“Realignment,” the steady and inexorable transformation of major-conference memberships in college sports, is the water that we fans have been swimming in for a good long while now. When the millennium began Boston College was still in the Big East where a Jesuit school located in Chestnut Hill self-evidently should be. Conference USA was still considered a “major” basketball conference. And the thought that serious people might discuss scenarios whereby student-athletes fresh from the Stillwater, Oklahoma, airport may soon play conference games next-door to Bel Air would have been ludicrous. This realignment thing has been going on for a while, truly.
But what happened this morning, with the ACC’s announcement that Pitt and Syracuse have officially been invited to join the conference, represents something entirely and qualitatively new and different. Choose your cliche, and it will be correct. The Rubicon really has been crossed. It really is the point of no return. Everything really has changed.
We’re used to programs switching conferences, but Pitt and Syracuse were not fleeing a collapsing league the way every Big 12 refugee program has. (Ironically the Big East may now be in danger of collapsing, or at least retrenching. See below.) Nor did their new conference pursue and accept them for football reasons alone. Syracuse is terrible at football (though they did beat an ACC foe already this season), and while Pitt’s eminently respectable on the gridiron (29-13 since 2008) this is not your standard ACC poaching of a Big East football power a la Miami or Virginia Tech. In other words for the first time since Marquette and DePaul were given their what-the-heck invitations to join the Big East in 2005, a major-conference shift has been made for reasons only tangentially related to, and not solely based upon, football. That’s new.
Yes, as strange as it may sound, a conference shift can help the new league’s basketball. A lot.
NCAA tournament wins, 2000-11
Duke 31 North Carolina 29 Maryland 17 Syracuse 16 Pitt 15 Georgia Tech 7 Boston College 6 Wake Forest 6 NC State 5 Miami 3 Florida St. 2 Clemson 1 Virginia 1 Virginia Tech 1
The Big East is a wonderful basketball conference with a jewel of a postseason tournament, but its continued vitality if not its very existence can now legitimately be questioned. If space aliens landed tomorrow and were told nothing of the wonderful basketball and the postseason tournament, they could be forgiven for thinking the Big East is merely the ACC’s developmental league. Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse — they all cycled through the Big East, then made the jump to the big show when they got the chance.
There will be much speculation about what this all means in the coming days, and hopefully we’ll soon get a behind-the-scenes account of how precisely this came to be. But at first blush this move appears to reinforce the perception of the Big Ten as being both incredibly content with the status quo and as incredibly stingy with their invitations. Pitt and Syracuse were always the two Big East schools that made a lot of sense as potential candidates for Big Ten expansion. (As much as if not more than Rutgers, which always comes up in these speculations.) The fact that both schools have jumped eagerly into the ACC suggests that they may well have vaulted with equal enthusiasm into the arms of the Big Ten had they only been asked. Meaning Big Ten basketball fans will spend the next few days moping about, staying indoors, and listening to Coldplay. They could have had Syracuse and Pitt. They got Nebraska.