- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Big East was quick to claim Louisville as one of its own this past March, even as the Cardinals, then in Conference USA, were beating member school West Virginia on their way to the Final Four.
It made total sense. Louisville is the most recognizable name moving into the Big East this season. The new 16-team superconference could set an NCAA Tournament record for conference bids (with eight or more).
The league, though, is not the only party that will benefit from this new arrangement. Louisville, especially with Rick Pitino as head coach, is the program most prepared to gain from the tectonic-like shifts in conference alignment for the 2005-06 season.
"I've always said that [getting Pitino] was like bringing Elvis back," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who zeroed in on Pitino to replace Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum four years ago, even though he had no idea at the time that the Cardinals would be entering the Big East. "We've got a chance to flourish in recruiting across our institution. The fund-raising and cultivating alumni interest has increased tenfold of what it was last year."
Sure, the Cardinals will be a work in progress for a few months as they integrate new faces such as Kansas transfer David Padgett, redshirt freshman Brian Johnson and true freshman Terrence Williams along the frontline to go with potential first-team All-American guard Taquan Dean. But don't think for a second that the rest of the Big East doesn't already realize the Cardinals -- winners of the national championship in 1980 and '86 -- are shooting for the top tier of this conference.
"We knew a lot about [the league] since we already recruit in the area more so than Marquette, DePaul, South Florida and Cincinnati," Pitino said of the other C-USA members that went along with the Cards to the Big East. "We're familiar with [the New York area and Northeast corridor]. Recruiting there is something that we've done, not only here, but also at Kentucky."
One longtime Big East assistant agrees. "Louisville was always one of the 12 schools that could come into New York-New Jersey and get kids," he said. "And now that they're in the Big East with Pitino, they'll be even more equipped to get guys out of there."
Louisville nabbed former star shooting guard Francisco Garcia, who helped lead the Cardinals to last season's Final Four, out of New York City. Pitino also signed Sebastian Telfair out of the city, although he opted to head straight to the NBA in 2004. Most recently, Louisville got New Jersey big man Derrick Caracter for the class of 2006.
"I'm familiar with Jim Calhoun's [Connecticut] and Jim Boeheim's [Syracuse] styles and have been for a long time," Pitino said. "I know how they recruit and what makes them think. It should be a smooth transition."
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg -- who has coached in Conference USA (at South Florida), the Big East (with the Hokies) and last season in the ACC (when Virginia Tech made the move) -- agreed that Pitino and Louisville are the most prepared of any school in the country making a move.
"Rick has the highest profile of anyone and he's entering a league that he is very familiar with (from when he was the coach at Providence in the 1980s) and [in] an area he's from -- and he's also the former Knicks coach, which makes him an icon," Greenberg said. "Rick's profile is bigger than the university and now you've given a guy who has everything in his favor an even better vehicle to recruit to."
Pitino is cautiously optimistic about his developing club, but doesn't have any hesitation in understanding the long-term impact Louisville will have on the Big East (and vice versa).
"We'll be competitive," Pitino said. "I'm not sure we're as good as Connecticut and Villanova [this season], but we're not far behind. The Louisville name is a national name and would have been able to go into any conference. It's a magical name in college basketball."
As big as Louisville could be, the Cardinals are not the only program impacted by this year's changes.
New Atlantic 10 member Charlotte isn't too far behind Louisville in terms of making one of the best realignment moves. The 49ers couldn't really stay in C-USA as the conference was looking to refill with football-playing members, but their move couldn't have turned out any better, with Charlotte expected to immediately shoot toward the top of the A-10.
Charlotte fits the A-10 profile: a city school with a rich basketball heritage. Head coach Bobby Lutz has made the 49ers a regular in the NCAAs, earning bids five times since 1999 and he figures to continue that trend in the A-10.
Coaches across the league have told ESPN.com that they expect the 49ers to become a regular fixture in the title chase and this season shouldn't be any different. Charlotte has possibly the league player of the year in Curtis Withers and should be right in the title hunt with George Washington, Xavier and Temple.
