INDIANAPOLIS — On a prominent wall at the Big East offices back in midtown Manhattan, there is a series of pictures showing one shining moment in time: Kris Jenkins’ last-second shot to win the national championship for Villanova last April, and the immediate happy aftermath.
That was the Big Bang. The instant the new Big East truly came of age.
“It’s a constant reminder. We come into work every day, we’ve got that, and we’ve got the replica national championship trophy right on our front reception area,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said standing in the lobby of Hinkle Fieldhouse while waiting for the Butler-Northwestern game to start. “A lot of things have to go right for something like that to happen. Not a lot can go wrong. We’re very proud of it.”
No wonder. Everyone knew the one persistent rap on the Big East since it was rebooted in 2013 with 10 schools. Yeah, you’ve got a nice league there, but when are you going to do something in March?
“I won’t miss that question,” Ackerman said.Now Villanova is considered capable of a repeat and just won at Purdue. Xavier is pushing into the top 10. Creighton whipped Wisconsin before the usual full house in Omaha. Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse remains one of the sport’s most iconic spots. Seton Hall is now a force.
The league has a brand name, a good TV deal with FOX, the tournament in Madison Square Garden and a well-populated recruiting base. It also has a successful program called Freshman Fundamentals, where incoming new players are brought in for a couple of days to listen to former athletes, marketing experts and business leaders talk about the transition to college, and how the prepare for their futures.
About the only thing missing in all this had been an NCAA tournament breakthrough; a particularly conspicuous void for a basketball-first league. But not anymore.
Ackerman has led the conference since its rebirth in 2013, and while the band played at Butler, she offered her thoughts above the trombone noise about the status of the Big East as it turns four.
On the importance of having a national championship
“The Villanova game I would call the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t think a day’s gone by where there hasn’t been a reminder of that. For the conference it proved what we believed all along, which was we could and should stay very competitive in men’s basketball. It remains a happy memory and important to our goal of keeping this great thing that Dave Gavitt started going and growing.”
On the gamble the new Big East represented
“When the presidents — all 10 in their way — made the decision to move out of their old conferences and come together to form a new conference, they were taking a bold step, because it was a basketball experiment in a football world. That’s where the resources are in college sports, mostly. Our presidents were kind of swimming against the tide in making basketball the centerpiece of our league. But they thought we had the ingredients.
“Our results the first few years have been proof of that. Eight of 10 of our schools have gotten in [the NCAA tournament]. Not many leagues can brag of an 80-percent tournament rate.”
On the conference needing revivals at Georgetown and St. John’s, two major-market plllars of the old Big East
“Those two programs — like Villanova, like Providence — they’re part of the soul of the conference. They’re kind of our essence. And they’re both committed and determined to get back on top.
“Georgetown, brand new Thompson Center opened this year [a training complex named after John Thompson], an extraordinary facility. St. John’s, they really have an opportunity to shine in New York. There’s a St. John’s fan base — I live in New York, I know this, my husband is one — that didn’t go to St. John’s but is still happy to see the team do well. I think that base is just waiting to be reactivated.
“The presidents of both those schools are committed to be successful. They’ll rise again.”
On the Gavitt Games, named after the patron saint of the league and matching the Big East and Big Ten, which included three contests this week that were settled in the last seconds
“We think this is a good thing for college basketball to be able to start the season in a way that Dave Gavitt always talked about, which was with some energy and some noise, at a time when football was still not only going but ascending.
“I was at the Georgetown-Maryland game [won 76-75 by Maryland]. It’s revived a dormant rivalry which is important to DC.”
On how well Butler, Creighton and Xavier have mixed in with the seven old Big East holdovers
“I can’t say enough about what those three programs have brought to the Big East. Each in their own way has upheld the tradition of excellence. They’ve brought great energy in their own markets. What Creighton does in their building [annually in the top 10 nationally in attendance] is remarkable.
“It’s a very good group, tightly knit. The division of interest that I think did the old Big East in — football vs. basketball, big publics vs. small privates — it just doesn’t exist here. This is a really together group of schools.”
Her thoughts each day when she walks by the 2016 Final Four pictures in the office
“I think while we’re savoring the moment with Villanova, it doesn’t mean the work’s done. Everybody knows memories are short and the pressure to keep it going is intense.
“But I would call the Villanova win affirmation that it could be done.”