The U of M is holding a press conference at noon Wednesday (Hardaway Hall of Fame) in which athletic director R.C. Johnson is expected to announce that Memphis will join the Big East Conference, effective with the 2013-14 academic year. The first six thoughts I have on the news:
• Hallelujah. This had to happen for Tiger basketball (to say nothing of Tiger football) to stay relevant on a national scale. This will be the Century of the Super Conference, and schools will either be in the club or out. The tired, shapeless expression "mid-major" is going the way of the dodo bird. Had Memphis missed the final cut with the Big East, no Conference USA-Mountain West merger could approximate the long-term gain.
• Tigers vs. Cardinals . . . twice! It's a fair presumption that the Big East powers-that-be will find a way to make sure Louisville and Memphis meet on the hardwood twice each winter. Whatever the conference banner happens to be, in these parts that means roundball justice. North Carolina-Duke was never interrupted. Fans in Kansas and Missouri are running to extremes over the divorce of that age-old rivalry (with Mizzou leaving the Big 12 for the SEC). Memphis-Louisville is bigger than conference affiliation. It's a link to history that gains luster with the renewal of hostilities.
• Josh Pastner can still recruit. There's grumbling that the Tiger basketball coach now faces an impossible task: recruiting nationally against the likes of Louisville, Georgetown, UConn, Villanova, and Notre Dame. This suggests that a player like Chris Douglas-Roberts is more likely to cross a few state lines if he can be assured of beating up on the likes of Rice, UAB, and East Carolina. That's not my take. Memphis will be on national television more, in prime time more, in the national conversation, not as a curious outsider, but as a program competing with the "insiders," the big boys. Coaches who recruit well are good salesmen. I'm convinced Josh Pastner will sell his new Big East neighborhood as the stepping-stone to the NBA it's expected to be by prized recruits.
• The Tiger football program needed a Hail Mary . . . and this one was caught in the corner of the end zone as the clock expired. Who knows how the BCS landscape will look when all is settled? (For starters, let's hope the tag itself expires. There is no "series" in college football.) Big East football will never be mistaken for the SEC, the Big Ten, or even the Pac 12. But it's a step closer to legitimacy than Conference USA, a significant stride closer to convincing prep football players they'll be playing on a stage that will attract the eyes of NFL scouts. Will hosting Rutgers or South Florida fill the Liberty Bowl on a fall Saturday? Of course not. (The stadium is too big. Someone read my lips.) But I like the sound of Memphis-Louisville on the gridiron. Even Memphis-Cincinnati. Best of all, I like the idea of looking at the Big East standings and finding the Memphis Tigers, wherever they may be.
• Among the Big East basketball programs that will remain after the defection of Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia, 11 have been to the Final Four since 1984. That's a bowl full of hoops history and heroes. And that doesn't even include Notre Dame and DePaul. The Big East remains a great basketball league.
• I love the fact that Memphis can now claim a baseball team in the Pacific Coast League and a university in the Big East. Truly a city that reaches for greatness beyond regional boundaries. Now, about that travel budget . . . .