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Building success, the lure of the A-10, and the basketball brand

Reflections on the Big East's brand and how St. John's can maintain relevance amid shifting allegiances in the NCAA.


Yesterday, college basketball's media outlets went bananas over reports that the Big East's basketball focused programs met in person, bringing their Presidents along for high-level discussions.

Taken as a sign that the Big East's hoops schools were going to make the move to leave the Big East Conference, many national writers added grist, spreading ideas about national conferences and the beauty of a pure hoops-only conference to preserve the brand that is the Big East - traditional basketball powers in mostly-urban environments.

These discussions center around the preservation of high-level basketball for the Big East's basketball members - St. John's, which we cover here at Rumble in the Garden, Seton Hall, Providence, Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette, and DePaul.

The schools all have solid highlights in their history, but have had middling presents - which is what college basketball fans remember. And the loss of two of the best programs in the sport is a cause for concern.

"No one can tell me and no one can convince me that losing Louisville, Syracuse, and Pitt is going to do anything but damage the brand that is the Big East," Marquette Athletic Director Larry Williams said to ESPN Wisconsin. "We have to really pay attention to this basketball brand."

Does paying attention to the brand mean creating a new conference? Does it mean leaving the conference?

Or could it mean staying put?

Leaving won't be free

Few toss cold water on the idea that the teams should leave the conference, striking off money owed on their financial books from NCAA Tournament appearances and exit fees from Syracuse/ Pittsburgh/ Notre Dame/ and Rutgers.

Yes, Mark Blaudschun stated that the Big East's hoops schools could leave as a unit, taking the name and the NCAA Tournament revenues with them - and their brand. Brian of VUHoops kindly uploaded the Big East's bylaws, and that provision doesn't seem to be in there (if you sleuth it out, please let me know). and while the provision (Article XII) is in there, assuming that Temple has a full vote in conference matters, it would be impossible to dissolve the league without a football member leaving. Even then, the remaining members will fight the meaning and execution of that provision.

Without that provision explicitly stated, that seems like a near-indefensible position.

Leaving will cost money. There's too much at stake for the football programs to let the basketball schools leave a conference membership all parties agreed to.

The Atlantic-10 is familiar, not better

Not much cold water tossed on the idea of actually joining the Atlantic-10 outright - except from Big East hoops schools themselves, who have no interest in the A-10. They know that the media deal with the A-10 won't magically triple into the figures the Big East schools are accustomed to. The Atlantic-10 might be more secure, but as John from Big Apple Buckets correctly notes, the A-10 doesn't make sense if the beef is about RPI.

The bottom 4-6 of the league would crush the league's RPI. Rhode Island might flirt with being competitive, but George Washington/ Fordham/ Duquesne are no bet to be on DePaul's level in the near future.

The bottom three of the incoming programs include Larry Brown's Southern Methodist squad, a surprise this year; a talent-laden Houston team; and Tulane, who I cannot speak well of.

The league's Athletic Directors know that the incoming teams, though geographically distant, have a lot more potential (and money).

As of today, using KenPom rankings, the Big East would be trading Cincinnati (16), Memphis (32), Temple (53) and Connecticut (54) for VCU (17), Saint Joseph's (50), Saint Louis (52), and Butler (56), while adding Rhode Island (216) and Fordham (246) instead of Southern Methodist (149) and Houston (212, but 7-2 on the season).

The average KenPom rank is higher with the future Big East than with the basketball-only schools joining the Atlantic-10.

Fan interest

Assuming fan attendance as a proxy for interest, eight of the 14 A-10 schools drew fewer than 5,230 fans on average to their games (the threshold for top-100 level attendance). The lowest attendance figure in the Big East outside of South Florida (renovating their arena and playing off-campus) was Seton Hall's 6,941/ game.

If they're not going to the games, are fans watching at home when the A10 was hard to find on television? No. (To be fair, Dayton and Xavier outdrew all but two of the Big East hoops-only schools.) Knowing that St. John's and DePaul's attendance is at times inflated by fans of Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Louisville, does a move the the A10 shore up fan interest? Does it bring new fans to New York, New Jersey, or Chicago?

It would be a conference of more like-minded universities, and less traveling distance for the non-revenue sports, a consideration that hasn't played into the typed musings of those who would craft fantasy conferences that span the country. That is important.

But two, maybe four of those teams can possibly help the brand by putting fans in the seats. And that help comes with high legal costs and no guarantee of much better money or adequate exposure.

Remaining in the Big East - with strong programs in Connecticut, Temple, Cincinnati, and Memphis and the possible emergence of Houston and Southern Methodist (located in populous Houston and Dallas - also airline hubs for non-revenue sport considerations) could be a better move - provided it comes with appropriate national exposure. It will come with better money.

It could be risky, yes. Teams could leave. But every other move could also be risky, while not being financially or competitively better for the "Catholic Seven" basketball-focused schools.

Strength in number one

But most important: it's what's inside that counts.

From St. John's coach Steve Lavin on Twitter: "St. John’s is uniquely positioned to be successful regardless of the conference realignment outcome," he tweeted."It is our belief that we have all the key ingredients to move forward as a basketball program."

Maybe it's coach speak. But just maybe each school's brand is in its own hands, not in the hands of conference realignment. Maybe the examples of Gonzaga, Butler, Kentucky, UCLA, Memphis, and UNLV prove that winning is much more important than the strength of the other teams in the conference.

Championships mean prestige. Non-conference wins get attention.

College basketball, in many ways, is a true meritocracy. There is no easy way back to prestige, just the long hard build of creating a winning program that a fan base can get behind.

In a large city, with a history of winning, and favorable media outlets, maybe all the basketball-focused schools need to do is, in the words of the departed Al Davis, "Just win, baby."

More on conference realignment and St. John's future