State, and Boise State (Navy slated to join in 2015) on the football side. But sources are adamant that UConn and Cincinnati are desperate for a way out of the league and eagerly awaiting a call from the ACC or perhaps Big 12 as an escape route.

In the meantime, the Big East is having severe troubles negotiating a football TV contract because of the unknowns regarding future membership. The existing TV deals will expire at the end of the upcoming 2013 campaign. And the league will lose its automatic entree into the new form of the BCS when a four-team playoff becomes reality after the 2013 season.

Moreover, sources have long speculated that Boise State and San Diego State are considering their options to return to the Mountain West...more so perhaps with the Broncos, who sources say didn’t burn as many bridges in the Mountain as did the Aztecs. In fact, many insiders consider that move by Boise to be imminent.

In the meantime, however, the Broncos have decided to try to pull a Notre Dame-like power play by angling with both the remaining Big East and the Mountain West to retain TV rights to their home football games. Sources say neither the Big East nor the Mountain West are interested in Boise along those terms, which have also apparently rubbed a lot of college football’s traditional powers the wrong way.

Although we don't blame the Brocnos for trying, we don’t think Boise is going to get away with this blatant power play, but are more concerned about it planting the seed for other schools (with more clout) to consider something similar. We are reminded of a time in the early 1970s when Southern Cal, in the days after AD Jess Hill retired and John McKay was serving both as the AD and head football coach, was considering a break from the then Pac-8 for independent status a la Notre Dame. McKay reckoned such a move could perhaps be worth millions of dollars to the university, which wouldn’t have to be splitting TV revenues for conference members any longer. That idea disappeared rather quickly almost forty years ago, but we suspect it might be rekindled by some other “name” school interested in going it alone as an independent. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, the Big East is listing under college athletics’ version of the Titanic. We have some empathy for new Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco, who walked into a bad situation. A former CBS TV exec with little experience as a college administrator who won out over UNLV AD Jim Livengood for the job in August, Aresco’s apparent lack of communication skills have angered some members. Specifically, Aresco has done a poor job relaying pertinent info about money issues, be it potential television money or the amount schools should expect from exit fees.

Moreover, Aresco’s biggest blunder was probably moving too fast on adding Tulane, which proved the final straw for the increasingly-alienated Catholic 7 school athletic directors. Instead of consulting with the ADs, Aresco reportedly went through the league’s presidents, who approved of Tulane because of its academic reputation. But that same lack of communication with the ADs hurt Aresco’s credibility and exposed his inexperience with dealing with the complicated political dynamics of conferences.

Now, the question is if Aresco can recover and salvage what is left of the Big East? Reports have a new potential conference war developing with the Mountain West, as Aresco has apparently made informal inquiries to UNLV and Fresno State about joining what is left of his league, trying to form an all-sports western portion of the conference. But insiders say the Rebels and Bulldogs are not interested, and in fact there are rumors that the Mountain West might be interested in poaching one of the new, western-most Big East entries into its loop, which has just restructured its TV deal with CBS to allow more freedom for games to be sold to other outlets. In the industry, the Mountain West’s TV developments are generally regarded as a positive.

The next acts in this never-ending soap opera might be coming in the courtroom, as most eyes are going to be on how successful the ACC is going to be in saddling Big Ten-bound Maryland with the conference’s $50 million exit fee. The Terps, one of two schools (Florida State the other) that didn’t vote for the enhanced penalty, are challenging the exorbitant exit fee.

Whatever happens with Maryland likely has a big impact on the next dominoes we expect to fall, those being Virginia Tech and NC State moving from the ACC to the SEC. There’s also the matter of the SEC trying to set up its own Big Ten-like network, an announcement of which, some sources believe, is likely to be made in conjunction with an addition of the Hokies and Wolfpack to the loop, perhaps in the first quarter of 2013.

