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Jumping Ship The Right Move For Syracuse

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

And I thought Jerami Grant committing to Syracuse would be the biggest news of the weekend.

As you assuredly know by now, SU and Pittsburgh finally grew sick enough of John Marinatto’s refusal to embrace the changing landscape of college sports and decided to carve out the future for themselves. I was pleasantly surprised at the speed with which the deal was completed and made official. The ACC’s 2003 raid of the Big East was far messier than administrators would have preferred, though I understand the irony in that they control the spread of news with their comments and actions. More recently, Texas A&M’s transition to the SEC was rumored for several weeks (if not months), and other potential moves continue to lead sportswriters to research Board of Directors and Regents meeting agendas on a regular basis. By the day, dozens of realignment theories were put forth to the point where no combination of moves would be unexpected, but that doesn’t make the reality of the shift any less intriguing.

In the latest poaching, very few smoke signals emitted from the schools involved as well as the ACC itself, simply the breaking news that Syracuse and Pittsburgh had applied for ACC membership, which came late Friday night. As CBS’ Gary Parrish pointed out, you don’t apply for membership if you don’t expect to be accepted, and when no one involved denied the initial report Saturday, the move became inevitable. It was made official less than two days after the first legitimate talks were reported, and if you’re an administrator for Syracuse, Pittsburgh or the ACC, you have to be pretty happy about that.

And that’s where I have to give Daryl Gross credit. Sure, fans like to poke fun at his cheesy New York City marketing efforts and his infatuation with the spotlight, but he made a legacy-defining move over the weekend that is also in the best interests of the school from which he draws his paycheck. He saw what many of us noticed, that Marinatto’s inaction was causing him to lose an expensive game of chicken over television rights, and confidence among his member institutions waned. Critics may say that the inaction was partially a product of Pittsburgh’s greediness after its leadership shook its head at ESPN’s offer in the spring, but the job of a conference commissioner is first and foremost to lead, and as Marinatto failed to provide stability in a time where it was needed the most, ‘Cuse and Pitt explored their options.

Another impressive facet of the move is that Syracuse won’t have to sacrifice geographical sanity in order to survive. Miami’s location, 1,400 miles from the SU campus, may still be a headache, but it’s something Syracuse dealt with during Miami’s membership in the Big East. The long trips continued when USF, not exactly a stone’s throw away 1,300 miles from Syracuse,  joined the Big East in 2005. If the Texas schools pull off a move to the Pac-12, Syracuse’s trips to South Florida will look like mere commutes by comparison.

Some are lamenting the fading of rivalries and tradition in favor of the rat race that college athletics has devolved into, and they certainly have merit. If Georgetown and Syracuse continue to play once separated (and indications are they will), the games will mean less without conference stakes attached. While there’s talk of the ACC eventually moving its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden, at least on a rotational basis, the guest list will be different if and when it comes to pass. But that doesn’t mean the new grouping of teams won’t be any less powerful – that’s hardly the case.

For all the talk about how conference realignment is driven by football, it’s clear that the ACC just took the crown of the best basketball conference away from the Big East while Marinatto was busy examining the lint he dug out of his belly button. The ACC has been top-heavy to a fault in recent years, with either Duke or North Carolina winning the conference’s regular season title in 18 of the last 21 seasons. In addition, the conference’s tournament has been won by either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils all but one time since 1997.

The kings of the ACC have also thrown their weight around in the NCAA Tournament, of course. The conference claims 21 of 88 Final Four spots since 1990, or 23.8%, and only three of those do not belong to the schools on Tobacco Road. In the same time, the Big East holds “only” nine Final Four appearances, good for a little over 10% of the available spots, but the distribution has been much more equitable:

4 – UConn (1999, 2004, 2009, 2011)

2 – Syracuse (1996, 2003)

1 – Georgetown (2007)

1 – Villanova (2009)

1 – West Virginia (2010)

If you add Syracuse’s two trips since that time to the ACC’s collection and throw in four more from Connecticut, which is hungry for an invite, the conference’s share rises from 23.8% to 30.6%. Pittsburgh may not have a Final Four appearance since 1941, but I don’t need to tell you they’ve been good. The addition of SU and Pitt signifies a shift in college basketball power that simply can’t be disputed.

The ACC’s strength on the court is about to get a major shot in the arm, but it’s unclear exactly when that shot will be injected. Recent conference moves such as the ones by Colorado and Nebraska needed only one farewell tour, but the Big East mandates a 27-month session of lingering. Of course, if we’ve learned anything about realignment, it’s that money and anxiety has a way of controlling the pace, so I can see a situation where the timetable is shaped by recruiting factors as well as financial issues.

The Big East lived an illustrious, memorable life built on the strength of its potent basketball programs. The conference may survive by reeling in schools from the Big 12, which is in dire straits itself, but it also may not, and that’s not a risk that Syracuse and Pittsburgh wanted to take.

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