Amid major changes, Big East tournament captures some of old spark

Sunday March 16th, 2014

In the first year of the new Big East, it was holdover Providence taking the tourney title.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- It's never going to be the same. Any conversation about the future of the Big East Tournament needs to begin with that fundamental admission.

The tournament that has given us us a six-overtime-like run of basketball gluttony since 1980 has indelibly changed after losing Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame. It may never reach the electric atmosphere that stars like Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing and Kemba Walker gave us. Even if it does, the old timers who relished the first three decades of the Big East Tournament would refuse to acknowledge it.

Many folks projected the Big East Tournament to wilt away like a sick relative. But after Providence's 65-58 victory over Creighton in the Big East Tournament final on Saturday night, the Big East revived some of its verve from yesteryear.

Did this game have the electricity of Syracuse-Louisville in the Big East finals last season? No. But more juice than the Louisville-Cincinnati final in 2012? Definitely.

The doomsday predictions -- from Jay Bilas and beyond -- haven't met the reality. With bid thief Providence providing a compelling storyline, the peerless Doug McDermott as marquee star and a rollicking crowd of 4,000 Creighton fans, the latest era of the Big East found a promising start. Viewed through the proper adjusted expectations after dropping from 16 teams to 10, Big East officials and Fox television executives were downright giddy on Saturday night.

BELLER: Bubble watch and seeding projections

Before any Big East or Fox officials step up on a ladder to cut down the nets, there's still a long way to go for the league. The television ratings are miniscule, the lack of NBA-level talent glaring and the specter of the ACC Tournament coming to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017 still looms. But for a league without a permanent office and just 15 of its 20 employees hired, Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said she's "thrilled."

"It has exceeded my expectations," Seton Hall Athletic Director Patrick Lyons said. "There was a lot of doubt coming into this year. And why wouldn't there be?"

Creighton assistant coach Pat Sellers brings one of the most interesting perspectives. He coached under Jim Calhoun at UConn from 2004 to 2010, meaning he's seen the tournament's brightest klieg lights. Like many, he views the Friday semi-finals at Madison Square Garden as one of the sacred nights on the sports calendar. Creighton's game against Xavier lacked the same electricity as a UConn-Syracuse match-up, but two non-traditional teams drawing 15,580 fans to a 19,979-seat arena showed promise.

"I wanted electricity," Sellers said. "It wasn't the same just because it's not eastern teams. But there's something special there. When you're in the Garden, it's always special."

Sellers saw something to build on, and the Big East's most crucial building block is the Garden itself. (The Big East finals drew 15,290, a promising number).

SI PHOTOS: Doug McDermott's cover photo shoot

The league has a contract through 2026 that is considered air-tight. And the best news about the ACC going to the Barclays Center in 2017 is that the ACC couldn't figure out a way to crowbar its way into MSG. That may have been the league's biggest victory this week.

If the Big East doesn't want to get overshadowed in 2017 when the ACC rolls through, however, it needs much better players.

The most glaring thing missing on the floor on Friday night during the Big East semis was high-end talent. Among the four teams, McDermott was the only sure-fire first-round pick. There were at least five future first-rounder in the Big East semis last year, and the league's most important priority going forward will be a talent upgrade. The recruiting rankings say that help is on the way, as 17 of the Top 100 recruits are headed to the Big East. (That list is headline by Seton Hall commitment Isaiah Whitehead, the country's No. 12 player).

If McDermott hadn't returned to play for his father in his senior year at Creighton, the league may have been viewed through a whole different paradigm.

"When Doug McDermott announced last summer that he was coming back, every AD in the Big East should have sent him a note saying thank you," Lyons said.

But even McDermott couldn't help the miniscule television ratings during the first season on Fox Sports 1. The television network was formed Aug. 17 as a long-term competitor to ESPN, and the league overpaid for the rights to the Big East -- a reported $500 million over 12 years -- to give itself a base of live college basketball programming. FS1 has prioritized the Big East, assigning marquee announcers Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery to call the top games (Star sideline reporter Erin Andrews has been working the Big East Tournament).

DAVIS: My Five favorite to win the national title

While comparisons to ESPN are somewhat unfair because FS1 has only been around for a year and ESPN goes to more households (99 million to 87 million), the ratings difference is staggering.

FS1 broadcast 112 Big East games this year, with an average of less than 95,000 viewers. By comparison, the 56 American Athletic Conference basketball games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU averaged 293,000 viewers.

It's important to also note the AAC is composed of former Big East football schools like Cincinnati, UConn and Louisville.

The most watched game on FS1 this year was Michigan State-Georgetown on Feb. 1, which delivered 539,000 viewers. By comparison, 115 of the 117 college basketball games ESPN broadcast this season delivered more viewers.

"We're not worried about ratings," Ackerman said, "if Fox isn't worried about ratings. And they're not. " Fox vice president Bill Wagner said Fox is "really happy" with the ratings from this season, as they doubled from non-conference play and have helped FS1 gain entrée into bigger markets.

On the ground in New York, the seeds of new traditions have been planted. Nothing epitomized that better than Creighton's hotel about two hours before tipoff on Saturday night.

More than 1,000 Creighton fans shoehorned their way into the Affinia Dumont, less than a block from Madison Square Garden. Creighton fans began "The Sendoff" tradition in St. Louis at The Valley Tournament, and it continued in New York, albeit a bit more cramped and with $6 Bud Lights.

"I'm guaranteeing you they sold more alcohol in the Affinia lobby this week than they've sold the past two years," Sellers said.

Creighton assistant athletic director Adrian Rider said that Creighton sold more than 2,400 books of tickets, double any other Big East school. In the spirit of new traditions, the fans who didn't like the location of seats available began calling other schools to pluck from their ticket allotment. An estimated 4,000 Creighton fans trekked to New York, the most Omaha in these parts since Peyton Manning's Super Bowl audibles.

Providence showed up as well, as their traditionally well-oiled fan base lived up to its rowdy reputation. The Friars victory provided a postseason catharsis, as PC hadn't reached the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and they'd won just two Big East Tournament games in the past 14 seasons. And it provided a symbolic touch of the old and new Big East to kick off a new era.

The Big East will never be able to chase the ghosts of its glory days. But on Saturday night, the venerable old tournament made a statement that it's not going to fade away.

And that's a March upset that few people had picked.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.