Should that happen, sources believe the ACC moves quickly to add Cincinnati and UConn to take the places of VPI and NC State. Meanwhile, there’s more scuttlebutt regarding the Big Ten, and that Commissioner Jim Delany is not about to sit on 14 teams. A foray into the Southeast is next; as reported here last month, ACC Georgia Tech, located in the hotbed of Atlanta, is still considered a possible target. There are also rumors that Delany might not mind taking a swipe at his SEC counterpart Mike Slive and perhaps make a bid for Vanderbilt, which satisfies all of the Big Ten academic criteria and also opens the possibility of the conference TV network further expanding its base on basic cable outlets into the mid-South, where Nashville has emerged as a dynamic and growing market. While some believe Delany would still like to add Texas and/or Florida-based schools to the Big Ten, adding Tech and Vandy would accomplish TV-based objectives as well.

As for the Big East, the only question now is what form the departure of the Catholic 7 will take. There are a number of options; all of them are tied to money. If the seven leave en masse they will not have to pay an exit fee. They could vote to dissolve the league; it takes a two-thirds vote, and only South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati also have votes on dissolution (Temple is a voting member but not on dissolution). So the votes would be there if needed if dissolution is what the Catholic 7 wants. Of course it would be difficult then to try to demand pending exit fees from a league that no longer exists.

What a mess. As we mentioned last month, blame it on football.

As for the Catholic 7, we suspect they will be on the lookout for some new members as they consider a 10, 12, or even 16-team league. For the record, most believe 12 is going to be the magic number. Following are the most-likely candidates from a variety of leagues that seem to be the best fits for the expansion-minded Catholic 7.

Xavier...This looks to be the most-probable addition to the Catholic 7. With its Jesuit affiliation, the “X” is an easy fit with the Big East defectors. The hoops program is high-profile, the Cintas Center an attractive facility, and the Musketeers could fill the “Big East gap” in Cincinnati metro and the surrounding tri-state area that has been occupied by the Cincy Bearcats in recent years. (Chances-95%)

Butler...Though not a Catholic school (Butler was founded by members of the Disciples of Christ church, though it was never controlled by that congregation, and remains non-sectarian), Butler nonetheless appears to be a proper fit. A pair of Final Four (and championship game) appearances in the past three years certainly have given the program a high-enough profile. The Bulldogs help expand the Big East’s footprint in the Upper Midwest by servicing a major metro area (Indianapolis). Steeped in tradition with the venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s locale in Indy also provides access to another major arena (the NBA Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse) that could potentially house a conference tournament; Indy is slated to be a rotating host of the Big Ten Tourney in upcoming years, and in the other years could be looking to fill dates in early March. Butler has shown an inclination to move up the food chain (witness this year’s relocation from the Horizon League to the higher-profile Atlantic 10), and AD Barry Collier hardly dismissed the idea of Butler being interested in making another upwardly-mobile move. (Chances-90%)

Saint Louis...Another easy philosophical fit with its Jesuit roots, Saint Louis provides the Big East defectors with an entree into yet another major media market and region as the Lower Midwest’s rep in the league. The Billikens have made numerous Big Dance appearances in the last decade and recently opened a sparkling new on-campus facility (Chaifetz Arena), although the downtown Scottrade Center, home of the NHL Blues (who aren’t using the facility at the moment) and the annual “Arch Madness” Missouri Valley Tourney, provides another state-of-the-art local facility. Rekindling old rivalries with DePaul and Marquette, and as well as semi-regional foes Butler and Xavier (and perhaps Dayton and Creighton), make the fit even more sensible. (Chances-75%)

Creighton...Another easy philosophical fit, as Omaha’s Jesuit institution. The Bluejay program has been very high-profile as a powerhouse in the Missouri Valley Conference and frequent NCAA Tourney participant. The 17,260-seat CenturyLink Center Omaha would be one of the league’s bigger venues. Omaha, however, stretches the boundaries of the conference to the farther western reaches of the Midwest, so this is not necessarily the best geographical fit. (Chances-55%)

