by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We usually don’t continue our feature stories from TGS Football to TGS Basketball. So much, however, has gone on regarding college conference realignment in the 96 hours since we published our featured piece in the gridiron publication last weekend that we are effectively compelled to pick up where we left off on Sunday.

As we mentioned in that editorial over the weekend, anyone who believed the “conference shuffle” was due for a pause after Notre Dame took itself off the market in September when aligning with the Atlantic Coach Conference was sorely mistaken. After the Fighting Irish moved, we swam against the media tide and went on record at the time saying that the realignment game was not due to end anytime soon. And we reiterated that belief once again last weekend after commenting upon Rutgers and Maryland jumping ship from the Big East and ACC, respectively, to the Big Ten. The upheaval was definitely still in process.

But not even we expected the next volleys in the conference shuffle battlefield to be fired so quickly. Although we knew that behind-the-scenes negotiations between a variety of schools and conferences has been ongoing for months, it still came as a bit of a shocker when it took the ACC less than a week after Maryland’s departure to formalize an invitation to Louisville, effectively taking the Terps’ place in the league. And that came only a day after the Big East conducted its latest raid upon Conference USA, pulling Tulane into its orbit for all sports while also adding East Carolina on the football side.

If you’re keeping score, we hope you’re writing everything in pencil. The conference realignment dynamics are changing more quickly than Grinnell College is scoring points on the hardwood.

And don’t expect the fireworks to end anytime soon, as the major football conferences are moving a bit more quickly to the “Big 64" scenario we first floated on our web pages a couple of years ago. The college conference shuffle has become an arms race (mostly involving an insatiable appetite for football and its TV riches) the likes of which we haven’t almost seen since Sputnik went into orbit. Which, in case you’re interested, happened a month after THE GOLD SHEET published its first issue in 1957. But never in those past 55 years have we experienced anything in college sports like the current conference upheavals in conference realignment.

We’re going to save a few more fascinating conference shuffle tidbits for our football publication this weekend, although the rapid-fire manner in which developments are occurring could even change those reports from sources and other insiders. What we will say is that a few of the major conferences are girding for more moves before the end of December; over the next few days we’ll be trying to confirm some of this blockbuster info and will highlight as much as we can in this upcoming weekend’s TGS Football.

But perhaps the most ominous developments now involve the smoking crater of the Big East. The composition of the conference is changing more quickly than GOP opinions regarding tax reform. And the most unfortunate casualty in the entire conference shuffle game might be Big East basketball, once a marquee entity, but suddenly on an endangered list.

Blame “King Football” for the Big East’s dilemma. The desperate attempt to cash in on the golden gridiron goose has not only turned much of the college conference landscape inside out but also rendered the Big East almost unrecognizable from its recent configuration and threatens the once-illustrious basketball future of the league. We’ll get more into those specifics as this basketball season progresses, especially since developments are likely to continue for the next several months, at least.

Still, who would have thought the Big East might be going the way of the WAC?

Unlike the WAC, however, we assume that they’ll continue to play football for a while in the Big East with their vast collection of C-USA refugees, plus holdovers Temple and South Florida. The future involvement of Boise State and San Diego State in the new-look Big East football alignment might be endangered, but it looks as if the league will proceed forward on the gridiron, if almost unrecognizable from its composition the past few years.

Interestingly, what was the Big East football alignment as recently as last season now only has aforementioned USF, plus UConn and Cincinnati, included from the 2011 roster. And the Huskies and Bearcats are poised to bail out at the first opportunity.

It’s basketball that we’re not sure about any more in the Big East. And that opinion is shared by many other inside sources we have consulted in the last week.

Word has it that the non-football members of the Big East (St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette, and DePaul), who have always felt isolated from the gridiron schools in the conference anyway, have almost reached a tipping point. Football has stripped, or is about to strip, many of the long-standing members of the loop who have so enriched the league’s basketball experience over the decades. Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami-Florida all bolted in the middle of the last decade. West Virginia departed for the Big 12 this season. In the near future, Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Louisville will be leaving, with UConn and Cincinnati ready to bolt at any moment.

