Remember 2004, when the Big East died as a football power conference? You know, when the ACC proved to the rest of the college sports world that sports are indeed about nothing except money. They raped and pillaged and came away with the two programs in the eight-team Big East that could really compete for national championships, Miami and Virginia Tech. That season, Pitt earned the tie break as quad-Champions in the seven team Big East (UConn played their first season as a member, Temple and Boston College their last). In the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Panthers got to play the first ever BCS-buster, Utah, and boy oh boy did that go badly. The Utes smacked Pitt around for four quarters, throwing occasional salt on the wounds with things like a hook and ladder play for a touchdown.
With Temple being excused from the conference after years of failing to produce a competitive 1A program, and BC joining the other backstabbers in the ACC, the Big East was left with just five programs. So what did they do? They turned to Conference USA, and did to those guys what the ACC had done to them: Show your flashy "power conference" perks and steal the best talent. Ultimately, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida hopped over to the Big East (as well as Marquette and DePaul in non-football sports, though I still can't figure that one out). Coming off of that horrendous showing in 2004, fans had to be skeptical about whether or not the conference really deserved their automatic bid in the BCS anymore. I mean, they were represented by a four-loss team which lost by four touchdowns to the champions from the Mountain West. That's pretty disastrous.
Adding insult to injury, the one newcomer that people thought might be the solution (Louisville) dropped their first conference game to a heavy underdog (USF), 45-14.
So what happened? Well one team that hadn't really been a national title contender in recent years, but had been a consistently decent program, truly stepped up, and did it behind a slew of talented underclassmen. Freshmen Pat White and Steve Slaton, and sophomores Owen Schmidtt and Darius Raynaud led Louisville to an improbable 11-1 season and a birth in the Sugar Bowl, being played at the Georgia Dome due to the damage Hurricane Katrina had done to the Louisiana Superdome. Making their task in the Sugar Bowl more difficult was that their opponents, the Georgia Bulldogs, champions of the mighty SEC, now almost had a home game.
But West Virginia did not seem starry-eyed on prime-time national television. In fact, they didn't seem affected at all. The Mountaineers came out and put up 38 points on the Dawgs before sealing their 38-35 win with a successful fake punt in the final minutes. The win was a statement for the Big East: Yes, we will compete and we will win big games now and in the future.
The thing about it is... Louisville didn't make that statement. Pittsburgh didn't either. Nor did Rutgers, Syracuse, USF, UConn or Cincinnati. West Virginia single handedly saved the Big East. They made it so that people had to respect the teams in their conference while those other teams rebuilt to the point where they could defend themselves.
Doesn't that seem ridiculous?
That is why today, I think that it is important for UMass basketball, along with Temple, Saint Joe's, George Washington and URI to say THANK YOU to Xavier, for keeping Atlantic 10 basketball relevant for the past few seasons. Dayton is winning as well, but when those programs get back from obscurity, they'll be damn lucky to be in a conference that a few people still give a damn about, and they owe that to the X-men.
So Xavier, from a man who desperately wants his alma mater to be a contender again: Thanks.