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Big East Conference debut shows there's nothing worth changing

Val Ackerman When she first accepted the job, Val Ackerman called the Big East "an extraordinary opportunity." (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Elsewhere on the day, the Big East debuted after never really disappearing in the first place, overstuffed arenas howled and frothed over this something-old, something-new product. Big East commissioner Val Ackerman, meanwhile, watched from a comparatively subdued Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. She heard what she needed to hear anyway.

Because there is old Big East, and then there is real Big East, and John Thompson II is strictly real. And the man who made Georgetown basketball told Ackerman that he liked what he saw of the league he once knew. The basketball focus, the broad national television exposure, the direction of the whole operation. It was another reaffirming moment in this full-speed rebuild. Hoya relaxa, on the day everyone had been waiting for.

“I respect history and tradition and I think it’s important to listen to people who have been there and done that,” Ackerman told SI.com in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “When someone like John Thompson talks, I listen.”

The calculations of a league and a television partner seeking a tent-pole moment created a five-game, full-boat marathon of New Year’s Eve basketball. It turns out the Big East looks fine the way it is, a small coterie escaped from the meaty grip of football, engaging -- if not transcendent -- no matter where you turned.

Some of this was mere reconfirmation Wednesday. The Big East ranked third in conference RPI entering Dec. 31, trailing only the Big 12 and the Big Ten. Seven teams ranked among kenpom.com’s top 60 overall. Top-shelf wins were scarce – Villanova upending Kansas began and ended that list – but relevance specifically to the college basketball landscape would not be an issue.

Nothing that occurred on Day 1 suggested otherwise. The overtime tangle of Villanova and Butler featured repeated percussive moments and might as well have been Friday night at Madison Square Garden in March transplanted into Hinkle Fieldhouse. Creighton seemed most dangerous of all, maddening to defend in a way that a Big East team hasn’t been since John Beilein’s West Virginia crews, the Blue Jays not trailing for a single moment of a five-game homestand, a span of 220-plus minutes.

Even drearier pockets were at least interesting. Neither Seton Hall nor Providence cracked 60 points in regulation but required two overtimes to settle things. DePaul and Georgetown played as if they had bowling pins attached below the elbow – a grand total of 17 assists against 34 turnovers combined – but the game remained in the balance nearly to the end.

Day 1 was more than fine. To Ackerman, it “lived up to the expectations.” Except even the boss knows Day 1 to Day 100 won’t define a thing.

“It isn’t just about the first run,” Ackerman said. “When I was with WNBA, I remember saying it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The same should be said about the Big East. There’s a long history here, but with a new conference, what we do in the first year or two isn’t necessarily going to be indicative.”

That is true to an extent. But the results thus far are indicative of an increasingly apparent truth to those inside and outside the league: The Big East might do well to remain not-so-big. There are qualities to covet in Saint Louis and VCU and other programs tabbed as potential expansion candidates, but a crackling first day and the full round-robin to follow should give pause about giving up too much for what you’re getting.

Turning inward might be the best way to move ahead. The newcomers – Xavier, Creighton and Butler – effectively hold the old guard accountable for pursuing basketball excellence at a high level. If there are concerns about quality control near the bottom of the league, there seems to be no momentum to compensate by piling up on top. “As long as we can be seven to eight deep, that will be fine,” one league source said.

Ackerman, acknowledging the reality of monitoring the landscape, sounded disinclined to push the boundaries of it. “We’re standing pat right now,” she said. “We have 10 schools, and we’re still assimilating three. Our presidents have made excellence at 10 a priority. That’s our number. We’re not having any discussions about bringing on new schools.”

Two league sources echoed that, and this bit of shared, sensible thinking may be as auspicious any of the on-court activity Tuesday. The league may boast the best player in the country in Creighton’s Doug McDermott. (Arguments from Durham, N.C., are noted and valid.) It may have two or three teams capable of real noise in March.

It will aim to bolster the non-conference schedules league-wide and it will explore a league-versus-league challenge series with a partner. It soon will move into its permanent office location in New York, and it is feisty and emboldened enough to defend its venerable league championship territory against the not-so-subtle circling of vultures from parts south.

“We’ve got a deal with Madison Square Garden that’s very secure for us,” Ackerman said. “We’re the league in the Garden. The interest other leagues have in New York only proves the point. In some respects, it’s the key place to be for college sports, and we’re there.”

The conference is getting there in another sense as well, to something that is no longer a warped version of Dave Gavitt’s original vision.

That may not matter to some, and really may not matter at all in the unsentimental battle for money and survival in college athletics. But in a way, Wednesday was unlike any other was like any other day for the woman charged with steering the Big East back on course. “I’m six months into this job and I think about that every day: What would Dave think?” Ackerman said. “What would Dave do?”

After one entertaining day, one might wager this guess: He’d sit back and enjoy it, not changing a thing.

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