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Feb 19, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Creighton Bluejays forward Zach Hanson (40), Marquette Golden Eagles forward Davante Gardner (54) and Creighton Bluejays guard Jahenns Manigat (12) during the game at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Creighton won 85-70. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

College Basketball: How the Big East can survive autonomy

Just over a week ago the college basketball landscape changed, with the NCAA board of governors voted in favor of granting autonomy to the schools in the five biggest revenue-producing conferences in the FBS. The vote included Notre Dame, a member in the ACC in all sports except football (and hockey).

What autonomy essentially does is loosen some of the recruiting rules for schools in the “power five” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and PAC 12) as well as allow those schools to possibly give their athletes a stipend that closes the gap between the value of an athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attendance. This amount is estimated to be around $2,000 depending on the school.

The power five can also pass rules that would allow the schools to pay for the families of athletes to attend postseason games. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing and a nice gesture. Depending on the overall success of a school’s athletic department from year to year, however, that could add up quickly.

Another ace in the hole that autonomy gives the power five is the ability to offer healthcare coverage that extends beyond a college athlete’s playing career at that school. That said, it would be something that really only affects football players except in rare cases.

Nov 23, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (center) is helped off the field after suffering an injury in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Arizona defeated Oregon 42-16. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This is a lot to take in. The first reaction, shared by many, is that this is going to create more separation between the power five conferences and everyone else. On the surface, it does. This is what prompted “The Sky is Falling”-type articles from people like Tom Shatel of the Omaha World Herald. Before autonomy was even granted, Shatel penned an informative piece discussing the ramifications of autonomy as it would affect two Omaha universities: Creighton and Nebraska-Omaha.

Shatel talks about autonomy leading to the dilution and subsequent change in the meaning of the term “Division I” as it relates to college athletics. To his credit, he does say it’s all relative. And it is. Autonomy and its impact will vary on a case by case basis, largely based on the size of the athletic department and the primary revenue generating sports at each university.

For this reason, I believe Big East basketball can survive and stay competitive.

When the “Catholic 7″ parted ways with the football playing schools in the old Big East, focusing on basketball in order to avoid being driven by the ever-changing world of college football was at the core of the reasoning. Make no mistake, autonomy is mostly about football.

The ten teams who comprise the new Big East Conference all count on men’s college basketball as the top revenue generator in their athletic departments. For that reason, the Big East basketball programs are going to do what they need to do to survive and compete. This will likely include shelling out extra money in order to maintain the same competitive balance they have with the current “big time” football schools. Even if they don’t completely opt into everything the power five plans on doing, there are other measures in place for the Big East to close or maintain the gap.

One idea is to adopt a variation of what the Ivy League does.

The Ivy League does not offer any athletic scholarships to any of its athletes. This may shock many who are unfamiliar with that fact, as several Ivy League colleges have been able to compete at elite levels nationally in multiple sports despite not having scholarships. What the Ivy’s do instead is give their financial aid offices the authority to assess how much need a student requires and provide them with that amount (or close to it). It’s essentially a scholarship, and it works.

Cornell wrestling is a shining example of how that process can work and work effectively.

Mar 22, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Edward Ruth of Penn State defeats Jimmy Sheptock of Maryland to win the 174 lb finals in the NCAA wrestling Division I championship at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Historically, college wrestling — like most of the other intercollegiate sports — has been dominated by schools in one of the power five conferences. Programs like Iowa, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Penn State and Minnesota are annual mainstays in the Top 25 — often even the Top 10. Despite not having the luxury of being able to offer athletic scholarships, Cornell wrestling coach Rob Koll has been able to break through the status quo and establish the Big Red as one of the elite Division 1 wrestling programs in the nation.

During Koll’s 21 years at the helm, he has seen his wrestlers claim 11 individual national titles and led the Big Red to back-to-back second place finishes at the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011. He has used snowballed success based on his own coaching prowess in conjunction with an investment by the university in top notch facilities to lure would-be recruits away from the power five conferences and onto the Cornell campus.

When a student-athlete knows that he or she is going to have their tuition paid for and have access to elite coaching and facilities, they don’t care what form of aid that package comes in.

The Big East can adopt a portion of this strategy by augmenting the difference in the cost of attendence compared to the value of a scholarship with money they already have. This can be done with money from their current budgets or with some of the money from the TV deal with Fox. They can label it as need-based aid and scholarships for their athletes.

The fact that no Big East school competes in football at the FCS level benefits them in this case. The end result is upwards of 85 less scholarship athletes they’d need to offer the extra $2,000 or so to. That’s a savings of at least $170, 000 annually compared to schools with FCS football teams.

For a school like Creighton, who has  about 290 student-athletes, that’s a big deal. They could offer up that $2,000 to every athlete, costing them a total of $580,000 a year. That’s roughly half of head basketball coach Greg McDermott’s salary. That’s also less than half the cost of what the University of Nebraska — less than 50 miles from Creighton — would have to cough up to cover their over 600 student athletes the same way. Creighton’s athletic department could foot that bill by simply raising the individual ticket prices of home men’s basketball games by less than $2.50.

According to Seton Hall athletic director Pat Lyons, measures like that may not be out of the question. In an interview he did last week with New Jersey Hoops Haven, Lyons talks about how if keeping up with the power five means an extra $3,000 per student-athlete, Seton Hall (and presumably the other Big East schools) can afford that. He echoed Big East commissioner Val Ackerman’s statement on the state of Division 1 athletics, where she alluded to the notion that the Big East will do whatever it needs to in order to remain competitive.

At the end of the day, autonomy will mean more separation between the have and have-nots. That separation will be most apparent and tanglible in the sport of football — not basketball. Mid-major schools with football programs will struggle to close that gap for the entire football roster.

The move by the current Big East schools to form a basketball-centric conference now appears to be a prophetic one of survival. The Catholic 7 saw a train coming, and a new Big East was the best option for getting out of the way. It was a move that may eventually prove to be one that kept several of the nation’s most historically prestigious basketball programs relevant.

Tags: Big East Conference Cornell Big Red Creighton Blue Jays NCAA Basketball Nebraska Cornhuskers Val Ackerman

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