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Big East hoops breakaway on the horizon

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ANALYSIS:

Whether it happens within days or months, this year or next, the Big East's days as a viable college sports power appear to be near their end according to several reports Thursday.

With the possibility of seven Catholic schools — Georgetown, as well as DePaul, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova — breaking away to form their own all-sports league separate from the absurdist pigskin-centric tumult of the past few years, it might seem appropriate to offer an elegy (or a eulogy) for the Big East.

In reality, that entity is long since gone. Its own football desires and those of other conferences only too eager to snatch its schools away conspired to turn it into little more than a revolving door for schools on their way to other homes for the past decade and change.

The Big East of John Thompson Jr. and Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun, of Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino and P.J. Carlesimo, wouldn't recognize a league set to add Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist and Tulane (not to mention Boise State, East Carolina, Navy and San Diego State as football-only members).

There are two lessons here, neither of which likely will be heeded and hence probably will be repeated. One, the lust for football riches does not guarantee success. Two, the larger leagues become, the more they become confederations of schools with short-term common interests than conferences built on wide-ranging similar aims — and as a result are far easier to splinter apart.

The difference in this decision, unlike so many others in recent years, is just how basketball-centric this could be. Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova have reached Final Fours in the past decade. St. John's sits in a basketball mecca. Providence and Seton Hall have signs of hope under rising coaches.

Common ground, though, does exist between a Big East breakup and other collegiate sports shifts: This will have an effect elsewhere. And it will be significant, especially from a basketball perspective.

As unwieldy as any membership beyond 12 teams is, a seven-school grouping creates its own scheduling headaches. The way of the world in college basketball is an 18-game conference slate which would make a 10-team league (with a double round robin) the most logical approach to take.

(Cue up the obvious yet necessary observation about the absence of logic in college sports in the past few years).

A refurbished basketball league would be wise to seek similar schools to fill out its ranks. A pure Catholic league — perhaps one with some combination of Creighton, Dayton, Saint Louis and Xavier? — could work, even if it might not generate the sort of lucrative television contract the likes of Georgetown have grown accustomed to benefiting from.

The latter three schools in that scenario are in the Atlantic 10, a basketball-centric conference certain to be targeted in the next round of realignment. If a league based on religious affiliation doesn't prove attractive, perhaps a lesser version of Dave Gavitt's original vision from more than three decades ago could prove appealing.

So could, say, a Virginia Commonwealth find itself leaping from the Colonial to the A-10 to the nouveau Big East (or whatever it calls itself) in a span of a year? Or maybe Butler (Indianapolis) could do the same?

There's always the possibility no one learns the lessons of the Big East's bloated form and seeks a larger association, gobbling up several schools in the Atlantic 10 — which in turn could set its sights on schools in the Colonial Athletic Association, such as George Mason.

The permutations, which surely will take months to unspool, are endless. But it is perhaps the first, best sign those who cannot chase football dollars with the tell-tale blind avarice of 21st century college sports are finally resigned to make it on their own, regardless of the daunting odds of proceeding without the windfall of television-provided cash.

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