THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS ON DISPLAY
Here it comes, what they play for and we watch for all season. College basketball’s post season is already underway with the first conference tournament shots having been fired in the Northeast Conference and the MAAC, while the American Athletic Conference and America East women’s tournaments tip off tonight.
Many of this year’s tournaments demonstrate how much the landscape of college athletics has changed in just one year, with new teams making their debuts in tournaments in the power five conferences while newly aligned conferences play their first ever post season events. Nowhere is there a greater indication of just how much that landscape has changed than right here in our own back yard, where the AAC women tip off at the Mohegan Sun Arena with the men waiting in the wings to play their tournament in Memphis next week, on the same schedule the new look Big East plays it’s men’s tournament at Madison Square Garden. The subtle indications of diminishing respect are plentiful at the conference tournaments.
All games of the men’s Big East tournament will be televised nationally, but no longer by ESPN, the final year of who’s contract with the old Big East carried over to the remnants now known as the American Athletic Conference. All of the Big East games will be aired by Fox Sports I, in a similar relationship with the new Big East as the one the old league had with ESPN. The league and the network started up at the same time, Fox Sports I, a network in need of product, the new Big East, a league in need of a T-V contract, they found each other at the right time. If the net result is the same as the one enjoyed by the old Big East and ESPN it will be win-win for both.
But the sizzle that accompanied the old Big East to New York is nowhere to be seen. With as many as 10 Big East teams making the NCAA tournament in the past, only two are assured bids right now, Villanova and Creighton, with 20 win Providence on a very crowded bubble, probably needing two wins at the garden, anyone else probably having to come out of the pack to win the automatic bid.
Meanwhile, in the AAC, the men’s first two rounds have been relegated to ESPNU, still unavailable in many markets, on the last year of the existing contract. While the semi finals and final are on ESPN, the final is relegated to a non prime start time of 6 PM, two and a half hours before the Big East final tips off.
The most noticeable demonstration of diminished respect is in the women’s AAC tournament, where there is no television at all for the first two rounds while the semi finals move from the old Big East Monday prime time slot on ESPN to Sunday afternoon on ESPNU, before the final turns up Monday night on ESPN. That’s for the conference with the best team in the land.
Unfortunately, when Louisville and Rutgers leave the AAC after this season, this league will become a deja vu version of the Big East, circa 1995, with UCONN establishing itself as the best program in the nation playing in a league in which none of the other programs get, or deserve, national respect.
The landscape of college basketball as we head into the madness this year bears little resemblance to the landscape just one year ago.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.