About an hour before Xavier and Providence were set to play in the semifinals of the Big East men’s basketball tournament Friday night, the league’s commissioner, Val Ackerman, was laughing at an old memory.
It was only four years earlier, but to her it felt distant. The conference, formed anew in 2013, had been renting office space from a law firm. Most of the staff still lived in Rhode Island, near the former headquarters.
There were concerns about little things, like setting up an email system, and big things, like the viability of a league that had proudly, and perhaps foolhardily, divorced itself from the athletic department ATM known as college football.
But on Friday, almost five years after an experiment to forget about big-time football and instead focus on basketball with 10 like-minded universities began, Ackerman was soaking in another highly competitive tournament for a league that can still make the case to be the nation’s toughest.
In a college basketball season without any one dominant team, two Big East programs, Villanova and Xavier, have been consistently ranked in the top five. They entered the conference tournament ranked second and third in the Associated Press poll, behind No. 1 Virginia. Both could wind up among the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, putting the conference in a position to claim its second national title in three seasons, after the Kentucky Wildcats’ buzzer-beating win over North Carolina in 2016.
To put that in perspective, the Big East has had two of its members placed on the bracket’s top line in the same year only three times, including in the days of Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe that this idea was achievable,” Ackerman said. “That you could stay relevant, stay competitive — without football.”
A scene from Friday: A 17-point second-half lead for top-seeded Xavier had vanished. A floater in the lane from Rodney Bullock of Providence tied the score, 64-64. A capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden roared. A “Let’s go, Friars” chant resounded.
“I love it!” Ed Cooley, the Providence coach, cried, clapping his hands. “I love it.”
The game went to overtime before the Friars sprinted off the court having handed Xavier only its sixth loss of the season.
“What a game, what an atmosphere, what a league,” Cooley said afterward.
It was easy to forget that the Big Ten Conference had just commandeered the Garden for its conference tournament a week earlier. (Ackerman, conveniently, escaped to Chicago for the Big East women’s tournament.) The TV ratings for the Big Ten final, between Michigan and Purdue, and won by Michigan, were the lowest since 2009, down 13 percent from the previous year, according to the website Sports Media Watch.
Harder to ignore, however, is the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament running concurrently across the river in Brooklyn. On Friday, the ACC commissioner, John Swofford, told The Associated Press that he felt it was important for the league to hold its tournament in New York, after two strong years at Barclays Center.
Pressure from competing leagues trying to encroach on the Big East’s turf is just one of Ackerman’s persistent concerns. The other is financial solvency, she admitted.
“Long term, for a conference like ours, without football revenue, the question will be whether that will matter over time,” she said. “Right now, it hasn’t mattered. We’re in good shape. But over time, I think that’s the question.”
The return of Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing to the conference to coach at their alma maters, St. John’s and Georgetown, has reinfused some tradition into a league that was in danger of growing too unrecognizable for its old-school fans. Then again, the three newcomers, Xavier, Butler and Creighton, have been consistent winners.
In Ackerman’s mind, so has the league’s partnership with Fox Sports 1, which puts its games on national television, and with Madison Square Garden, a deal that runs through 2026.
And for a fledgling league, even a small, somewhat semantical triumph such as being able to maintain the old Big East record books is not insignificant.
“It seems to be making a difference in terms of the selling of the conference,” she said.
Ackerman said the league was content with 10 teams, although Gonzaga, of the West Coast Conference, has been consistently rumored as a candidate to extend the conference’s reach to the opposite coast.
“I think the low number together with the common nature of our schools has been a contributing factor” to the league’s success, she said.
“I don’t think I could’ve ever envisioned it was this big,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Wright, the most devoted and vocal pitchman for the conference, in either iteration, said what was exciting about the old league were the frequent intraconference matchups between highly ranked opponents. Many thought those days were gone.
“Well,” Wright said, “we’re doing the same thing now.”
How to explain it?
“We were doing OK,” Ackerman said. “We had four teams in the first year,” referring to the NCAA Tournament.
“But the year that Villanova won, that was the holy grail,” she continued. “That’s what you dream about. And it really validated the vision of the presidents.”
Late Friday, Villanova routed Butler, the sixth seed, to advance to the final Saturday night. It would meet Providence for a chance to win its second Big East tournament title in a row. These days, once again, that’s a laudable accomplishment.
“This is pretty cool,” Wright said. “I’m excited where this league is right now.”