Football drives conference realignment in college athletics, as we all know. Schools have positioned themselves to be included in leagues with the richest television contracts, without regard to basketball rivalries or tradition.
Villanova swam against the tide for a moment. The Wildcats initially passed on an opportunity to upgrade its football program from Division I-AA to I-A.
But in spring 2011, the school decided to pursue Big East football. At the time, it seemed reasonable as nobody had left the conference. The Big East was planning to go forward with Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville, and the rest with a new television deal. It even added football power TCU to enhance its attraction to the networks.
But in a matter of months, the defections started, and the Big East never took a vote on Villanova.
Wildcats’ football will stay in I-AA but basketball is on the move, joining the hoop-centric programs in the Big East like Georgetown, St. John’s and Providence, while the football-playing schools of Connecticut, South Florida and Cincinnati will add the likes of SMU, Houston and East Carolina in a new conference.
The whole thing served as background noise for the basketball team, a No. 9 seed that takes on eighth-seeded North Carolina at the Sprint Center at 6:20 p.m. tonight.
“More two years ago than now,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “But the uncertainty has been difficult.”
As it was for programs like Kansas and Kansas State, also playing NCAA Tournament games at the Sprint Center, which went through the realignment crunch over the previous three years.
But with those programs, like most, the fate of basketball was a stunning afterthought. At Villanova, the school had to weigh the value of an upgraded football program with the best possible solution for basketball.
“I was never worried about Villanova’s basketball brand,” Wright said. “That would always be strong.”
Wright recalls the days when he and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Georgetown’s John Thompson III, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and others in the league would talk daily about saving the Big East.
But the league started to unravel when Pitt and Syracuse announced in September 2011 they were leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference. A month later, West Virginia was the Big 12’s newest member. Before 2012 ended, Notre Dame announced it was taking its non-football sports out, Rutgers accepted a Big Ten invitation and Louisville one from the ACC.
Villanova stayed with the league loosely known as the Catholic 7, but now will carry the original Big East name. It also will keep its basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden. The basketball league stands at 10 with the addition of Butler, Xavier and Creighton and is expected to add more members.
“For us originals, it was big to keep the name and the tournament at the Garden,” Wright said.
Recruiting, said Wright, didn’t take a hit during the uncertainty and wasn’t to blame for last year’s 13-19 season, the only NCAA Tournament miss in the last nine years. Athletes seem to be least interested in the moves. Surveyed by The Kansas City Star for the Big 12 tournament, about 35 percent of the 95 players who responded said they had no interest in the realignment topic.
A player like Villanova freshman starting guard Ryan Arcidiacono was coming no matter where the Wildcats stood.
“I’ve kind of been a Villanova fan my whole life,” Arcidiacono said.
A basketball fan.