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With Big East shake-up, UMass should explore options

For more than a decade, college basketball fans have been speculating that it was just a matter of time before the Big East’s non-football playing Catholic schools decided to part company with their football playing brothers.

That time has finally arrived as each new school the conference added for football reasons continued to water down the once great basketball product.

One way or another this is going to affect the University of Massachusetts athletic department. The Minutemen could land with the Big East football schools, the non-football schools or they could stay in an Atlantic 10 that’s likely to be diminished by defections to the Big East basketball conference.

How this turns out will almost certainly define UMass athletics for decades to come.

While athletic director John McCutcheon said he’s not actively seeking a move, UMass fans should hope he’s being more cagey than honest. Whether it’s McCutcheon, or representatives from the chancellor’s or president’s offices, or the board of trustees, somebody should be actively contacting parties in both halves of the splitting Big East to see what interest either would have in adding the Minutemen.

Create options. It’s better to pick up the phone than wait for it.

Here’s a look at potential landing spots for UMass and the pros and cons of each:

Big East Football League

All sports would join the remaining Big East football-playing schools as well as the teams scheduled to join in 2013 and 2014.

Potential Conference Mates: Temple, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis, South Florida, Central Florida, Houston, SMU, Tulane, Navy (football only), East Carolina (football only), Boise State (football only), San Diego State (football only)

Likelihood of it happening: If Boise and San Diego stay, it’s hard to imagine UMass would get a bid. There are already 12 teams creating natural six-team divisions. But there are growing rumors that after the defections of Rutgers and Louisville, Boise and SDSU might return to the Mountain West, which under new rules gives it equal access to the playoffs. If that happens, UMass could be an option for the remaining programs. Given that there are four football-only teams in this league, I wonder if UMass would be considered as a football-only member.

Advantages: This league has built-in rivals with Temple and Connecticut. It likely offers the biggest television contract. It’s a conference that kind of makes sense geographically. UMass also wouldn’t have to schedule four MAC basketball games.

Disadvantage: There’s no guarantee that this league still exists in five years. UConn and Cincinnati are all but begging to go to the ACC, Big 12 or Big Ten. If that happens, what’s keeping the other schools together? It would be a bad football league, a mediocre basketball league and a travel nightmare.

Big East Basketball League

Basketball would join the departing Big East Catholic schools and football would stay in the MAC.

Potential Conference Mates: For basketball: Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Marquette, DePaul and whatever other schools are added. The MAC would remain the same.

Likelihood of it happening: Not good. The seven former Big East schools are small, private Catholic schools, while UMass is a big, public institution with no affiliation to the pope whatsoever. This league can create a strong basketball conference with other Catholic schools like Xavier, Dayton, Butler, St. Louis and Creighton, while avoiding some of the friction that exists between the Catholic and non-Catholic Atlantic 10 schools. How many schools they decide to add will affect the landscape considerably.

If the league decided to go to 16 or more teams and expand outside of Catholics, UMass would be a logical team to consider. But the seven schools are leaving the Big East because of their conflicts with schools that have Bowl Subdivision Football. Would they want to add a school that has it?

Advantages: If men’s basketball is UMass’ priority, this league would probably be its best case scenario. There are several regional rivals as well as schools with strong basketball tradition. It would almost certainly have a larger television contract than what the Atlantic 10 has now, and undoubtedly earn a larger contract than an Atlantic 10 that might not have Xavier, SLU, Dayton and Butler.

Disadvantages: The Minutemen would be in a league dictated by schools whose overall makeup differs from theirs.

Atlantic 10/MAC

The teams would stay in their current conferences.

Potential Conference Mates: For basketball: Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Fordham, Duquesne, VCU, St. Bonaventure, Richmond, George Washington. Potentially Dayton or Saint Louis as well if the Big East basketball conference only expands to 10. For football: MAC would be unchanged

Likelihood of it happening: Pretty high actually. There are a few different ways the dice could land where UMass wouldn’t move at all. It would be interesting to see what other schools might be targets for the Atlantic 10. Delaware? Siena? Stony Brook?

Advantages: On paper, UMass should be one of the best men’s basketball teams in the Atlantic 10, making the path to an NCAA automatic bid much easier. From a financial standpoint, UMass’ other sports would have drastically reduced travel costs because almost all of the destinations in that league are potentially reachable by bus.

Disadvantages: There will be less money to be made. TV contracts will be smaller and marquee conference games will be fewer. RPI rankings will be worse and therefore there will be fewer at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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