Lutz is just happy that he is bringing a strong team in Charlotte's A-10 debut.
"I'm glad we're good," he said. "We have a senior-laden team. Winning on the road is so difficult and we have been able to do that the last couple of years. ... I hope the veteran nature of this team will allow us to get off to a good start. Playing in smaller venues like St. Joe's and Fordham will be challenging. But we've got a chance to make a good first impression with this strong, physical and veteran team."
If that's not enough, two seasons from now, Charlotte could have one of the top players in the country in its freshmen class. The 49ers already have a commitment from Michael Beasley of Oak Hill Academy (Va.), the second-ranked player in the entire class of 2007. Lutz hopes the move to the A-10 will also help his program recruit in areas outside the Mid-Atlantic.
"We like to recruit the Northeast and we've already gotten players from that area. This move gives us a chance to consistently be one of the top two or three in the league and that's what you're trying to be every year."
Bottom line: If NCAA Tournament access is the barometer for a program's success, Charlotte's meter should be skyrocketing in the foreseeable future.
With Louisville, Charlotte and the others gone from C-USA, that conference, for now, likely is in Memphis' hands.
The Tigers are in a tricky spot. They should (and we underscore should) be a big winner in the national realignment, becoming the team everyone tries to beat in C-USA. But in order to do so, the Tigers really need to dominate this league, somewhat like UNLV did in the Big West in the 1980s and early '90s.
Sure, Memphis has the second-most wins (115) and conference wins (56) among C-USA teams since 2000, but there were times when the Tigers were in the weaker of the league's two divisions. Memphis has gone to only two NCAAs in that span -- in 2003 and '04; the same number as UAB (which has made the last two). To be the dominant team in the league, the Tigers have to be consistently better than UAB, Houston and newcomers UTEP and Tulsa.
For his part, Memphis coach John Calipari sees more of a comparison to his mid-90s UMass teams (including the 1996 Final Four sqaud) than he does with UNLV in its Big West heyday.
"UNLV had a bigger rep nationally than Memphis or UMass, but when we were at UMass, we had a playing partner in Temple," Calipari said. "Memphis doesn't have that, but maybe it will be UAB or Houston or UTEP. The team that has to step up and make something happen is Tulsa [under first-year coach Doug Wojcik]. If Tulsa can get it going again, then we could have nearly half the league in the top 40-50."
Calipari has the team to make a statement in the realigned C-USA, which in addition to adding Tulsa and UTEP, brought in SMU, Rice, Central Florida and Marshall to join remaining members Houston, Tulane, UAB, Southern Miss and East Carolina. Sophomore point guard Darius Washington Jr., forwards Rodney Carney and Joey Dorsey and freshman Shawne Williams should each be one of the best -- if not the best -- players in the league at his respective position.
"We can help build this league," Calipari said. "We can craft our nonconference schedules to be national games."
Of course, not all programs are clear winners in the shift.
Boston College's move to the ACC (as a whole) could end up being a wash, although the basketball program (for now) probably is better off being in the ACC than in the muddled Big East.
Season tickets are now a hot commodity on campus. Students actually camped out for seats. That simply didn't occur in the Big East. Getting either Duke or North Carolina every season at Conte Forum apparently is enough to generate a local buzz.
Most important, the Eagles are as prepared as they ever will be for a move into a league that doesn't really have any gimme games from Nos. 1 through 12. The Eagles boast two potential All-Americans in forwards Craig Smith and Jared Dudley. If guards Louis Hinnant, Tyrese Rice and Sean Marshall can produce and be a capable line of defense at the top of the perimeter and Sean Williams comes off his suspension by January as a back-line shotblocker, the Eagles have a shot to be second to Duke in their first year in the league -- a finish that would give the Eagles more pop than they would have had in the 16-team Big East.
While the ACC is all about securing as many top-50 players as possible, BC has found a way to recruit hidden gems and be a regular tournament team. Can that work in the ACC? Maybe, but first-year success in a new region might change BC's entire recruiting pool.
One Big East team that might be hurt by the realignment is Seton Hall.
