Most people following college basketball this season have come to the conclusion that the newly expanded Big East is the strongest and deepest conference in the nation – certainly, a record 8 bids in the NCAA Tournament makes the case for that argument. What hasn’t been talked about, however, is that the Big East could have been even better.
When the Big East decided to expand a couple of years ago in the wake of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College moving to the ACC, the East Coast conference for the most part found schools from Conference USA that were logical fits. DePaul and Marquette are large city Catholic basketball schools to go along with the likes of Georgetown, Villanova, and St. John’s. Meanwhile, Louisville and Cincinnati are basketball-focused schools that have decent football programs, similar to UConn and Syracuse. Those 4 additions have made a lot of sense even though the geographic reach of the conference is stretched farther west than the original Big East members could have ever imagined.
The 5th addition, however, was stunning: the University of South Florida. The Conference USA school that was left holding the bag was Memphis, who desperately wanted a Big East invite. Needless to say, the Memphis Tigers grabbed a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while USF failed to win a single Big East conference game. As ridiculously stacked as the Big East has been this season, the league could have taken it to a pantheon level if it had Memphis, as well, since UConn and Villanova also grabbed #1 seeds. A single conference with three out of the four #1 seeds would have been the greatest season any league anywhere would have ever had in history.
Of course, adding a conference member needs to be a decision taking into account the long term viability and benefits of a school as opposed to the performance of a team in a single season. But even on that front, USF never made sense. The rationale that the Big East commissioner gave for inviting USF was that the conference needed to have a place in the Florida market. I’m a corporate attorney by day, so I perfectly understand the importance of strong media markets. As I stated before, I believe that the Big Ten ought to invite Syracuse as a 12th team over Pitt, West Virginia, or Missouri (assuming that Notre Dame wouldn’t join) precisely because of the New York and East Coast presence that the Orange would bring. At the same time, I am one of the minority that believes that Boston College makes perfect sense for the ACC. It’s in the best interest of every conference to get the largest and highest quality geographic footprint possible.
The catch, however, is that a school needs to be more than just located in a desirable market; it must be able to deliver that market, as well. This is where USF fails. In a market that boasts Florida, Florida State, and Miami, the Sunshine State doesn’t have much room to pay attention to a fourth college sports team. Plus, USF is at best a mediocre football program while having a simply awful basketball team. The Big East is deluding itself if USF has much of a chance to make any dent on the Florida sports scene.
Instead, the Big East could have grabbed an elite basketball school with a solid football program in the Memphis Tigers. Not only that, Memphis is able to deliver its home market, which is large enough to be an NBA city.
Let’s hope that the Big East corrects its mistake soon. As nice as it is for the other conference schools to get a trip to Tampa during the winter every season, it’s a lot better to add a school that (1) actually has a true fan base in a major league market and (2) can cement the Big East’s status as the top basketball conference in the country.