Coaches react to conference shake-up

Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams squared off in the 2003 national championship game.

Now the Hall of Famers will face each other as ... conference opponents?

Get used to the sound, college basketball fans. As confusing as it might be, there's a new reality in the sport.

Some directly affected are sad about the apparent dismissal of history and the loss of traditional rivals. Some are excited about new opponents and a secure future. But most seem to realize that major change is happening whether they like it or not.

“I spent 30 years in the Big East, so this will be hard for me,’’ Syracuse coach Boeheim said on Sunday. “This has been hard for me, but the school has to do what’s best for the school. This is a hard pill for me because this is what I know. Dave Gavitt [the Big East's founder, who died Friday night at 73] made us all. Without him, there would be no Hall of Fame for me, no national championship for Jim Boeheim. There’s a lot of history.’’

Now the ACC will look to capitalize on its new members and dominate Eastern basketball as it once did before the rise of the Big East siphoned off the Northeast Corridor. On Sunday, ESPN.com reported that defending national champ UConn is aggressively pursuing membership in the ACC as the 15th or 16th member. Adding two more schools to get to 16 is exactly what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN.com he wants, and UNC coach Williams echoed that sentiment on Sunday.

“This is an exciting time, an unbelievably turbulent time, but it’s exciting for us, and the people in the conference office felt Syracuse and Pitt make a great fit,’’ Williams said. “These are two great schools in our league. In basketball -- my goodness -- we add a great deal.’’

Williams said he liked Krzyzewski’s idea of having two eight-team divisions and an 18-game schedule. That would allow for more regional rivalries.

“Sixteen schools seems to be a popular number, and it fits,’’ Williams said. “I would not be against adding two more schools. Think about adding Syracuse and Pitt basketballwise, and what a fantastic 16. You might be surprised with a Duke and North Carolina guy agreeing, but I like Mike’s idea. I just hope I’m coaching long enough to see this thing through.’’

On a Sunday morning conference call with the media, ACC commissioner John Swofford said the league planned to honor the Big East bylaws that call for a 27-month exit timetable. But Boeheim said he couldn’t foresee two lame-duck seasons in the Big East. He knows the Orange -- along with Pitt, and maybe UConn and one other team -- will be playing in the Big East this season. But in 2012-13?

“I think it would be better for everybody [for an early exit], because the Big East may need to bring someone in, since they don’t want to play football with only seven members,’’ Boeheim said. “It would be kind of funny if we had to play two more years.’’

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who is recruiting in New Zealand this weekend, was reached Sunday by phone and said, “We always knew anything was possible, any realignment. We always knew this was a possibility.’’

And now that it's reality? Now that the Panthers know they'll be in a conference competing with powerhouses Duke and UNC?

“It speaks for itself,’’ Dixon said.

For Boeheim, who began coaching at Syracuse three years before the Big East was born, it was simply a matter of survival. He might not like the thought of leaving his longtime rivals, but he also didn't want his alma mater being stranded once the dust settled from a massive realignment.

“There was uncertainty with the Big East with TCU coming in and rumors of adding Kansas or Kansas State or whatever,’’ Boeheim said. “They could be losing West Virginia or somebody else. We needed to be in a stable league, and we had to be in a stable situation.

“We’re going to a very, very good basketball league, one that arguably has the best track record over the last 30 years.’’

As for those historic rivalries, Boeheim said he very much hopes they remain alive.

“We’ve played St. John’s for 100 years, and we played them when I was in school,’’ Boeheim said. “We would want to play St. John’s definitely without question. Yes, we’d play Georgetown. No question we’d be open to playing those two schools for sure.’’

But soon enough, they will no longer be playing them at the iconic Big East tournament. For the better part of three decades, the Big East tourney at Madison Square Garden has been as much a staple as the NCAA tourney. Syracuse has played a large part in so many of those memories. In the past dozen years, so has Pitt.

However, might there still be a chance for the Orange and Panthers to create some March memories at the Garden in the future?

On Sunday's conference call, Swofford said including MSG in the rotation of ACC tournament sites is appealing.

“I would be open to that,’’ Swofford said. “We’ve had some good experience in rotating our tournament. We’ve had excellent experiences in Atlanta, Tampa and Washington, D.C., and with this 14-member conference, I don’t think there is any question that we’ll take a look at New York and Madison Square Garden.

“It would be very appealing for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fans and even more with teams in close proximity and with that being the media center of the world. I would be remiss if we didn’t think of it in those terms.’’

The Big East confirmed Sunday that its contract with MSG goes through the 2016 tournament, but a source with knowledge of the situation said the Garden would be open to hosting the ACC tournament. MSG aggressively pursues hosting Syracuse and Pitt for non-Big East games and consistently tries to get Duke and Carolina in there as well. The Blue Devils will play Washington in the Garden in December. UNC faced Rutgers there this past December.

The ACC tournament will take place in Atlanta this season and is booked for Greensboro, N.C., from 2013 to 2015. Beyond that is anyone's guess. If the Garden doesn't work out, Boeheim suggested another option should be the new Barclays Center that is being built in Brooklyn.

Those logistics will be worked out. But the bottom line is that the ACC just got a lot stronger in men's hoops. There is no debating that. You can expect it to get even tougher if the league goes to 16 schools, with one or two of the additions likely coming from a pool of Connecticut, Kansas or perhaps even Louisville.

As for the remaining Big East, it still can be solvent without Pitt, Syracuse and even Connecticut. The league is not in danger of losing its automatic qualification to the NCAA tournament. The Catholic schools such as Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s have clout, and if the Big East can cobble together leftovers from the Big 12, it'll remain a viable conference with major media markets, even if it doesn’t have big-time football.

But the Big East will have to wait to see what happens with the Big 12. If Oklahoma and/or Texas stays, the nine schools will remain together, and the Big 12 may try to co-opt Big East members. If OU and Texas leave (more than likely to the Pac-12) and possibly take Oklahoma State and Texas Tech with them, that would leave Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. From a purely basketball standpoint, that's still a strong group.

It’s still too early to dissect how this will all shake out, but the one certainty is that Pitt and Syracuse make the ACC -- a league that is currently in desperate need of regular competitors to Duke and North Carolina -- even stronger at the expense of weakening the Big East. If the league grabs three-time champ UConn as well, there will be no question as to which conference will be the dominant force in the sport.