By Xavier Bleuel–
March 12 kicks off the greatest tradition in all of college hoops, under the bright lights of New York City in the historic address of 4 Pennsylvania Plaza New York, N.Y., 10001.
The Big East hosts the 34th edition of its men’s basketball championship in what’s pegged as the greatest arena in the world and the Mecca of basketball: Madison Square Garden.
For five straight days, 16 teams display hard-nose, tough, gutty performances, battling for arguably the greatest trophy in college basketball not named the Wooden NCAA Championship Trophy.
This is a year that no college basketball fan will ever forget, regardless of what team they root for.
With the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University departing for the ACC, and the University of Notre Dame and the University of Louisville Cardinals defecting the following season, it’s the last time that all founding members will participate.
U of L senior Allan Mathis states, “I’m kind of sad. I love the Big East Tournment, and I love the Big East as a basketball conference. But money always tends to win out, and I’m happy that Louisville has a home in the ACC. But it’s still sad.”
Some consider this year’s league as weaker, with Villanova, Cincinnati and Connecticut having down seasons. That speaks volumes to the reputation of the league; they’re still hosting six of the nation’s top 25 teams.
Georgetown, Louisville and Syracuse are the favorites heading in, with Marquette, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh closely following.
However, that doesn’t mean any team is incapable of winning. Lately, the Big East Championship seems to be a springboard of sorts for slumping teams to make a run late into March. Two years ago, UConn came into the Big East Championship as the nine seed; they then went on a remarkable run, led by Kemba Walker, winning five games in five days and eventually winning the National Championship.
A year later, a slumping Cardinals team came in as the seventh seed and turned around their season with a Big East Championship, led by Chane Behanan, Peyton Siva, and a little luck by the infrared jerseys. They carried that momentum to Louisville’s ninth Final Four appearance.
The Big East Championship has always garnered national attention. It has long evoked memories of classic battles, like the six overtime thriller just two years ago featuring UConn versus Syracuse — Kemba Walker versus Johnnie Flynn and company.
Or the first year the tournament was held in Madison Square Garden in 1983, where legendary coach Lou Carnesecca and his MVP Chris Mullin led the hometown team St. John’s Red Storm to the championship.
Or the 75-74 thriller in ’96 with the back-and-forth battle between the Huskies and Georgetown where Ray Allen’s circus-shot floater over the Hoyas’ emerging superstar point guard Allen Iverson won the game in the final seconds for Connecticut.
Some of the best coaches in history walked the sidelines in Big East play: Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s, John Thompson Jr. of Georgetown, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Rick Pitino of Providence and Louisville, and Rollie Massimino of Villanova.
NBA talent has been ever-present in the league, with notable figures such as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Kemba Walker, Alonzo Mourning, and Carmelo Anthony, just to name a few.
These memories of the Big East will now be an afterthought, as the league is forming a new identity after the recent wave of conference realignment crippled the league to its core.
The Big East has always been a basketball conference, ever since its birth in 1979. It is the only BCS conference to feature non-Division 1 football-playing universities, like Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence, Marquette, Villanova and DePaul.
Football became the moneymaker and college basketball was put on the back burner during the ongoing conference shuffle. Back in 1982, when the conference was young, Penn. State’s admission was rejected. In hindsight, this lone decision might have saved the conference from despair.
Recently retired former Big East commissioner Mike Trangese sat down with ESPN’s Bret McMurphy and let out his thoughts on the matter.
“The thing the Big East didn’t have was a football leader — a Florida, Alabama or USC — a team that contended for a national championship every year,” he said. “If you want to blame someone, blame me… We weren’t strong enough football-wise, and we got picked apart.”
The Big East survived an earlier raid in 2004 when Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech left for the ACC as well. However, the latest departures finally brought the once-proud conference to its knees.
Life-long Louisville fan Carey Guess commented on the dissolution of the Big East.
“It’s disheartening to see the Big East and its great rivalries broken up like Syracuse and Georgetown by money and greed,” he stated.
ESPN reported on Thursday that the conference’s seven basketball-only schools, dubbed the Catholic seven, have officially broken off from the rest of the league, gaining Butler University and the Xavier University in the process, also basketball-only schools.
The Big East was born a basketball conference; now, it is virtually dying and being rebirthed a basketball conference.
That’s the story of the Big East so far. The future is unknown but no one will forget the greatness of the Big East, arguably the best basketball conference in history.
Photos by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal