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Big East Ponders Tournament Format Changes

The Big East’s annual meetings are taking place this week in Florida, and while the biggest storyline is the tabling of further expansion in order to maximize television rights, the conference is also faced with deciding on a format for the Big East tournament when TCU joins up in 2012-2013.  As reported by Greg Auman, there are three different tournament setups facing decision-makers. Each has its flaws and advantages, so it will be interesting to see the way in which the member institutions’ leadership, from the coaches up to the athletic directors and presidents, handle the challenge of organizing an effective postseason for such a big conference.

The first solution proposed is to simply include every team from the conference, which is how the tournament has operated over the last three years. With an odd number of teams, the bracket would be shuffled in such a way that seeds 8 through 17 would square off on the first day, seeds five through seven starting on the second day, and the top four seeds finally playing on the third day. This layout would probably draw some eye rolls due to the sheer size, but after UConn won five games in five days in March, it’ll be hard to argue against keeping the tournament’s format as close to the current layout as possible.

Next is the suggestion that the Big East return to the pre-2009 format, where only the top 12 teams participate. If revenue wasn’t an object, I could get behind this presentation. The tournament would be stripped of snoozefests like Seton Hall-South Florida showdowns, and the conference’s top 12 teams are typically competitive enough to make nearly any matchup worthwhile. However, this looks to be the most unrealistic of the proposals, if only because it may as well be a written rule that postseason playoffs at the pro and collegiate levels can never shrink, unless you have a case like the Big 12 where teams were wooed away. No matter how unappealing the conference’s bottom teams are, when you take away games, you take away money.

The final option involves a little of each from the first two, and may be in the best financial interests of the conference. Under this platform, the bottom two teams would square off on campus in a play-in game (presumably on the floor of the 16th-place team), with the winner going on to join the remainder of the Big East at Madison Square Garden. The advantages are that the slate of games at the Garden become slightly more competitive, and the conference keeps the same number of MSG games while receiving additional, albeit probably modest revenue from the gate at the 16-17 play-in game. The Big East would have to add a travel day to accommodate the winner, but there don’t appear to be any further logistical issues. It may be a big step to take for such a deeply-rooted event, but in the end, it may be the most pragmatic choice.

No matter what, the Big East Tournament will continue to be must-see television. While Syracuse doesn’t figure to be significantly impacted by whichever format is implemented, the unique challenges of managing a 17-team conference bring about intrigue even when the action tails off at the end of the school year.

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