Back when he was learning how to do long division and figuring how to squeeze the most out of recess, Notre Dame forward Tim Abromaitis first sensed something special about Big East basketball.
One day during elementary school, Abromaitis and his family ventured from their home in Unionville, Conn., to midtown Manhattan, site of the annual Big East Championship. In one game, Abromaitis watched Ray Allen work his magic for Connecticut, his father’s alma mater. In the next, Georgetown’s Allen Iverson wowed him. In another, Kerry Kittles of Villanova showed his skills. And it all unfolded under the roof of Madison Square Garden, which even today bills itself as the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
All of it left an impression on Abromaitis, who harbored dreams then of one day playing major college basketball.
“I just remember seeing a ton of great players,” Abromaitis said before an Irish practice earlier this week. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this league is pretty legit for basketball.’”
On Wednesday, dressed in mandatory business casual attire, Abromaitis and fellow senior co-captain Scott Martin accompanied coach Mike Brey to the New York Athletic Club across from Central Park for what many considered the final Big East men’s basketball media day as everyone has come to know it.
With conference realignment an almost constant concern, a league that was built on basketball might look drastically different in the coming days and weeks and months. Two teams - Pittsburgh and Syracuse - plan to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, but not a moment before the 27-month waiting period required under league law ends. Two others - Louisville and West Virginia - might have sights set on the Big 12 if it expands. Come media day 2012, current Conference USA members Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist might be Big East members.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto held a conference call with reporters Tuesday to answer most questions and concerns about the ongoing realignment. In doing so, the league hoped the focus Wednesday would be on basketball.
Not all of it was. Brey still fielded his share of “What if?” queries and was confident that Notre Dame will have a conference to call home, if not the Big East, then elsewhere.
“It’s part of the equation,” Brey said this week about realignment. “It’s on every coach’s mind. I just like that I’m distracted by my team right now and I’m not thinking about it as much.”
However it unfolds, this might be the final year that the Big East is the beast of college basketball.
“I’ve gotten used to it being the power conference,” Abromaitis said. “You get used to playing the same people and it’s sad that it won’t be that way anymore, but I’m definitely glad it lasted through my career.”
Abromaitis already has left a legacy within the league. A two-time Big East scholar-athlete of the year, he was one of six players selected Wednesday to the All-Big East First Team as determined by a vote of league coaches (see info box).
Abromaitis is the first Irish to earn preseason first team honors since 2009, when former power forward Luke Harangody was a first-team pick and preseason player of the year. An honorable mention selection at season’s end during 2009-10, his first as a starter, Abromaitis was a third team selection last March after finishing second on the squad in scoring for a second consecutive season.
“To know that I’ve been able to accomplish that much to be recognized at this point is special,” he said. “But preseason awards don’t mean that much. I won’t rest on anything given to me.”
Abromaitis and Martin also didn’t haul home results of the league coaches’ preseason poll with plans to plaster them around the locker room. Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the 16-team conference.
Being slotted in a muddled middle is nothing new for Notre Dame. A year ago, league coaches considered the Irish the seventh-best squad. Notre Dame then ran off 14 victories in 18 league games to finish second, one game behind regular-season league champion Pittsburgh, which it beat on its home floor.
“I don’t know how you can tell anything with the preseason poll,” Martin said. “It’s all just guessing. We don’t really care about it.
“We care where we end up at the end.”
What if the players were given a pen and a piece of paper to rank the league’s 16 teams? Where would the Irish rank the Irish?
“I wouldn’t put us outside the top four or five,” Abromaitis said. “I don’t think anybody else sees it that way.”
“There are days where we look pretty good and other days where we make mistakes,” Martin said. “It’s just so early, but we are moving in the right direction.
“Time will tell.”
Staff writer Tom Noie: