Big East at a crossroads in Year 2

NEW YORK -- Back when, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese would stand up at media day and say, "This is what's going on. This is what's changing. Any questions?"

It would all take a few minutes and then Tranghese would turn the media loose on the Hall of Fame coaches littered across the room, the NBA talent folded behind the little tables and the king/commissioner would sit in a folding chair on the dais and enjoy the view.

This year, commissioner Val Ackerman took a good 20 minutes to share the league's state of the union, pointing out where the league's nonconference schedule was ranked, how many top recruits its teams had landed, that it has new posh offices in New York -- the only league to call the Big Apple home, she reminded everyone -- and the facility upgrades at various campuses.

Then she finished with this kicker: "We were built to be a basketball powerhouse and our intention is to remain as one.''

That is all the difference. Tranghese could afford to be brief because no one had to be reminded or sold on just how good his league was.

Everyone knew.

Ackerman still has some selling to do.

It seems silly to say an organization in Year 2 is at a critical crossroads, but that is the truth for the Big East. Unlike other non-Power 5 conferences, the league isn't being threatened by autonomy or cost of attendance -- member presidents already are committed to matching whatever standards the big schools set.

The challenge is much more basic. Just who is the Big East and where will it fit in the newest college basketball jigsaw puzzle?

"For the last 20 years we could say we were the best basketball conference in the country,'' said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "Now we can say we are arguably the best basketball conference in the country. We say we're still pretty good but people are looking at that dip and saying, why?''

The short answer is because no conference could match what the Big East was -- not in overwhelming success or in oversized personalities. The original version came around when sports television was in its infancy and college basketball hadn't really stretched its wings to every reach of the country.

The league was blessed to have a visionary in original commissioner Dave Gavitt but also lucky to have good timing.

The new version comes to life when cable channels are overrun with options and the talent pool, though deeper, is stretched like never before.

Yet because the name remains, it's virtually impossible to start a conversation about the "new" Big East without revisiting the "old" Big East.

"I don't know why people have to call us the new Big East or the relaunched Big East,'' Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "We're the Big East.''

Except it's not. Butler, Xavier, Creighton, DePaul and Marquette aren't going to win any Big East word association quizzes. No, the identity of the league -- and thereby the solution to the league's identity crisis -- lies in the programs that straddle both the past and present Big East editions.

Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence are most attached to the brand, and really have the best chance to loft the league into immediate relevancy. And there, really, is the essence of the problem.

Excluding Villanova and Georgetown, that group too long has been irrelevant in the national picture, relying instead on Syracuse, UConn, Louisville and others to carry the league's banner.

St. John's hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2011 and has only been three times in this millennium; Seton Hall's absence dates to 2006, and prior to March, Providence had suffered a nine-year drought.

It goes deeper than that, of course. Seton Hall's glory years run back to P.J. Carlesimo, and Providence and St. John's both had quick hits of success in the late 1990s.

That's a generation's worth or more of absence.

And the league has revolved coaches in and out the door. Kevin Willard is Seton Hall's sixth coach in the last 20 years; Steve Lavin is St. John's fifth boss in that period (sixth if you count Mike Dunlap, who served an interim year while Lavin battled cancer); and Cooley is coach number five for Providence.

"We've all been recruiting at a high level,'' Willard said. "But now we have to start competing at a high level. Our guys here, there's no quarterback to compete with for attention. When you're winning, everyone is paying attention to you. But when you're not ...''

Meantime, Villanova and Georgetown have been good, but also done in, at least recently, by early NCAA exits. The Wildcats made the Final Four in 2009, the Hoyas in 2007.

Last season, Villanova, a No. 2 seed, was ousted by Connecticut in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Georgetown, on the heels of a tumultuous season, settled for an NIT bid and an 18-15 record.

"It's important that we be ourselves, no question,'' Thompson said.

That isn't to excuse the other newer members altogether. Butler, Creighton and Xavier were invited to the Big East as much for the cachet they had built up elsewhere as their geographic reach.

The Bulldogs and Bluejays are each in a state of flux. Butler is working with an interim coach as Brandon Miller is on a medical leave of absence while Creighton reboots without Doug McDermott.

Marquette, meantime, a usual March lock, has a new coach in Steve Wojciechowski and DePaul, well ... is DePaul.

No doubt the league's ultimate success will be measured by its entirety. The old Big East hit its stride when its NCAA tournament bids stretched deep into the league's 16-team membership.

But as it strives to carve out its new niche, it's the league's old guard that really has to do the heavy lifting.

In its heyday, the Big East wasn't great because it had a good television package -- though the exposure helped; it didn't succeed because its coaches were colorful reprobates, though they gave it its panache; and it wasn't considered the best because so many of its players went to the NBA, though they elevated the competition.

No, the league's value required no chicken or egg solution.

It was great because the teams in it were great.

And that's exactly what has to happen again.

"This is a pretty obvious statement,'' Thompson said, "but it takes time to create history.''