Dayton...Another Catholic school, making the fit easier with the Big East defectors. Plenty of history in the Flyers program, with numerous Big Dance visits, a trip to the Final Four (and championship game vs. Lew Alcindor’s UCLA) in 1967, a three-time NIT champion (2010, 1968 & ‘62) and four-time NIT runner-up. One of the best basketball facilities in the country in the UD Arena, annual home of the NCAA Tourney’s “First Four” and often NCAA regional host site. One possible issue is the proximity to likely invitee Xavier, only about 50 miles to the south in Cincinnati. Would the Big East defectors have interest in adding two schools servicing essentially the same Midwest market? (Chances-50%)

George Mason...Not a secular fit, as GMU is a public institution. But the school has already earned high marks academically, and its modern and attractive campus and Fairfax location are right in the middle of a booming Northern Virginia marketplace. Moreover, the Patriot Center is one of the more-impressive mid-major venues in the country (perhaps the best sightlines for any 10,000-seat arena we have ever visited), and the Patriots’ program has become high-profile in the last decade with numerous Big Dance trips. Possible negatives include proximity to Georgetown and the already-covered D.C. TV marketplace (although the Hoyas are not considered very warm and fuzzy outside of D.C., and in fact much of Northern Virginia could be considered outside of Georgetown’s urban radius and support core) and the fact GMU has remained so loyal to its current Colonial Athletic Association, refusing thus far to bolt the CAA as did downstate Virginia Commonwealth or Norfolk-based Old Dominion, which is firing up a football program to compete in Conference USA. But if the Big East defectors come calling, wouldn’t GMU at least be compelled to listen? (Chances-30%)

Virginia Commonwealth...One of the new “it” teams in college hoops after its Final Four march in 2011 and emergence as a factor under HC Shaka Smart, the Richmond-based Rams might warrant some interest. No connection to the Catholic church, although the institution’s roots go back to the 1800s, and for several decades it was the Richmond branch of William & Mary from 1925-62. The Rams, however, are very much a Johnny-come-lately to the world of big-time hoops, so how much appeal they would have to some of the old-line basketball powers among the Big East defectors remains to be seen. Most assume that VCU would jump at the opportunity, however, after already abandoning the CAA for the Atlantic 10 this season. (Chances-25%)

UMass...The possibility of the Minutemen providing another New England presence cannot be dismissed. Since Boston College abandoned the Big East in the middle of the past decade, the only regional rep in the league has been Providence, and the Catholic 7 might like the idea of a nearby rival for the Friars, and to also perhaps gain a bit more visibility in Boston metro (although UMass’ Amherst campus is about 100 miles west of Beantown). The Mullins Center is not the biggest venue, but it is a modern, 9500-seat facility. (Chances-20%)

Saint Joseph’s...Seems to fit on a lot of different levels. Jesuit roots mean the Hawks are simpatico with the Catholic affiliation of the Big East defectors. Plenty of hoops history on Hawk Hill. Major metropolitan market in Philadelphia. Only that Villanova already fills that bill in Philly, and given the fit the Wildcats threw when Temple was admitted to the Big East not long ago, sources suggest that Nova would not endorse an invitation to St. Joe’s. The Hawks’ 4200-seat on-campus arena, though recently renovated, is hardly a selling point, either; we suspect St. Joe’s would have to play many games at The Palestra on the Penn campus (which is actually kind of a neat idea, especially since the Hawks used to play so many games at the historic facility) or perhaps at the NBA Sixers’ Wells Fargo Center. All of which makes St. Joe’s an unlikely candidate to receive an invitation. (Chances-15%)

Holy Cross...We mention the Crusaders only because it would be ironic if they were to receive an invitation to the group they initially rejected back in 1979. Yes, Chris Matthews' alma mater could have been a charter member of the Big East. Even with the school’s Jesuit roots, we doubt the Catholic 7 gives the the Cross another chance. Oh, for what could have been in Worcester! (Chances-5%)
As always, stay tuned...

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