Big East notes: Val Ackerman talks expansion with coaches’ approval, supports combining men’s and women’s Final Fours

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Big East commissioner Val Ackerman made a bold move three years ago opening the door for UConn to rejoin its old conference rivals. Now Ackerman and the conference are thinking bigger once again.

“There’s nothing in the works right now,” Ackerman, one of the newest Naismith Hall of Famers, told The Courant Monday, during Big East Media Day. “But in this environment we all have to pay attention to what’s happening and thinking about the future. We have to think about tomorrow.”

The Big East developed a conference plan five years ago, Ackerman said, “once the new conference was on solid footing. A few months ago the conference ADs began reviewing the plan.

“We have to stay nimble,” Ackerman said. “We are thinking in the back of our minds about our next television negotiation. Our deal with Fox covers this year, plus three more. What’s going to put the Big East in the best position to have another major national television arrangement because those deals are life blood for us. It’s exposure, it’s credibility.”

Since Ackerman first floated the idea of expansion, speculation has focused on several non-football playing basketball powers. Gonzaga, last year’s runner-up in men’s basketball and the No.1 team in the current AP poll, would add a national brand and TV appeal but, located in Spokane, Wash., wouldn’t make geographic sense for a conference that likes to limit the travel burden.

“There’s no bad idea,” Ackerman said. “You have to have the whiteboard and come up with a variety of options. The idea of a national conference in a sport other than football, in my judgment, is tricky because you’re dealing with tougher travel.”

Perhaps a school from the Midwest or West, like Gonzaga, could join Creighton, DePaul, Marquette, Xavier, Butler and Xavier in a six-team Western Division, limiting travel with the East Coast members. However it would shake out, coaches seemed to like the idea of expanding the footprint.

“I’m up for it,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “I want to be in the absolute best conference, basketball conference, we could possibly be in. Anything that strengthens the league I’m all for.”

Said Providence coach Ed Cooley, “I’m a traditionalist, I was born and raised in the Big East but you always have to look at change. I’m sitting here because of change. Val’s done a good job of keeping our options open. Change is what brought the Big East to where it is today. You have to look at all the options to make the Big East as powerful as it can be.”

Ackerman endorses combined Final Four

Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA, also reiterated her support for holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city on the same weekend, which she had previously recommended in 2013. The idea was recently recommended in the Kaplan report, which examined issues of gender inequity in the NCAA following outcry over different experiences for women’s and men’s basketball players at the 2021 Final Fours in San Antonio and Indianapolis, respectively.

Ackerman pointed to the logistical difficulties for the NCAA that come from putting the events on the same weekend in different cities, as well as the opportunities to combine sponsors, media and fans in one spot to “create just a colossal event for college basketball,” she told The Courant. She pointed to the success Grand Slams in tennis have had in combining the men’s and women’s tours in the same event while holding championships on different days.

The NCAA already named host cities for the women’s Final Fours through 2026 — Minneapolis, Dallas, Cleveland, Tampa and Phoenix — but the Kaplan report recommends the men’s and women’s events be combined as soon as possible, “preferably no later than the 2022-23 season so as to continue building on this positive momentum.”

Some critics fear that women’s basketball could get drowned out if played side-by-side with men’s games. Ackerman isn’t worried about that at all.

“Frankly, I don’t think a reason to not do it is because of fears that the women will get overshadowed,” she said. “I don’t think that’s giving women’s basketball enough credit. I feel very sure that women’s basketball will not get overshadowed.”

McDermott endorses Central’s Patrick Sellers

Among the many stops coach Patrick Sellers made before landing his first head coaching chance at Central Connecticut was Creighton, during its first years in the Big East.

“I’m really excited for him,” McDermott said. “He’s worked his way through this profession and learned at a lot of places and I’m really happy to see him get the opportunity. He’s a heck of a basketball coach and even a better guy, and that’s what his players are going to warm up to. He’s going to have their back and get the most out of young people because of the type of person he is. He’s a student of the game, and I think Central Connecticut hit a home run.”

Painful memory for Cole

Stepping back on the floor at Madison Square Garden brought a painful memory for UConn’s R.J. Cole. He fell and sustained a concussion here during the Big East semifinal against Creighton last March, leaving the game with UConn ahead and 5:07 to go. Creighton rallied to win.

“I definitely remember that,” Cole said, “hearing Creighton fans cheering a lot [at the end of the game], that hurt a little bit. Coming back in this building, I remember that.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com; Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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