The Pirates might have the lowest national profile among the Big East holdovers and the question remains as to whether there is enough room for three New York/New Jersey-area schools in the 16-team Big East.
Rutgers is still the state university of New Jersey and historically has had one of the toughest home courts in the league. St. John's has the tradition, the cachet of playing in Madison Square Garden and will always be New York City's team. Seton Hall, which is projected to finish out of the Big East tournament chase (somewhere in the bottom four this season), plays in the spacious Meadowlands in New Jersey, miles from campus.
"I've always referred to Seton Hall's problem as a double commute," said one veteran Big East assistant. "St. John's fans can commute into the city and stay for a game. But a Seton Hall fan that works in the city has to commute home and then commute to the Meadowlands. There is no place to entertain and nothing in walking distance."
It wasn't too long ago (2000) that the Pirates made a successful run to the Sweet 16 under Tommy Amaker, and current coach Louis Orr took the Pirates to the NCAAs two years ago, where they beat Arizona in the first round before losing to Duke, but the Pirates slumped last season to 12-16 overall (4-12 Big East) after losing point guard Andre Barrett.
Now, four of the top six scorers are gone from that team, and Seton Hall has only one double-figure scorer returning (Kelly Whitney at 11.9 points per game). Can Seton Hall rebuild? And are there enough players in the area to sustain three league programs at a high level? Rarely have all three been elite at the same time.
"If you're really good in New York and New Jersey, then there is enough to support three programs, but if you're not, then too many teams will come into the region and take those players," said one Big East assistant.
"If Seton Hall could do what BC did and get the players that people don't think are as good but turn out to be much better then they could do it," said another veteran Big East assistant.
Still, Orr doesn't want to hear that his program doesn't fit in the new bigger Big East.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "I played in the first original Big East league. Seton Hall was an original member. We don't have to make an adjustment. We've been in the league 26 years, playing in the [national] finals in 1989 and [in] Big East championships, going to the NCAA Tournament. We've had success in this league. It's not about retooling.
"We were one of the seven original teams. Louisville recruited Jersey even before they got to the Big East. They've recruited nationally even before they got to the Big East. [I don't know] how much that [move to the Big East] helps them. The New York teams make the Big East. I think the New York-area schools is what separates this conference, because of New York. We're a big part of it."
Northeastern would have been a big part of the America East title picture this season after Vermont's heralded senior class left with three straight NCAA bids. Unfortunately for the Huskies, the school decided this was the year to bump up to the rough-and-tumble mid-major Colonial Athletic Association.
Fresh off an NIT berth, Northeastern returns four starters including senior point guard Jose Juan Barea, who averaged 22.3 points and 7.3 assists a game last season. Barea has been a fixture for the Puerto Rican junior national team the past few summers. He could have bolted for an overseas deal but opted to return for his last year, his first in a mid-Atlantic-based league.
Huskies coach Ron Everhart had no input in the move to the CAA, but remains optimistic about his program.
"We'll be competitive, but we've got to find a way to budgetarily compete at that level," Everhart said. "We're going from a league that buses everywhere to flying everywhere."
Everhart started recruiting at a higher level, landing 6-foot-10 Nigerian center Benson Egemonye, who was coveted by high-major programs. The addition of sharp-shooting freshman guard Chris Brickley could also help take pressure off Barea.
"We've given ourselves a chance to compete at this level," Everhart said.
Still, the Huskies had Tournament access at their fingertips this season and beyond in the America East. Now, at least in the short-term, they'll have to get in line behind Old Dominion and possibly VCU, George Mason and Hofstra, which left the America East with Towson, Delaware and Drexel four years ago. None of whom has won the CAA.
"If we weren't the team to beat, we would have been one of them [in the America East]," Everhart said. "We went from one in nine chances to get to the NCAAs to one in 12 ... [and] this league could be twice as tough."
The folks in the Big East and Atlantic 10 could now be saying the same thing.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
In the changed landscape that is NCAA hoops 2005-06, Louisville and Charlotte might be the biggest winners.