By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Sports Writer
HOUSTON — The Big East is back in the Final Four, reinvented and re-establishing itself as one of the best basketball conferences in the country.
The Wildcats play Oklahoma in Saturday night’s first national semifinal, making Villanova the first Big East team to reach the Final Four since the conference essentially dropped major college football after the 2013 season.
“It does reinforce that the reputation the conference has had for more than three decades as a college basketball powerhouse is intact,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said Thursday.
The big Big East breakup came during sweeping Division I conference realignment that started in 2010. With FBS schools such as Pittsburgh, Louisville and West Virginia jumping to other conferences, the Big East’s basketball-focused schools decided to go it alone and return the league to its hoops roots. The remaining FBS schools formed the American Athletic Conference.
The basketball schools, with old-school Big East powers such as Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s, kept the name and the tournament at Madison Square Garden. The so-called Catholic Seven added Xavier, Creighton and Butler and nabbed a 12-year, $500 million television deal with Fox’s fledging sports network, FS1.
“We’re equipped and resourced to stay competitive,” Ackerman said.
The 10-team Big East has received 15 NCAA Tournament bids in the three years of its existence, four the first year, six last year and five this season and had eight of its teams reach the tournament. The problem has been getting those teams past the first weekend. The Big East has no Sweet 16 teams in ‘14 and just one last season. The biggest culprit was Villanova, which went into those tournaments as a two and a one seed.
Villanova was the only Big East team to get through the first weekend this year, but getting all the way to the Final Four goes a long way toward masking the disappointments and building — or rebuilding — the brand.
“I think our presidents went in thinking this is going to be more or a marathon than a sprint to re-establish the league,” Ackerman said. “The fact that it’s happened quickly does reinforce their vision that it can be done. And I think it hopefully quiets the naysayers who thought that because the Big East was different it wouldn’t be as good.”
Wildcats coach Jay Wright, who grew up just outside Philadelphia, adoring the city’s college basketball and the Big East, said getting teams in the Final Four helped make the first incarnation of the conference.
“The year St. John’s, Villanova and Georgetown all got to Lexington (1985), they were the new,” Wright said. “It kind of woke everybody up.”
Now the Big East is trying to do it again.
“We have to prove ourselves, not because we’re not a good league, but just because we’re new,” Wright said. “It’s important that we do this, our league does this, and we continue to do this, for our league as much as for our school.”