It's not hard to imagine why. If you're the Big East, and the Big Ten manages to expand to 14 or 16 teams, it means the Big East will lose schools. It might be one school. It might be five. But it will lose schools, any combination of Syracuse, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, all of which have been mentioned as among the Big Ten's targets. If you're a Big East basketball coach, or a Big East fan, this will worry you. It's not hard to imagine why.
The problem is that, as the New York Times' always-excellent Pete Thamel pointed out in a story Sunday, conference realignment will happen as a product of football concerns. So where does that leave basketball?
One certainty was reaffirmed, though. Every major decision will be based on two factors: money and football. That has become clear in the uncertainty surrounding the Big East, which could lose multiple teams to the Big Ten largely because the conference television payout is projected to be nearly triple the Big East’s $7 million for football programs.
“Our industry is driven by football,” said Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, whose university plays basketball in the Big East but is a football independent. “We probably had no more dramatic example of that than the A.C.C. expansion. It was really focused on growing football in that conference.”
The problem with this is that the Big East is a basketball conference. It just is. Several of its schools don't field Division I football teams. Many of the ones that do are generally less competitive than their counterparts in the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC, and so on. If the Big Ten expands, it would be doing so to lock down markets in parts of the country -- New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey -- that have an interest in their teams' college football programs already. In other words, the Big East as you know it would be mangled for the sake of a sport that comes second, at least in terms of cachet, to the conference's real calling card: basketball. What about Syracuse-Georgetown? What about Villanova? You get the picture.
Naturally, coaches don't seem too thrilled about this prospect, chief among them Jim Boeheim. From Thamel's story:
"I don’t think we’ll do well in the Big Ten. It’s possible, but I don’t think we’d do well at all. I just don’t see how Syracuse or Rutgers fits in with Iowa and Illinois."
"Say a couple schools go to the Big Ten," Boeheim said. "Who’s to say a New York City kid would want to go there? There’s no logical reason for that kid to want to do that. But someone with a big ego in a football conference is taking over. I just don’t think it helps recruiting to be in the Big Ten."
It's not that Boeheim's wrong. It's that none of that really matters. If the Big Ten poaches Syracuse from the Big East it won't be because the Big Ten is super-duper excited about the prospect of adding Syracuse's storied basketball program to the conference, though that would be a nice little bonus. If the Big Ten poaches Syracuse -- and Syracuse agrees to be poached -- it will be because of more money. The Big Ten has more money to offer Syracuse. Syracuse has a football team in an East Coast market to offer the Big Ten. It's that simple. In general, basketball programs do quite well on college campuses relative to the amount of money every other non-football sport brings in. But football is the cash cow. It always will be. Expansion deliberations are no different.
As much as we'd like to think expansion will take place with some semblance of what that expansion will do to the Big East's basketball ranks, it doesn't. Basketball is an afterthought here. It's not easy to hear, but it's probably good for coaches and fans to hear it anyway. If the Big Ten expands, it could end up being one heck of a basketball conference. But not before it kneecaps another one first.