By Michael Donovan

Before you head down to 20th and Market for today’s parade celebrating Villanova’s national championship, you might also want to:

Celebrate the Big East, the conference that used to be the poster child for basketball excellence but was broken up by football and recast in the past three years!

At Villanova, by contrast, football is played only when basketball options have been exhausted. That makes Villanova, which beat North Carolina, 77-74, on Monday night for its first Division I basketball title since 1985, and its conference, the Big East, anomalies on the big-time college basketball scene.

“I’m a huge college football fan,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said last weekend. But, he added: “We’re authentic. We’re all basketball schools. We’re in metropolitan areas. It’s the biggest sport.”

Monday night’s win will further quiet the voices of doubt that have plagued the Big East since it emerged from the latest conference realignment with a slimmer, basketball-centric focus.

Villanova (35-5) was already only the fifth team to advance to the Final Four after facing the highest possible seeds in all four previous games, including the No. 1 overall seed, Kansas. It was also the team that on Saturday achieved the biggest blowout in Final Four history.

“The slight on the Big East is, ‘Can Villanova advance?’ ” Providence Coach Ed Cooley said in a phone interview Sunday. “We’ve averaged five teams in the tournament, and the knock on us is we haven’t advanced.”

This latest iteration of the conference resulted from the football-prompted breakup of the old Big East at the beginning of this decade. Several conference basketball powers that also had major football programs — newer members like Louisville as well as charter institutions like Syracuse — departed for football conferences both in and out of the so-called Power 5 conferences.

What remained, with the addition of Butler, were 10 private and mostly Catholic schools that were fiercely committed to basketball; the extremely valuable right, through 2026, to stage its championship tournament at Madison Square Garden on the weekend before the NCAA tournament; and the name.

If Villanova’s run this season has proved that not having football is a surmountable obstacle, it has not erased the obstacle itself. Football is the king, queen, prince and princess of minting money in big-time college sports, and it is silly to think that this money gives no advantage to basketball programs attached to successful football programs. (The Big East’s other four tournament teams, including Villanova’s fellow No. 2 seed Xavier, were eliminated by the end of the first weekend, and only one other non-Power 5 team, Gonzaga, made the round of 16.)

Yet several conference members, including players for Villanova, suggested that basketball’s place in the center of their universe actually served as a competitive advantage. For them, rather than football, basketball is the circus that comes to town.

“Every road game is the biggest game for that school,” the Villanova freshman Mikal Bridges said. “Every away game in the Big East is a battle.”

He added, “Going through that really helped us out for where we are now.”

Such perks are also the kind of thing that keep coaches — the most important member of any basketball program because, unlike players, they do not have limited eligibility — in the conference. Wright, now making his second Final Four appearance, has been Villanova’s head coach since 2001.

“Jay could probably go anywhere,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said.

Instead, she noted, “He’s been a tremendous ambassador for the league, really the leader of the coaches.”

The conference did begin in the northeast, although it quickly added Pittsburgh and later West Virginia; then it subsequently ballooned to take in several geographically disparate football powerhouses, like Virginia Tech and Miami. Even now, its distilled version includes teams in Cincinnati, Chicago and Omaha.


Although league alignment affects finances, through which it has an impact on competitiveness, at their heart, conferences are what some would call imagined communities. They matter because most everyone thinks they matter. And between the whistles, they tend not to.

“We do play in the Big East,” Arcidiacono said, “but now that there’s a team from the Midwest, in Creighton, I don’t really know.

“We don’t try to think about that, honestly,” he added.

Wise words, for now, for all of us.

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