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For New Big East, the NCAA Tournament is imperative

TV money is important, but success in the months of March and April might be a bigger deal for a basketball-first league.

Eileen Blass-USA TODAY Sports

Fox Sports has high hopes for Big East basketball's regular-season ratings, but even if those games don't ultimately churn out millions of viewers, the contract that the new cable network signed with the league will ensure that Fox's timeslots are filled with low-cost live programming. The price of that contract is locked-in for the conferences' ten schools at this point, and while a successful regular-season will be important next year, priorities should be pointed elsewhere.

The NCAA tournament is among the most-watched sporting events in the US, if not beyond. In total viewers for the seven-day, 68-team event, it exceeds the in-home viewership of the five BCS bowl games, for example. The popularity of the tournament has been growing, with the title game drawing 23.4 million viewers -- 12 percent more than last year and more than the final game of the MLB World Series, which attracted just 15.5 million.

The whole tournament averaged 10.7 million viewers, up from 9.6 million last season.

Driven by timing, the growth of "bracket pool" gambling, or some other measure, the NCAA tournament remains the biggest and best opportunity for exposure when it comes to college basketball. Gigantic profits remain largely in the realm of big time college football, with it's six-figure stadium capacities and big-ratings for regular season games.

For big time basketball programs, profits are important, but the biggest boost comes when tournament success builds a brand name for the school.

The Old Big East was always in the NCAA Tournament picture. Since the mid-2000s reconstruction, the league regularly placed half of its members into the field, achieving a record of 11 teams selected, but just getting in wasn't the only trick. Old Big East schools regularly made deep runs in the event, including seven appearances in the Final Four since 2009.

When people talk about how good the Big East was, they aren't thinking about the regular-season Sagarin or KenPom rankings, they are thinking about the omnipresence of Big East basketball during March Madness.

If the New Big East is hoping to capture some of that tradition going forward, it will need to replicate that success. In the 2013 tournament, Marquette squeaked its way to the Elite Eight, but none of the conferences' other members for the 2013-14 season reached the second weekend (to be fair, Butler was knocked out by Marquette).

Don't get me wrong, a string of Elite Eight appearances wouldn't be bad, but to be viewed as a true power-conference, the new Big East will have to reach the Final Four. Maybe not next season, but soon. Since 2007, Georgetown, Villanova and Butler have taken the floor at the Final Four with Butler advancing to the title game twice in that period. Neither Georgetown nor Villanova has reached the Sweet 16 since their appearances in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

The possibility certainly exists, but as Villanova and Georgetown's recent struggle to advance shows, it isn't a guarantee. Even highly-seeded programs like the Hoyas, have implode on the big stage. The old Big East, however, had a deep bench -- with 16 teams in the league, they normally managed to put eight or more into the tournament, increasing the odds that one team would put a run together in March.

The new Big East has the disadvantage of having only 10 schools. Even matching the old Big East's Selection Sunday success rate would mean putting just five schools into the field, and fewer chances to catch lightning in a bottle.

Once leadership for the new conference is in place, a plan to attain that level of tournament success needs to be high on the agenda for these schools. If that means a major expansion in membership, a scheduling plan designed to get more teams into the tournament or other arrangements, the league needs to find a way to make it work.

Success in March is the most important asset in college basketball. People still talk about Villanova's championship in 1985 because those big-time tournament games are the ones that everyone sees and remembers.