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The Pitino Proposal: Between the Lines

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Rick Pitino was publicly displeased with the Big East schedule handed to his Cardinals a few weeks ago. Naturally, then, Pitino has concocted a solution to the perceived problem on his website. Believing that the root of the issue is that the conference is just too-darned big, the natural solution is to form into divisions.

"One major conference with two divisions who don't play each other except at Madison Square Garden," as Pitino puts it, sounds an awful lot like two separate conferences that maybe share a conference tournament.

In his 8/9-team divisional format, the Big East would play 16 league games -- one home and one away against each team in the division. The rivalries that would be destroyed (or turned into potential "maybes" at Madison Square Garden in March) would be replaced by new ones that would presumably form naturally.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pitino's blog post is that he proposes a divisional line-up that he labels "east" and "west" even though geography is clearly not in-play with his picks. According to the coach, the divisions would be arranged like this:

East West
1. Villanova 1. Syracuse
2. Georgetown 2. Pitt
3. St. John’s 3. Louisville
4. DePaul 4. West Virginia
5. Marquette 5. Cincinnati
6. Seton Hall 6. TCU
7. Providence 7. Rutgers
8. Notre Dame 8. UConn
9. USF

Pitino, who rose to coaching prominence at Providence College and ought to know a thing or two about Big East history and tradition, paid little attention to such matters when drawing that line in the sand. No longer would Syracuse and Georgetown fans be able to play their annual hoops rivalry.

Villanova and Georgetown would stay together with St. John's, but those schools would lose 30 or more years of shared hoops-history with Syracuse, UConn and Pittsburgh. Seton Hall and Rutgers would also lose their annual meeting as well.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that rather than dividing the conference along geographic or rivalry-based lines, Pitino sorted the schools into football and non-football — calling the football-playing division, "West." You might as well call the divisions he drew, "Popes" and "Pigskins."

Pitino wants new rivalries to form within each division, which makes sense if you are anticipating a split along gridiron lines. Since a split would ultimately cause those Football vs. Catholic rivalries to end on an annual basis anyway, schools like Syracuse better just get used to having rivalries with Pitt and Louisville instead of Villanova and Georgetown.

Pitino didn't mention football at all on his blog posting, but the implications of his divisional split only truly make sense for that reason. If he wanted a balanced schedule, why place so many conference stalwarts in the "West" division? Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Connecticut are all consistently-strong programs, and all of them are in the same division. Not that the "East" is lacking in talent, but is still notably weaker.

As Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg pointed out yesterday, the value of the Big East is higher when the conference is a single cohesive unit.

Without endorsing it directly, it seems that Rick Pitino is joining Jim Calhoun in predicting the demise of the Big East. His divisional alignment proposal appears to be little more than a thinly-veiled precursor to a conference break-up. Though such a move has seemed destined in the past, it is unlikely to happen while the Big East basketball product is generating big money for every member.

While there are mega-millions to be made in the oversized hoops league, its members will remain committed and motivated to try and keep the gravy train in working order.

Update (3pm): ESPN's Andy Kats has a similar article to this one out today.