FOR THOSE who haven't been paying attention, the Big East is, well, different.
Louisville, the defending national champion, is gone. Ditto Connecticut, which won the title in 2011. They're both in the American Athletic, with Temple, after the split with the football schools. Syracuse, which made the Final Four last March, is now in the ACC. As are Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. West Virginia, which got to a Final Four in 2010, already had left for the Big 12 before last season. Cincinnati, which made it to the Sweet 16 2 years ago, is also part of the AAC.
So the Big East is no longer the best/deepest. Which means the days of getting 11 teams into the Madness are over, especially since it only has 10 now instead of 16. Three are newcomers: Butler, which played in the final game in 2010 and '11; Xavier, which in the last decade has been to two Elite Eights and three other Sweet 16s; and Creighton, which has one of the nation's top players in Doug McDermott.
The world doesn't stop spinning. The seven basketball-centric schools went their own way but retained the name and Madison Square Garden. Things will never be what they were. But maybe what's left can still be pretty good. And it starts in earnest with today's new-look conference openers, a dozen continuous hours of coverage on Fox Sports 1. St. John's at Xavier tips at noon, followed by Seton Hall at Providence, DePaul at Georgetown, Villanova at Butler and finally Marquette at Creighton.
The all-female broadcast team of Tiffany Greene and LaChina Robinson will call Seton Hall-Providence. But the better news, at least for Bill Raftery fans, is that he and Gus Johnson are pulling a double. After doing St. John's-X, they'll bus from Cincinnati to Indianapolis to catch Jay Wright's Wildcats coming off their first loss.
Wright always has maintained that he measures success by what his program does in the conference. Last season, the Wildcats only got into the NCAA field because they had three wins over Top 5 teams, all in South Philly. And one more against another ranked opponent, at the Pavilion. They don't figure to get those kind of opportunities again. Neither, at least this time around, do they figure to need them.
Picked fourth in the conference preseason poll, they've gone from unranked to 11th nationally, having dropped three spots after falling by 16 at unbeaten Syracuse, where they led by 18 in the first half. The only other Big East team to even receive votes this week was Creighton (with five). Marquette, which started at No. 17, and Georgetown have been somewhat underwhelming so far. But it's early. Every team has at least eight wins, and half have reached 10. The most recent ESPN bracketology projections had all four getting into the only dance that's relevant, which happens to be the same number as the Atlantic 10. Again, there's a lot of hooping to go. At this stage last season Villanova was mostly thinking NIT.
When Temple got back into the Big East in March 2012, the university thought it was coming in for everything. That changed. The Owls never wound up playing a Big East basketball game. Now they find themselves in the AAC, also with nine others. The conference will change some more, when Louisville - which just dismissed Chane Behanan for good and redshirted Kevin Ware - goes to the ACC and Rutgers moves to the Big Ten. That's next season. The AAC, not shockingly, has three teams - Louisville, UConn and newcomer Memphis - ranked between 14 and 18. And Cincy has 11 wins, while newcomer Southern Methodist and Larry Brown, who might be a factor a year ahead of schedule by presumably playing the right way, has 10. The Mustangs host Temple on Feb. 6 and come here 10 days later, for those who like to plan ahead.
The AAC has spread its five league openers over 24 hours, beginning with the three highest-profile teams going today. First, you've got Louisville at Central Florida at 5. Two hours later, it's Memphis at South Florida. Then, at 9, UConn is at Houston. All are on ESPN2. Tomorrow at 6, SMU is at Cincy. Last up is Temple and Rutgers at 8, also on ESPNU, in the first meeting since 2006. That was Fran Dunphy's first win on North Broad. Rutgers and new coach Eddie Jordan are the only team with a losing record (6-7), while the 5-5 Owls are the only other team that isn't above .500.
This was shaping up as a challenging campaign for the Owls regardless of what neighborhood they called home. Dunphy had to replace five seniors, including three fifth-year guys and A-10 Player of the Year Khalif Wyatt. So there figured to be some learning curves. They have two one-point home losses (one at the Wells Fargo Center), including an overtimer. They also lost twice when they had second-half leads. Dunphy's teams almost always make noticeable strides as the stretch drive approaches. The Owls were picked to finish fifth, which might have been the case had they still been in the A-10, where for the better part of three decades they were largely the face of the conference.
The landscape has evolved. Yet there always will be one constant: try to do enough to get your name called on Selection Sunday, even if that journey now contains a fresh set of obstacles.