Stacked up against the other big-boy leagues of college basketball, it always was going to be viewed as the little brother, the new kid on the block, the intruder on a set stage.
Forever the neophyte due to its youth compared to the likes of the Big Ten, the Pacific 12, the SEC and the ACC, the Big East seemed to be in a constant state of having to prove itself – to those other circuits, to fans, to media, maybe even to itself.
The question is an interesting one to ponder, given the fact the circuit, already a reconfigured amalgamation many times over, really, truly is seeing its end unfold this week. Yeah, the Catholic 7 will bolt the conference and take the name with it, but the spirit of the circuit departed long ago.
There is no denying that the Big East was every bit the equal, if not the superior, of every one of those aforementioned leagues at certain points since its inception 34 years ago. However, part of its charm, its intrigue, its attraction was the almost parochial attitude it had about its entity and the way it viewed those outside of it.
As Connecticut grew into a national program, as Syracuse and Georgetown seemed to spread their efforts beyond their spirited rivalry, the Big East faded. It really did. Not only in terms of things within “house” but outside of it as well.
Indeed, if ever there were an anticlimactic conclusion to something, this week’s Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden is it. The Big East, as Dave Gavitt envisioned it, as those who were around when it started and followed its every success and failure religiously way back when, hasn’t been the same since a Bush was first in office.
Following Seton Hall’s 1989 runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, the conference managed to squeeze out just two Final Four appearances – Syracuse in 1996, when it lost to Kentucky in the national title game, and UConn in 1999, when it upset Duke to win it all.
Thing is, the magic was gone, long gone, even before then. The heyday came and went almost in the blink of an eye. From 1982 through 1987, the Big East had seven entrants on college basketball’s grand stage. The circuit peaked in 1985, with three teams reaching the Final Four – St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova, the latter of which remains a standard for underdog achievement and excessive referencing of Italian eateries courtesy of Wildcats coach Rollie Massimino.
Georgetown waged absolute wars with every Big East team back then, especially Syracuse and St. John’s, and some legendary names emerged from them: Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Pearl Washington, Leo Rautins, Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Louie Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim and John Thompson.
The Hoyas reached three Final Fours in that time period. Syracuse and Providence, with Billy Donovan taking Friars faithful back to the glory days under Gavitt in the early 1970s, joined the party of excellence in 1987.
Almost immediately after the Orange of Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly fell to Indiana in the final that year, though, things changed. Sure, Seton Hall reached the title game two years later, but the Big East was never the same. Instead of a unit of schools sharing a regional kinship, it became a group of separate members whose individualistic goals superseded anything about the conference.
Football entered the picture right about then, and, really, the conference became every bit as much a grid league as a hoops league thanks mainly to the success of newcomers Virginia Tech and Miami. Once they left along with Boston College a decade ago, the shiv essentially got pushed in a little further into the Big East’s back and twisted not ever so slightly.
Adding the heart of Conference USA hoops – Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette – may have seemed a pretty nifty move back in 2005, but all that did was further weaken the regional connection and bring in more self-serving goals.
All of which has led us to this – the end of a once-great conference that, while it reached the mountaintop at times, failed to find a way to stay among the elite.
UConn, Syracuse, Georgetown and late-comer Louisville certainly remain elite as individual programs, but they’ve hardly been flag-bearers for the Big East. No team has been for a long time, and considering that teams being that way are what made the conference special in the first place, well, the conference is no longer special, and really hasn’t been since the 1980s.
One person’s Big East “bests” …
Team: Georgetown, 1982-1985. The Patrick Ewing era – the Hoyas reached three Final Fours and should have won three titles instead of just the one they did capture.
Program: UConn. The Huskies not only shared Big East honors with Georgetown, having won seven conference tournament titles, but they won three national ones as well – in 1999, 2004, 2011.
Moment: “Send it in, Jerome.” That famous call by color guy Bill Raftery not only awakened the rest of the country to the conference’s character and quality, but it launched the former Seton Hall coach’s announcing career to a completely new level.
Game: Villanova-Georgetown, 1985 NCAA title game. So many great ones, including the regular season, but it’s just tough to top this one, considering the stakes.
Player: Ewing. He not only performed at a Hall of Fame level in college and beyond, but he made Georgetown and the Big East household names.
With closing the book on the Big East, we move forward … and check in with the power ratings for this week.
1-Gonzaga, 31-2: There should be no more questions. There will be. There just shouldn’t be.
2-Indiana, 26-5: Not buying Victor Oladipo as a national POY candidate (in fact, I think it’s a total joke that he is), but there is no denying how good the Hoosiers are.
3-Duke, 27-4: With Ryan Kelly back, Devils are primed to make a run at another national title.
4-Miami, 24-6: I’m confused by the total lack of respect for the ACC regular-season champ that split with Duke, beating Coach K’s kids by 23 and the losing only by 3 at Cameron.
5-Michigan, 25-6: Not much, if anything, separates the Wolverines from the four above them here or several who would be below either.
Trio to watch: Kansas 26-5, Louisville 26-5, Georgetown 24-5.
1-Gonzaga, 31-2: Kelly Olynyk seems to be getting better – and bigger – each time out.
2-Saint Louis, 24-6: Billikens just grind down teams, but not sure they’ll win conference tourney in an incredibly underrated Atlantic 10.
3-Virginia Commonwealth, 24-7: Rams got rolled at Temple to close out their initial A-10 regular season. Don’t be surprised at a payback during the conference tourney.
4-New Mexico, 26-5: Best team in the nation’s second-ranked conference – the MWC.
5-Memphis, 27-4: Sorry, Creighton, just not sold at this point on the Bluejays – at least not over the Tigers, who raced through the C-USA regular season at 16-0 and have won 21 of their last 22.
Trio to watch: Creighton 27-7, Saint Mary’s 27-6, Bucknell 27-5.
Khalif Wyatt, Temple, senior G. It’s embarrassing how little acclaim he has received this season. He is the country’s best player in 2012-13 (pssst, and it’s not even close) and its absolute top end-game assassin. He single-handedly buried VCU and its “havoc” approach on Sunday with a 30-point, dare-you-to-press-me effort. Numbers: 19.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.9 rpg, 1.6 spg.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga, junior C. His NBA stock just keeps rising and rising, right along with his increased displays of athleticism. Numbers: 17.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.2 bpg in just 25.7 mpg.
Trey Burke, Michigan, sophomore G. Thank the hoops heaven that Big Ten coaches and media got the right guy as the conference’s player of the year. Numbers: 19.2 ppg, 6.8 apg, 3.2 rpg.
Doug McDermott, Creighton, junior F. His stats and returning All-American status make him too hard to ignore despite Bluejays’struggles at times. Numbers: 23.1 pgg, 7.5 rpg, 56.1 FG, 49.7 3FG.
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State, senior G. Has the most well-rounded game in college hoops, and has proven he can play against the big boys. Numbers: 22.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.6 rpg.
Trio to watch: Otto Porter, Jr., Georgetown; Mike Muscala, Bucknell; Mason Plumlee, Duke.