Big East men’s basketball coaches open to expansion — under the right circumstances

Just a shade over a year ago, the Big East returned to its roots by officially welcoming back UConn. The move drew near-unanimous approval from players, coaches, administrators and, of course, fans, who had longed for a sense of nostalgia. And those feelings remain.

But as the college realignment carousel keeps spinning, the Big East has begun to weigh what, if anything, it should do next.

Build upon its rich heritage by expanding again? And if so, how much?

Avoid the temptation of bigger being better and maintain the current 11-team structure?

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman offered some clues as to her thinking recently, telling The Athletic that with the media rights deal with Fox expiring in 2025, she plans to engage the league’s presidents about their openness to adding to what’s already in place.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of expansion came up again Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the league staged its men’s and women’s basketball media days. While many men’s coaches said they’re comfortable with the way things are, they understand the importance of being open to new ideas as the landscape around them continues to shift for better or worse.

“I don’t see any need for us right now,” Villanova’s Jay Wright said. “The addition of Connecticut’s been great for the league. It fits, it’s authentic, they bring value. I do think we need to stay open to all opportunities. I don’t see a specific one right now, but I do think we need to remain open.”

Several schools have already been mentioned as potential fits, most notably Gonzaga. The Zags are a national brand, a perennial title contender that — for at least as long as Mark Few is around — would raise the Big East’s profile to an even higher degree.

However, adding a school from the Western time zone, no matter how prominent, is sure to create logistical headaches.

Providence’s Ed Cooley echoed Wright, saying the Big East is in a good place at the moment. But he knows it would be “naïve to think (expansion) can’t happen.”

“I think Val is doing a great job of keeping all our options open,” Cooley said. “If, you know, somebody can help the Big East as we move forward, we’ll look forward to that. But as of right now, we are where we’re at and we’re happy about it.”

The Big East didn’t exactly flex its muscles during the COVID-shortened season. It ranked sixth in RPI, behind the WCC and ahead of the AAC. Just four schools earned NCAA Tournament bids, and none advanced past the Sweet 16.

Nevertheless, expectations are that it’ll be stronger this time around. Villanova — ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason Top 25 poll — remains elite, and UConn’s poised to take another step forward in the fourth year under Dan Hurley. The Huskies landed at No. 24 in the rankings, while Xavier and St. John’s also received votes.

Hurley said he would be in favor of expansion if it meant strengthening the level of competition.

“Obviously, you want the league to be as strong as possible,” Hurley said. “You want as many really, really good teams, NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, in your league as possible. You’d love to be in a situation where you have seven or eight or even nine NCAA-caliber teams so that you don’t have a lot of bad-loss opportunities in the league. Anything that would strengthen the league, I’m all for.”

Kevin Willard of Seton Hall is also open to the idea, but only under the right circumstances.

“It’s above my paygrade to be perfectly honest with you,” Willard said. “I love where the league is right now with the two round-robin. The addition of UConn was huge.”

“I think if we’re going to expand,” he added, “it’d have to be probably a big expansion. I don’t think we can just add one team. I don’t think that makes sense. I love the way the league is right now. I think it’s as balanced and as good a league as any in college basketball.”

And what about on the women’s side? UConn remains the crème de la crème of the sport with a record 11 NCAA championships. At the moment, Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma doesn’t sound enamored with the prospect of adding a 12th league member.

“I really don’t know about the expansion thing,” Auriemma said. “I’m not big on divisions. We tried that once — wasn’t that great. Too many people claiming they were Big East champions. Every school you go to has a banner.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour