Just three days in and the new look Big East conference took a blow.
The retooled 10-team version opened its doors for business on July 1. On July 3, Brad Stevens bolted from Butler to take the head-coaching job with the Boston Celtics.
This seismic shift happened before the first ever Big East game tipped with this lineup or even had its inaugural Media Day event where name tags would certainly be required. Really before the college basketball masses could really even wrap their heads around the reality that is the new Big East, another significant change took place. Only the true Big East partisans left behind would deny the departing fresh-faced coach with the killer résumé didn't take at least some of the intrigue with him.
Labeling the exit of the 36-year-old Stevens, who took the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA championship games, as anything less than stunning shows a lack of appreciation for his achievements, the weightiness of his new gig - but also his import to this version of the Big East.
We all understand how the conference came to this moment: schools including Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia left for the ACC and other destinations in the pursuit of the almighty football dollars, leaving the basketball-centric schools left to scramble. That led to the formation of the hoops-based league with Georgetown and six other original Big East schools followed by the addition of Butler, Creighton and Xavier.
In no particular order, here is what made this Big East conference intriguing, at least in year one:
- Big East historical heavyweights Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova
- Perennially ranked Marquette, an Elite Eight team last season
- Madison Square Garden, site of the Big East Tournament
- Butler, one season removed the Horizon League, squaring off against those aforementioned schools with Stevens on the sideline.
Fine, we can now tack on Bill Raftery calling league games with Gus Johnson. Moreover, Creighton's Doug McDermott is a national Player of the Year candidate. Still, the real fascination beyond seeing the Hoyas, Red Storm and Wildcats making new rivals is - or was - how would Butler/Stevens fare facing heavyweight teams on a regular basis. Sure, the Bulldogs went 27-9 and made the NCAA Tournament out of the Atlantic 10 last season, but there are reasons - financial and competitive - why Butler pulled up stakes for the second time in two years, this time for the Big East brand.
Oh, there was another significant component not yet mentioned: the Big East needed Butler. The Big East needed Stevens.
No doubt the Hoyas and their primary old school brethren - the good ones, not Seton Hall and Providence - are expected to successfully carry the expectations burden that come from being called the Big East. But with Syracuse and Pittsburgh now on Tobacco Road, defending national champion Louisville in the AAC for now with Connecticut and Cincinnati before the Cardinals make the jump to the ACC, it figured to be a rather steep mountain to climb for Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova and Marquette alone.
College basketball fans know the madness hasn't been limited to March, but seemingly every week on the calendar when another program shifted leagues or in the case of the Big East, started anew. The three most important aspects of making the what's-old-is-new-again transition: keeping the Big East name and the Madison Square Garden venue plus securing a lucrative TV deal. Well done on those fronts, but there are also games to be played, RPIs to analyze and "this conference is better than that conference" debates to be had which for the masses is often a perception-is-reality discussion. That's where Hinkle Fieldhouse-playing Butler with Stevens came into play.
Fellow newcomers Xavier and Creighton are no slouches, but they're not the team that was a half court shot away from beating Duke for the title and then again reached the championship game again the following season. No, Xavier and Creighton didn't have the poised and heralded Stevens. Now, neither does Butler.
Then again, Butler's success did not start with Stevens' ascension to the head-coaching job six seasons ago. Immediately before Stevens, there was Todd Lickliter, who twice took the Bulldogs to the round of 16. In his one season with program, Thad Matta, now coaching Ohio State, reached the NCAA's. Before all of them was Barry Collier, who took Butler to the NCAA Tournament in three of his last four years on the sideline before taking the school's Athletic Director job, one he still occupies.
Based on the program's history over the last 17 years, expect Butler to remain formidable, even if the competition is several steps up from its Horizon League days. The Bulldogs return several key players from last season's NCAA Tournament team, including guard Roosevelt Jones, a former AAU teammate of Wizards guard Bradley Beal,
With a lucrative TV deal, big name schools and other major coaches (John Thompson III, Buzz Williams and Jay Wright come to mind), the Big East should be fine as well.
Still, we all wanted to see Brad Stevens battle the big boys during the regular season and then in early March at Madison Square Garden. Now instead of the Bulldogs against the Hoyas, we'll have to watch the Celtics take on the Knicks for the opportunity.