The end of the Big East as we know it

Posted: March 15, 2013

NEW YORK - It is a fact of nature that mutations occur.

Unnatural mutations seldom survive. Certainly, they do not thrive.

It is the nature of college basketball that conferences mutate.

The mutation of the Big East will not thrive, if it even survives.

Thursday was the last day the world could watch the real Big East, at least the Big East as it thrived since its creation. Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville will seek to nourish their football programs by leaving for the ACC, while West Virginia already joined the Big 12 for the same reason.

Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, DePaul and Marquette - the Catholic 7 - will retain the name, will invite others to join, will continue their postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden.

But never again will it be the same.

Thursday, the tourney entered its final significant stage.

The Big East quarterfinals are the wheat-from-chaff round. They are four games that usually feature two or three teams a win away from locking up an NCAA berth, such as Villanova, which lost to Louisville, 74-55, Thursday night; that almost always feature four teams expected to win the following Thursday or Friday, such as Syracuse; that always feature a team or two looking to lock down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Those teams this year are Georgetown, the top seed and ranked fifth in the country, and Louisville, seeded second and ranked fourth.

Georgetown plays Syracuse in the first semifinal Friday, a game that will go far in determining the NCAA tourney fates of two programs ranked among the country's elite this season.

The symmetry could not be better.

Louisville plays Norre Dame, a program that joined the conference and, like a beneficial mutation, strengthened it, in 1995.

The conference's DNA was unshakable then, thanks to the likes of Syracuse and Georgetown.

Those programs, perhaps more than any others, elevated the Big East to a power conference. Every program in the Big East has its special site, but they converge in March to enhance the mystique of the World's Most Famous Arena.

Long before football mattered to the conference, the league's teams were defined by iconic basketball coaches such as John Thompson at Georgetown and Jim Boeheim in Syracuse. Boeheim continues his remarkable tenure, even as Syracuse, ever aspiring to football relevance, contributes to the ruination of the Big East.

"The doubleheader that's going to be here [Friday] night will be a great basketball night," Boeheim said. "It's a good way to go out, for this league as it's constituted now."

Boeheim is the dean of the conference, in which, somehow, the coaches always outshone superstar players. Boeheim took his lumps, not only from the likes of Thompson, but also from his buddy, P.J. Carlesimo, at Seton Hall, Lou Carnesecca at St. John's, Rollie Massimino at Villanova. Even now, Louisville's Rick Pitino, St. John's Steve Lavin, Georgetown's John Thompson III and 'Nova's Jay Wright cast larger shadows than their players.

As such, at different points this week, the coaches of the Big East issued eloquent eulogies at the weeklong funeral.

"In the locker room before the game, I was thinking about all the times coming here," said Boeheim, who also played at Syracuse. Often a curmudgeon, Boeheim has a sentimental side. "I first came to the Garden when I was a sophomore in college, the old, old Garden. Seems like about 50 years ago. Oh, it was 50 years ago."

After that, in 1979, Carnesecca led five Catholic schools, Connecticut and Syracuse into an alliance that helped shape college basketball for the next 30 years. It was a league of big shoulders that recruited big basketball cities: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Washington.

When such a thing was possible, the Big East developed players: Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson at Georgetown, Chris Mullin and Walter Berry at St. John's, Derrick Coleman and Pearl Washington at Syracuse, Kerry Kittles at Villanova.

Connecticut guards Ben Gordon, Ray Allen and Kemba Walker helped cement their star status with runs at the Garden.

The stars were not always the show.

Gerry McNamara saved Syracuse three times in 2006, and, 3 years later, SU outlasted UConn through six overtimes in possibly the best conference tournament game in basketball history.

Perhaps the greatest moment in tournament history: Berry blocking Washington at the buzzer of the final in 1986.

And now, all of that is history.

"I remember every one of them like yesterday, the plays," Boeheim said. "Walter Berry should have never blocked Pearl's shot. It would have been a happy ending. The heartbreaks are what makes the good ones so great."

Made them great.

Money is what makes the Big East obsolete.

"The whole thing is tragic. The whole thing is tragic," moaned Mick Cronin, of Cincinnati, one of the schools left behind. "Nobody cares about student-athletes. All anybody cares about is money . . .

"The whole thing is hypocrisy . . . The fact that we're sitting here and this is the last Big East Tournament is beyond ridiculous. This is the greatest tradition in college athletics, this tournament, at one site [since 1983]. It's only gone for one reason, money. Money."

Indeed, partly because of its host city, no tournament in sports invites as many luminaries. Thursday's biggest name: former President Bill Clinton, a visitor to the winning Louisville locker room who earlier was perched 10 rows behind Jay Wright's coaching seat.

"If not for the Big East, no one knows about Villanova," Wright said. "It's sad."

As sad as it was, the weeklong wake has carried more of a celebratory air than a funereal pallor.

It hardly could be any other way.

"All the schools have alumni from Manhattan," Wright said. "You walk into this Garden, and everybody you know in New York City basketball is here. It's a Mecca. When you play in the Garden and you play well, there's great respect for that."

You play well at the Garden and everybody sees it, too. Too much cannot be made of the power of the tournament as a recruiting tool, nationally televised, from the greatest city on the planet.

"It's one of the reasons why I chose Syracuse," said guard Brandon Triche, whose father played at SU in the 1980s. "Just remembering G Mac, the run he made his senior year, just made it that much exciting than watching my senior year, Johnny Flynn going to six overtimes."

Perhaps to the outrage of those sturdy Midwesterners and a cult of worshippers on Tobacco Road, Providence coach Ed Cooley preached: "This is God's basketball, here in the Big East."

If that is true, then this weekend, even God is sad about its passing.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Columns: Philly.com/MarcusHayes

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