By Pete Thamel
November 20, 2012

Louisville coach Rick Pitino best summed up how those around the Big East responded to the news of Maryland and Rutgers jumping to the Big Ten.

"I'm just blindsided," Pitino said late Monday night. "I didn't see any of it coming. I'm totally dumbfounded. I don't know what to think or say."

Despite having been featured in more obituaries than the Battle of Antietam, the Big East presses on. It has a football model that can lure a decent -- though dwindling -- payday, a basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden that's its most valuable asset and a strong brand.

But Rutgers' departure combined with the possibility of the ACC grabbing either Connecticut or Louisville puts the league at a dangerous crossroads. If the ACC is "vulnerable" as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called it on Monday, what does that make the Big East?

Folks around the Big East and in the television industry have long identified the potential loss of Louisville and Connecticut as a tipping point for the Big East's basketball schools to break away from their football partners and form a league of their own. However, there has been no significant movement toward secession. (Those breakaway schools would likely not be able to take the name or the tournament rights with them, unless the league dissolved.)

The general attitude among Big East athletic directors at the so-called "basketball schools" is to wait and see the caliber of television deal the Big East can attract and then plot a move from there.

The problem is that while the world waits to see whether the Big Ten move is a pebble or a boulder in the realignment pond, the Big East is attempting to negotiate a new television deal. It will do so in a familiar climate of uncertainty, mistrust and paranoia.

"We're all concerned whether the move causes a slight shift or a massive shift," said one athletic director. "I don't think anyone can assume anything at this point."

But the air of uncertainty that has defined the modern realignment era of college sports has returned. Calls to two dozen athletic officials, television executives and conference offices provided endless potential scenarios and few definitive answers.

A few things to consider as the Big East's fate hangs in the balance.

The assumption has long been that if the Big East's Catholic schools -- Marquette, DePaul, Providence, St. John's, Villanova, Seton Hall, Georgetown -- broke away, they'd raid the A-10 and form a Northeastern hoops super-conference.

That plan always included schools like Xavier, Dayton, Creighton, Siena and Butler. But what's always kept this idea from gaining any momentum is that college basketball television ratings resemble those of late-night infomercials. The biggest regular season games can't touch the Liberty Bowl in ratings.

So what could help college hoops and, perhaps, prompt some Big East teams to take a longer look elsewhere?

There has been preliminary and very informal discussion about whether a national basketball-only league could be formed if the Big East dissolves, according to a television executive.

Specific teams have not been talked about, but the thought would be to create a power basketball league that spans the country -- think Georgetown to Gonzaga -- that could maximize visibility, profitability and exposure, though it may continue to pale in comparison to football.

"I think there's been chatter about, 'Can that exist?'" said one television executive. "It's going to be hard to justify rights fees for the Big East putting Providence and Central Florida on. There has to be some sort of chatter: 'Is there anything out there better?'"

The executive added: "I think that would be attractive. It would be naive of me to say that no one has thought of that."

Big East schools resisted adding San Diego State in basketball because of travel cost and a lack of desire to go that far. But could desperate times open up the door for a national hoops league?

During an appearance with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on his Sirius XM radio show on Monday, I turned the tables on him and posed a question: Who would you prefer to replace Maryland, Louisville or Connecticut?

Coach K's answers underscored the instability of the ACC right now. In addition to saying how he'd want to circle ranks and see which teams are actually in and which are out, he called the ACC "vulnerable" and wondered what could happen if Maryland gets its $50 million buyout reduced. It sure seems reasonable that Florida State or Clemson could consider jumping ship. Would they be interested in a tougher road to the BCS through the Big 12 in exchange for more money and stability?

The UConn vs. Louisville debate is a fascinating one. Louisville has a drastically superior football program, basketball program and overall athletic department. Louisville has perhaps the country's best athletic director in Tom Jurich and would provide more football juice to a league that's been irrelevant nationally for nearly a decade. (Think Clemson or FSU are itching to mine that fertile recruiting ground around Storrs? Me neither.)

With Jim Calhoun gone and NCAA sanctions handcuffing the program, UConn is far from a safe bet. In football, the sport that matters most, it's not even a conversation. But UConn has academics and television market on its side.

Can a league that's suddenly found its face in the mud still hold its nose in the air and claim superior academic standards? Or do they take the better overall program?

Neither school provides any real stability, so suddenly the ACC of 2012 is feeling like the Big East of 2011.

The amazing thing about realignment is that a single move can cannonball perception. And last week, with an Orange Bowl deal set and no notion anything could happen, the ACC appeared strong and stable. Now commissioner John Swofford could be forced to go back on the offensive.

The league that may have the biggest hand in determining the fate of the Big East is the Big 12. The Big 12 stands at 10 teams and with a new lucrative TV deal, there's no immediate itch to get bigger. That groundswell will likely only come if Texas, long an advocate of a smaller and more familiar league, changes its mind.

Adding teams without a cable channel doesn't equate to instant cash, so the thought in Big 12 country has been to sit tight, not keep splitting the pie into smaller pieces and keep a small fraternity of familiar teams.

But does the Big Ten's move start to make the Big 12 feel too little? The SEC, Big Ten and ACC (assuming it grows again) will all be at 14 teams. The Pac-12 is at 12. Everyone is wondering who fulfills Manifest Destiny and goes to the uncharted 16 team league first. Does the Big 12 keep dibs on what happens with Maryland's $50 million buyout and starts batting its eye lashes at Florida State and Clemson? Does it attempt to add Louisville and Cincinnati, too, to give it a full-fledged eastern component with West Virginia? And considering how the ACC panicked and quickly added Syracuse and Pittsburgh last year, does the Big 12 feel pressure to move fast and trump them?

If Jim Delany felt compelled to move because of the "paradigm shift," Big 12 folks are surely feeling some pressure.

The bitter irony for the Big East is that a majority of the schools that led the charge to turn down the $155 million per year television deal in spring 2011 are now gone. Pitt, Rutgers and Notre Dame were the biggest advocates of waiting for a better television deal. Those schools have left the conference, along with Syracuse and West Virginia. (Only Georgetown remains from the schools that adamantly opposed taking that TV deal.)

The question now is whether the Big East earns enough to keep Boise State and San Diego State playing football in a geographically awkward league. If the Big East loses just one more school, it still projects to blow away what the Mountain West members earn annually from television. But the more attrition that happens, and the more dollars that are lost, the more those schools will be tempted to revert back to a geographic comfort zone.

With Rutgers gone and another school likely to depart, would the Big East continue to expand out West in football to make things geographically easier for those schools?

For now, the Big East is still a higher ground for football. But with BCS access similar for both leagues and the Big East again a poaching target for the ACC, how long that lasts will ultimately determine the league's fate.

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