Monday, July 26, 2010

End of the Big East-SEC Invitational?

According to a report by Brett McMurphy over at the FanHouse, the four year agreement between the Big East and Southeast Conference appears set to quietly expire and not be renewed, when this season's quartet of games is placed on the books. Negotiated in 2006 and initiated with a good deal of conference fanfare in 2007, format, which calls for four games played on two consecutive nights in two different venues, never convinced the fan-base of either conference that the annual event "decided" anything about the comparative quality of the two conferences beyond the obvious team-to-team match-up. If the SEC and Big East Front Offices tried to sell the event as a bragging rights confrontation between the conferences, fans and main stream media saw it more as a TV-brokered package designed to produce two more nights of "above the Red Line" D1 basketball TV programming to be aired during a month that more often than not featured match-ups of two schools from opposite sides of the Red Line.

While the Louisville-Kentucky annual Battle for the Bluegrass draws national interest (that match-up by the way, would never had been folded into the Invitational, per the contract negotiated in 2006), when the lack of other national-level cards is taken together with the logistical nightmare of lining up six venues on two consecutive nights to play out the anticipated 12 games that a genuine conference-to-conference "challenge" would require, it is clear neither conference really wanted to cultivate an inter-conference series in the model of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Pac-10 and Big 12 also engaged in a multi-year made-for-TV rivalry, "the Hardwood Series", which departed from the Big Ten-ACC format by eschewing double and triple headers scheduled over two days in favor campus site scheduling over an extended time period (generally a month), but maintained the spirit of the conference-wide rivalry by having all members of the Big 12 (the larger conference) play a Pac-10 counterpart. Two Pac-10 teams play a second game against another Big 12 team in any given year to insure that all Big 12 teams have a game. The 2011 slate and schedule (games to be played in November and December of 2010) were announced in April, before conference alignment talk motivated the Pac-10 to entice Colorado of the Big 12 to change affiliations in 2012. In the aftermath of the announced realignment, the conferences have not addressed the future of the Hardwood Series as yet, though I suspect the subject will come up next November as the first games kick off.

The most memorable game in the Invitational series is probably the LSU-Villanova game from the Invitational's first season (December 2007). Played in the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Villanova, down through most of the game, and trailing by 15 with 3:30 left in the second half, put on a closing blitz which stunned the Tigers and allowed the Wildcats to win it at the buzzer, 68-67. The two night/four game per season format may fill a TV programming need, but as an audience-building, bragging rights event, the Invitational has failed. If the conferences decide to continue the series, then expand it to a true 16 (though maybe 12 would be acceptable) game annual match-up. If the two day Big Ten-ACC model is not practical, then work for a three day (or two weekend?) format that enables the fan to develop a sense of how the conferences compare top to bottom. If the two conferences' fans (and the media?) cannot get excited about a continued series, then explore a series with either the Big 12 or the Pac 10.

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