The football dollars generated by the league, which partially kept the basketball-only members appeased in recent league play, suddenly appear in jeopardy as well, with the Big East still having no TV football contract beyond 2013, and the prospects of a big-money deal now very much on the wane as the league has lost its guaranteed spot (beyond next season) in the future configuration of the BCS and 4-team mini-playoff, slated to commence in two years.

With the football money suddenly up in the air, the basketball-only Big East types are now a bit more than restless with the situation. They’re wondering if they might be better off making their own deal and breaking away from the new, even farther-flung Big East membership that has included entries from coast-co-coast on the football side.

No surprise, then, that sources have told us that the non-football wing of the Big East has almost had enough, convening earlier this week and with only one more consenting vote needed among the group to put the wheels in motion for a mass exodus out of the league. Our sources believe that one vote will materialize and put in motion a brand new play that could further alter the college sports landscape.

What these Big East hoops entries might do in the future is anyone’s guess.

Basketball-wise, sources believe they could still constitute a rather formidable bloc, very much resembling the old Big East hoops league we recall from the early ‘80s, when the league was the rage of college sports and when Lou Carnesecca’s St. John’s, John Thompson’s Georgetown, and Rollie Massimino’s Villanova all qualified for one magical Final Four in 1985. Some sources believe the “hoops wing” of the the Big East could soon enter serious negotiations with the Atlantic 10 with an eye on some sort of an amalgamation. Or, perhaps to raid the A-10 of some of its higher-profile entries (perhaps St. Joe’s, Butler, Xavier, VCU, and Saint Louis) with the hopes of forming another monster basketball league.

Indeed, it’s almost starting to resemble “Back to the Future” in the entirety of Eastern college hoops, back even to the pre-Big East days of the various regional configurations of the old ECAC. Which, for those who can’t recall, briefly surfaced in the mid ‘70s as a forerunner of the Eastern Eight, Big East, and A-10, conducting postseason tourneys to determine NCAA at-large invitees to the expanded (to 32 teams) Big Dance in 1975. Divided into “Metro” (St. John’s, Seton Hall, Saint Peter’s, Rutgers), “Upstate” (Fairfield, St. Bonaventure, Niagara, Syracuse), “Southern” (George Washington, Georgetown, West Virginia, Pittsburgh), and “New England” (Boston College, Providence, UMass, and Holy Cross) quadrants, the mid ‘70s ECAC could look a lot like what a future Big East/A-10 might resemble. Save, of course, for those football schools.

Admittedly, the Big East probably grew too big for its own good on the basketball side over the past decade, emerging as an unwieldy 16-team monster. Still, almost all of the core members of the league’s initial glory days were still in the mix, and the league will always retain a special place in the hearts and minds of college hoops fans who can recall the glory days of the early ‘80s, to which the likes of Syracuse, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Villanova retain a connection.

Whatever, the Big East as we have come to know it over the past three-plus decades is about to change forever. Although the exact departure dates for many of those scheduled to move could range up to two years, the current 2012-13 campaign looms as sort of a last hurrah for the loop. And basketball-wise, it’s rather sad, because many of the great Big East hoops memories involve Syracuse and Pitt, and to a lesser extent Notre Dame and Louisville. Should UConn bolt (as we believe it eeventually will), another part of the original core peels away.

Another troubling development for hoops fans could be the future of the Big East Tournament, whose introduction into Madison Square Garden in the early ’80s was another significant development in the brand of the league. Every March since, the Big East Tourney in the Big Apple have gone hand in hand, becoming one of the highlight events of the entire college season. We have a hard time believing any hoop confederation including Georgetown, St. John's, and Villanova wouldn't be conducting some sort of tourney at MSG in early March. Whether it's under the Big East label, or something else, remains to be seen.

All we can suggest is to enjoy Big East hoops as much as you can this season, as it still retains much of its core, look, and feel of recent years. That all probably ends after March.

We’re not sure what the Big East is going to look like in the coming years, except that it will be much, much different.

Blame it on football.

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