Is a super-sized Big East a good fit for Memphis?

After all the recent speculation about realignment and the formation of super conferences, one really big thing is sure to come. A giant mess.

No one knows who will eventually end up where, but you can be certain that soon, whether it be the next few years, months, or even days, the landscape of college football and basketball will be different than it is today. And that can definitely be said about the Big East.

The league’s current fourteen to seventeen basketball playing schools (depending on what day you check) make it a bit of a logistical nightmare, and it’s quite possible that the conference could grow even bigger. With rumors rampant that the University of Memphis could be invited to join the fray and Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s public support, it’s time to examine whether membership in a behemoth Big East would be a good fit for the Tigers.

First off let’s be clear. If the U of M football program is asked to become a member of ANY conference holding BCS status, the program will leap at the chance, and it definitely should. No one could possibly question that.

For basketball, however, the situation isn’t quite as simple. Of course the opportunity to compete against the likes of Louisville, Connecticut, Georgetown and West Virginia on a regular basis brings with it an aura of prestige and ensures that Memphis remains relevant in the eyes of the national media. Plus, inclusion in a league with such marquee members is sure to bring in more money for the university. Lucrative television contracts also mean that the school gains greater exposure.

Joining the Big East would also serve to revive some old rivalries as well as automatically create new ones. Imagine having Louisville and Cincinnati back as the U of M’s primary antagonists as opposed to UAB and UTEP. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult for the fans to get behind that.

Scheduling would get bit easier in some aspects. There would be a great deal less pressure on Josh Pastner to put more big name opponents on the slate, which might help curb some of the complaints that seem to arise from the fans, media and NCAA tournament committee about the Tigers lack of quality wins late in the season.

So hopping on board the Big East train is a no-brainer, right? Well, it isn’t that cut and dry really.

Over the last several years, Tiger basketball has thrived in an environment where they were the big fish in a small pond. If they suffered a loss or two in conference, it was considered a disappointment, and piling up close to 30 wins a year became a foregone conclusion. Sprinkle a few respected teams throughout the schedule here and there, and the regular season became the perfect tuneup for the NCAA tournament. But if Memphis aligns itself with an overloaded Big East, those occurrences all become part of the past. Freedom of scheduling is gone, along with the automatic conference wins and the confidence that gets built by pounding hapless league foes.

Winning the C-USA tournament is something the U of M has accomplished all but one year since 2006. Even when they haven’t been unbeatable in regular season league play, the Tigers have still captured the conference’s automatic bid. That gets quite a bit tougher to pull off in the Big East. Not only would they have to face tougher teams, they would also likely have to play another game, maybe even two. And a late loss might well eliminate them from gaining a 1 or 2 seed in the Big Dance as they also struggle to gain position in the Top 25.

Some will argue that recruiting becomes easier when you’re part of a major conference. You gain instant credibility and name recognition just by sporting that affiliation. You get to see your name on the list of five star recruits right next to the names of major programs like a UConn or a Louisville. Something Memphis would just dream to… Oh wait, that’s already happening. The fact is that Memphis is already one of the top choices for high school phenoms looking to play their year or two in college before they head to the NBA, so joining a major conference really doesn’t do much for them as far as recruiting is concerned.

So what does the U of M basketball program gain if they join they acquire membership in the Big East?Unfortunately, the answer may be that they won’t have much of a choice when it comes down to it. It’s entirely possible that when conference realignment is finished (not that it will ever truly be complete), a school’s football affiliation will control what happens to it in basketball. There are theories that the football superconferences will only play each other as they vie for their own championship. If this happens, college hoops could very well follow suit. And at that point, you’re either in the club or you’re not. It’s that simple.

At least as simple as anything in college sports these days.

Michael Jones is the Memphis Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.


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