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Rebuilding the Big East 

CHICAGO - The process of successful rebuilding includes ideas, planning, patience, and hard work. And for a conference that was left for dead, these four attributes have resulted in rebirth.

In December, 2012, the seven Big East conference schools that did not field Division I football teams (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, and Villanova) announced their intention to separate from the conference's football-playing schools. Butler, Creighton, and Xavier were eventually added to these seven teams and on July 1, 2013, the newly-aligned Big East became the NCAA's 32nd Division I conference. 

To help rebuild the conference, the Big East named Val Ackerman its new commissioner, a logical choice given her student-athlete pedigree and business acumen.  

Ackerman comes from a sports-minded family: her grandfather was the athletic director for the College of New Jersey, where Ackerman grew up, and her father was the athletic director at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Mercer County, New Jersey, where she attended.  

Ackerman scored 1,755 points playing basketball at Hopewell Valley Central- the most points ever scored at the school by a male or female- by the time she graduated there in 1977. She then attended the University of Virginia as one of the school's first female student-athletes. She was a two-time Academic All-America selection there, and a four-year starter and three-time captain on the women's basketball team. She was the first 1,000 point scorer in program history. She graduated with high distinction with a degree in political science and social thought.

She then played one year of professional basketball in France before earning her law degree from UCLA in 1985. She served as an executive at the NBA for eight years, including as Special Assistant to NBA Commissioner David Stern. She has consulted for the NHL. In 1996 she was named the WNBA's first president, and in 2011 she was elected to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

And now the Big East.

"The conference is alive and well," Ackerman said in an interview earlier this summer. "We are doing everything our [school] presidents' had hoped for when they made the decision to leave the old conference and then join up with Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. The reconfiguration has gone very smoothly.” 

"We remain a conference very committed to the sport of basketball in particular, but we have broad-based programs in academics, and then core values that have really been very important as connective tissue among the schools. For example, many of the schools are service-oriented, so those common values really do come into play, particularly when you are talking at the presidents' level about strategic initiatives and direction of the grouping." 

And this reconfiguration has, at its heart, student-athletes. 

Building up People

The Big East All-Academic teams, which require, among other things, a 3.0 grade point average in the preceding academic year, thrived during 2013-2014 (2015 statistics not available at time of writing). 

The 2013 team had 2,091 honorees, with Georgetown leading all schools with 285 student-athletes recognized. Also in 2013, DePaul women's basketball was ranked No. 8 in the WBCA Academic Top 25 for NCAA Division I, with a team grade point average of 3.559. The 2014 Big East team upped its total to 2,197 honorees, with Georgetown again leading all schools with 286 student-athletes. DePaul women's basketball was ranked No. 3 in the WBCA Academic Top 25 for NCAA Division I in 2014, with a team grade point average of 3.622. In 2015 DePaul women's basketball's Jessica January was named the I-AAA Scholar-Athlete of the Year. January's teammate, Megan Podkowa, was named to the I-AAA Scholar-Athlete team in 2014 and 2015. 

From 2013-2015 the conference had a total of 15 NCAA tournament bids in men's basketball, and Villanova won the national title in 2015. 

"Villanova winning the national championship [in men's basketball] this past year was important for Villanova, but also important for the conference; to have that level of success quickly was exciting for all of us," Ackerman said. "The old Big East was playing at a high level in most sports, and we have picked that up more quickly on the men's side." 

The rest of the sports in the conference represented themselves well nationally in 2013-2015.

Men's soccer had 11 NCAA tournament bids and men's cross country had six NCAA tournament bids. 

Women's basketball moved up from one NCAA tournament bid in 2013 to three bids this past season, with DePaul advancing to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years. 

"On the women's side [of basketball] the old conference was extraordinary with UConn, Rutgers, Louisville, and Notre Dame," Ackerman said. "That is a tough act to follow, but we have as a stated goal here to revive what the old conference created. We know that will be more than an overnight process, but we think we are back on the rise in the conference in women's basketball."  

Women's soccer had nine NCAA tournament bids from 2013-2015, including Georgetown earning a berth all three of those years. Women's volleyball had eight bids, including Creighton and Marquette earning bids all three years. Women's cross country had nine bids, with Providence winning the national title in 2013.

"We have some exciting programs looming in terms of student-athlete development, leadership initiatives, and maintaining strength in basketball," Ackerman said. 

Building Buildings 

The hard work portion of rebuilding has manifested itself physically in brick and mortar, with several schools planning to renovate existing facilities or build new facilities, and some schools already in the construction phase of new facilities. 

In the fall of 2015 DePaul broke ground on the McCormick Place Events Center in the South Loop area of Chicago. The center will include a new 10,000 seat glass-walled basketball arena that will be able to host up to 29 DePaul men's and women's basketball games in addition to graduation ceremonies, conventions, and concerts. Construction plans also call for walkways to exhibition halls, hotels, and a nearby entertainment district. The progress of the center is moving along rapidly, with steel recently set and concrete recently poured. The center's construction progress can be viewed at homecourtchicago.com. The arena is scheduled to open for the 2017 basketball season. 

In October 2014, Georgetown commenced work on the four-story John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletics Center, which is adjacent to McDonough Gymnasium. The center will have roughly 144,000 square feet of newly constructed space and will house separate practice courts for men's and women's basketball, locker rooms, team meeting rooms, lounge areas, and coaches' offices for men's and women's basketball. There will also be a weight training facility and sports medicine/training room areas for all varsity student-athletes, a student-athlete academic center, an auditorium, and team meeting facilities for all varsity sports programs. The facility will be used by all 29 sports at Georgetown and is slated to open sometime in 2016.

Providence announced in mid-December, 2015, plans for the multi-phase Ruane Friar Development Center. The center will include a basketball practice facility as well as additional space for athletics department activities. In addition to a two-court basketball practice facility, the first phase of the project will include the construction of an atrium spanning Alumni Hall and Slavin Center, an athletic training center, offices, a new Friar Athletics Hall of Fame, and a dining room along with other infrastructure improvements. The first phase is expected to be completed by late summer of 2017. The time frame for the second phase is undetermined.

In April of 2016, Villanova announced plans for renovation of The Pavilion, which opened in 1986. A press release from the university said the renovation will "enhance Villanova's ability to recruit and train the nation's best and brightest student-athletes. It will create a high-quality, game-day experience for fans while also providing a tremendous home-court advantage." The renovations will also provide support for other aspects of the school and the athletic department. The planning phase is scheduled to continue throughout 2016.

Building the Future

"We think the future is bright, and now as we go into the fourth season, we are focusing a bit less on the startup, which was time-consuming for those of us here in New York to get this up and running starting from scratch," Ackerman said. "Now that we are past that stage, we are in the midst of a strategic planning exercise with our schools so we can make sure the conference and the schools are aligned with what we are focused on." 


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