Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Atlantic 10 - Big East Challenge? Already Happening

The Under Reported Conference Challenge
"Something I'd love to see moving forward in the non-conference portion of schedules? A Big East-Atlantic 10 Challenge." I caught that tweet from a hungry -- yet humble -- sports writer several Sundays ago as I monitored my twitter feed while watching Massachusetts take Fordham behind the shed to the tune of 90-52. ESPN, CBS and Fox Sports, through the power of made for television events (power conference challenges, early season invitational tournaments and gimmick-inspired match-ups like the "Aircraft Carrier" and now-defunct "Bracket Buster Weekend" games), have transformed the out conference portion of the season from untelevised David and Goliath games in which an "above the red line" host pummels a "below the red line" visitor (and then settles the penalty clause for breaking the NCAA-mandated home-away contract with a check) into a series of games that capture the excitement of the post season in the weeks before conference play begins.

I wrote about this organic rivalry several years ago, and though conference realignment has changed the details, the general points remain the same...
1. The conferences share a common geographical footprint that stretches from Rhode Island (URI and PC) in the east, south to the Washington DC metro area (Georgetown, George Washington, Richmond and VCU) and west (through the Rust Belt) to the Mississippi River Valley and it's tributaries (St. Louis and Creighton).
2. Many of the teams continue historic rivalries initiated because of their shared geography. While there are exceptions (*cough* Georgetown *cough*), most, as the table below confirms, continue to play their neighbors even though conference commitments take a large portion of their schedules.
3. Many of those schools located in the upper mid-west and south share conference affiliations.
4. Early season invitational tournaments have brokered matches that two neighbors have not, on their own, created. The two conferences had 30 members who played 37 games back in 2010 (and 50+ games, including the post season, in the snapshot I took in 1975) when I wrote about the rivalry last. Conference realignment has reshaped both conferences. Today they have between them 23 teams (10 in the Big East, 13 in the Atlantic 10) that include four entirely new faces (Creighton, Butler, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth) and 11 teams departed (Charlotte, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, Temple and West Virginia), but the table below suggests that number of games played aside, the power relationship remains unchanged.

The number of common games has declined as the membership of each conference has changed, but the trend over the past five years (and the snapshot from 1975 seems to affirm), that the Big East schools tend to win the larger portion of the games; 2011 excepted (of the 21 games played the Big East record was 11-10 or 0.524) the Big East tends to win at least 60% of the games. 2013-14 is an outlier only in the smaller-than-usual sample and the high winning percentage (10 games, 8-2 so far). Of course the post season will yield at least one-to-two additional matchups.

1. If the last three invitations are any indication, A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade's realignment strategy will have the conference expand to the south. With the addition of Xavier, Butler and Creighton, the Big East appears open to moving westward should Commissioner Val Ackerman and the membership decide to expand beyond 10.
2. The regions into which each conference expands will decide whether their pool of common games grows or diminishes.
3. When the Hoyas joined the Big East in 1979-80, they allowed three of their most active local rivalries, with American (1938-39), George Washington (1906-07) and Maryland (1907-08) to lapse. George Washington (1981-82) and Maryland (1979-80) were discontinued in the early 1980s, while the American series continued until 1986-87 before taking a 20 year hiatus. Restarting the series with George Washington, relatively competitive at 54-39, would likely raise DC interest in college basketball. Reviving the Maryland rivalry would give the Big East an annual game with the Big Ten.
4. As the rankings and head-to-head records suggest, both conferences would be better served with conference challenge showcases with better matched conferences. Fans may find a Big East-Pac-12 challenge more competitive for both conferences while the Atlantic 10, clearly at the head of that group of conferences consisting of the C-USA, Mountain West, West Coast and Missouri Valley might be better served with a conference challenge with the West Coast Conference, a showcase that could give both conferences exposure on the other coast.