By DAN GELSTON
AP Basketball Writer
VILLANOVA, Pa. — Villanova’s Big East banner that hangs in the rafters already has a white patch stitched over West Virginia.
The Wildcats can start putting Xs over most of the rest of the conference schools, as well.
The Big East — a proud league built on basketball moments like the 1985 Wildcats stunning conference rival Georgetown in the national championship game — will soon become extinct, even if the names lives on in some form.
On Saturday, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence all decided to officially separate from the conference many of them helped to build, so they can construct a league focused on basketball in this ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
Breaking away from the Big East was only the first step. The seven schools must decide who will join them in the new hoops-heavy conference, when they want to depart, where they’ll play a conference tournament, and whether they will attempt to keep the name Big East name. Plus, the league will need a commissioner.
There is no true timetable for any of those decisions. Like so many of these reshaped conferences that stretch from coast to coast, this new league won’t be confined to eastern teams. Xavier, Butler, Dayton, Creighton, and Gonzaga, way out in Spokane, Wash., also don’t play major college football and would be natural fits to align with the other Catholic schools.
The seven departing schools have won three men’s basketball national championships with 18 Final Four appearances. Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence helped form the Big East, which started playing basketball in 1979. Villanova joined in 1980, and Marquette and DePaul in 2005. The Big East began playing football in 1991.
“They don’t necessarily have to be Catholic, but it could happen,” Patrick Lyons, Seton Hall’s Athletic Director, said. “We’re not restricting it. We also have to consider our football-playing Big East partners and what they plan to do. But we’re extremely excited about being able to shape our future.”
Big East bylaws require departing members give the conference 27 months’ notice, but the league has negotiated early departures with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia over the past year. Those schools all had to pay exit fees. Big East rules do allow schools to leave as a group without being obligated to pay exit fees.
The seven schools could play one more year in the Big East and figure out a way to get started on their league a season early. No one wants to deal with the uncertainty and nastiness that can lead from a split for any more time than they have too.
“This is not a move that will be made overnight,” said Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue. “This will be a strategic evolution into a new framework, involving a period of transition to address issues of structure, membership and media partnerships.”
The latest hit to the Big East leaves Connecticut, also a founding member, Cincinnati, Temple and South Florida — the four current members with FBS football programs — as the only schools currently in the Big East that are scheduled to be there beyond the 2013-14 school year.
The Big East is still lined up to have a 12-team football conference next season with six new members, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only. Rutgers and Louisville, which both announced intentions to leave the Big East last month for the Big Ten and the ACC, respectively, are scheduled to compete in the conference next year.
Notre Dame, which is moving to the ACC, also is expected to continue competing in the Big East next season in all sports but football and hockey. Those two sports also won’t compete in the ACC, when the Fighting Irish land there.
Also joining the Big East next season are Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU for all sports.
Schools officials haven’t said much publicly because there are still so many pieces that need to come together. Will it be a 10 or 12-team league? What will the television deal look like? Will the conference tournament live on at Madison Square Garden?
About the only part of the defection the seven schools know for sure is that they’re all unified as they journey onward.
“Right now, we’re focused on moving forward together,” Lyons said. “All other decisions still have to be made, but we’re going to stick together.”