Make no mistake, kids: Conference realignment is all about football. That's true even when the programs involved are Syracuse and Pittsburgh. It's true even when the conferences involved are the Big East and ACC. It's always, as Jim Boeheim said Monday, about football.
Every time a school has made a football-oriented move, we've been forced to ask how that move would affect basketball. Would a team adapt to a conference? Would a conference be strengthened or watered down by a particular addition? This was the case with last year's minor realignment moves. It was the case this summer with Texas A&M. And it's the case with Syracuse and Pitt, two of the nation's strongest and most consistent college basketball entities.
So what does the move do for Syracuse and Pitt basketball? For one, it puts those programs in a geographically disparate position -- as northeastern schools playing mostly south and southeastern programs. Is it harder to shine in the ACC than the Big East? Is it more difficult to convince players to come play when they're going to be playing North Carolina and Duke twice in the same year? Or does that become an advantage?
On Monday, Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News made the argument that Pittsburgh hoops in particular could suffer:
Pitt has been able to visit New York, D.C., Philadelphia and New Jersey and entice recruits -- most of them not at the top of prep rankings, but nearly all possessing the toughness and team-first character Dixon values -- to play in a league they have known all their lives.
Take away the lure of the Big East, and those recruits might view Pitt as a less-appealing destination. The Big East not only provides the opportunity for a Philly kid to return home periodically for a game against Villanova, or to the region to play Seton Hall or Rutgers or even St. John’s, it also provides the thrill of ending the conference season at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament.
Really think there are dozens of kids from Jersey who’ll be excited about playing road games in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Tallahassee, Fla.?
Without a solid recruiting home base in Pittsburgh itself, coach Jamie Dixon has had to extend himself outward to land the kind of players that have made Pittsburgh such a steadily elite program in the last eight years. What happens now?
Conveniently enough, Dixon actually answered this exact question in a radio appearance in Pittsburgh Monday. His retort?
“I actually read that article, there was a lot more to that article than just that line, but I mean, there’s still planes, there’s still flights going into New York, D.C., Philly -- we’re going to be in there. And hopefully we’re still going to be playing there. I’ll just have to see how it all falls out here in the near future with the rest of the league to see if there’s any more movement. But the reality of it is BC is the conference, Virginia Tech, Miami -- former Big East teams -- and then now with Syracuse in the league, there’s five of the 14 and there could be some others. So once it all settles, it won’t be quite as much change as it may seem initially.”
The real question is this: How much does conference affiliation affect Pittsburgh's recruiting? If the answer is "a lot" -- and Dixon seems to cede that point -- then Pitt could face some serious challenges in the new-look ACC. If the answer is "not at all" -- and how many recruits cite a team's conference as their reason for committing? -- then Pittsburgh should have few problems adjusting. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. There may be players from New York and other East Coast hoops havens that have seen Panthers as the perfect mix: Successful and far enough away from home to be attractive, but with enough games scheduled against St. John's, Seton Hall, Rutgers and other metropolitan schools to allow parents and family members to see their games more than once a season. But perhaps there are players that would see Pitt in the ACC as the best of both worlds.
Honestly, I don't know. It will be years before we see how these changes affect the way Syracuse, Pittsburgh and potentially Connecticut -- three of the nation's best programs -- adapt to life in a conference where Duke and North Carolina dominate on a yearly basis. But if Pitt's situation feels the least bit precarious -- if Dixon seems less than 100 percent confident in the move, which he does -- well, this is why.