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That could encourage the current presidents to try to put a mission-related stamp on the conference, a way to distinguish the schools in this particular league.

What kind of stamp? One model is the Ivy League, which prohibits athletic scholarships (but awards them for financial need), and schedules league basketball games only on weekends (the Ivy League also doesn’t allow football teams to play in the post-season).

The soon-to-be former Big East schools probably wouldn’t go that route. But they could impose their own mission-related choices like public service requirements and higher ethical standards _ practices that could be cast in non-sectarian terms that the likes of Butler might embrace.

And while Butler’s two recent runs to the national title game make it especially appealing, there’s no shortage of Catholic colleges with creditable basketball programs that might aspire to such company, and where the played-up Catholic identity would be part of the appeal. Gonzaga and St. Mary’s on the West Coast may prove too far away, but Creighton, Dayton, Xavier, Canisius and St. Bonaventure could all be potential candidates (as might Saint Joseph’s and LaSalle in Philadelphia, but for the fact nearby Villanova would be unlikely to accept expansion in its own market).

At the far end, one could even imagine a conference decision not to play games on Sundays _ and a dramatic showdown with the NCAA over a request to be assigned only to Thursday-Saturday brackets in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“That would definitely be something meaningful,” said Rev. John Piderit, president of the New York-based Catholic Education Institute, mulling the Sunday idea.

A few of Piderit’s other suggestions, like “name that hymn” contests and saints trivia on the scoreboard of basketball games, likely wouldn’t get past the schools’ marketing teams.

But they speak to the kind of branding opportunity only Notre Dame routinely gets among America’s Catholic schools. Notre Dame’s slick “What Would You Fight For” campaign, boosted by this year’s run to the BCS national championship, has become a marketing engine for the university and, arguably, the faith in the United States.

Another possible upshot of the new league: at a time when conference realignment has torn asunder so many natural rivalries that percolated for decades _ Duke-Maryland, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Oklahoma-Nebraska _ a conference embracing its Catholic identity could reinvigorate some natural ones. Imagine the intensity of Catholic high school basketball rivalries, but with 15,000 spectators instead of 1,500.

“A Catholic basketball conference could be a way back to the roots of why conferences came together initially,” Zola said. “I think it’s fantastic if some leaders in intercollegiate athletics can put the brakes on chasing every dollar out of their potential in athletics and refocus on their purpose as an institution.”


AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report from Villanova, Pa.


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