Louisville a lock -- if three schools bolt
By Andy Katz
Louisville has been told it's a lock to join the Big East when the conference loses Miami, Boston College and Syracuse, sources close to the process told ESPN.com.
But that's assuming the three schools leave whenever the ACC gets around to actually inviting the three Big East members.
The ACC met via conference call Wednesday without a decision for the second straight day, prolonging what had seemed like the inevitable for possibly another week.
The ACC needs to act soon or else the Big East and its potential additions such as Louisville could face a precarious position. If the Big East loses the three schools to the ACC, then it would behoove the conference to be rid of them by June 30. If it isn't, then the Big East will have a hard time adding members without the schools suffering major penalties.
Conference USA's bylaws demand that a school pay $500,000 if it departs by June 30 of the previous year. The money goes up or down depending on the notice. The other penalty in the bylaws states that a departing school owes money if the television revenue decreases because of the departure. Conference USA has five years left on a television contract with ABC/ESPN/CBS. A source close to the process said Louisville would fight that clause in the contract.
Louisville wants out of Conference USA if the Big East is looking to expand. The Big East will be desperate to add the Cardinals if all three schools leave. The consensus backup plan by the Big East is the Dave Gavitt/Mike Tranghese confederation of two eight-team divisions under a Big East umbrella.
Under that plan, the five remaining football members -- Connecticut, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers and Virginia Tech -- would add three football-playing schools. Louisville would be the lock. Then the five would choose two among a list of four schools -- East Carolina (CUSA), Cincinnati (CUSA), South Florida (CUSA) and Central Florida (MAC in football/Atlantic Sun in hoops). Talk about Temple (outgoing Big East member in football, A-10 in basketball), Memphis (CUSA), Army (CUSA in football/Patriot League in hoops), Navy (independent in football/Patriot League in hoops) and Marshall (MAC) has cooled.
The basketball remaining members -- Providence, Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and Notre Dame -- would add two schools. The likely consensus is Marquette of Conference USA and Xavier out of the Atlantic 10. The Atlantic 10 has a penalty in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to the source, with a June 30 withdrawal deadline for the following season.
The football schedule would consist of seven league games. And there is talk that the football side might keep the revenue generated by that sport. One source close to the process was confident the Bowl Championship Series would continue to give the Big East a bid.
But the basketball divisions wouldn't have to be set along the same guidelines. Divisions could be mixed for men's and women's basketball so there is more balance. The schedule would call for 14 games against the teams in one division and then either two or four crossover games against the other division. The tournament still would be held in New York. If this scenario plays out, then a school such as Connecticut could still be in the same division as Providence, 90 minutes away, in basketball.
The three potential departing Big East members want to bolt for the 2004-05 season so they don't have two years of being lame ducks. But that probably would mean they wouldn't share in the final year of television deals in the ACC while the Big East deal for that season could be split 11 instead of 14 ways.
If all of these dominoes fall, then Conference USA might have to replace two to three teams or as many as four. A bidding war could ensue with CUSA trying to lure Tulsa and SMU while the WAC attempts to snatch TCU and Houston. The Mountain West also could look to add a few teams out of Conference USA.
The confederation of 16 teams has wide support within the Big East and with potential new members. The key is whether the ACC expansion goes through and when.
"Louisville is ready to act now," said one source close to the process. "Louisville brings a lot to the Big East with the football program and Rick Pitino and the basketball team."
The lawsuit filed against the ACC, BC and Miami by the five remaining football members of the Big East probably would go away if the ACC decided to expand to 14 and grab Virginia Tech and Connecticut. One source close to the process said those two schools would jump at the chance, but there so far has been no talk of bringing in more than three teams.
The last 16-team league was the WAC. But it split apart in 1998 after there were too many differences. The remaining WAC is a 10-team league after expanding by two; the Mountain West is an eight-team league of the schools that broke away.
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