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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Banshee's Best: Big East Nostalgia and Optimism

(Getty Images)
"The lights come on.  And when we're done, the lights will go out on the Big East Conference as we know it."  That's how Sean McDonough opened ESPN's broadcast of the Big East Championship on Saturday night.  On May 26, 1979, Wild Banshee was born.  Five days later, the Big East Conference was formed.  Over the years, the Big East and I grew and changed together.  So, it was with sadness that I watched the curtain come down on Big East Basketball this weekend in Madison Square Garden.

The fledgling league initially consisted of just seven northeastern schools who came together to form a basketball conference.  The original members were Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, Saint John's, Seton Hall and Syracuse.  The Big East added Villanova and Pitt in the early part of the 1980's.  In 1983, the league established itself as a premier basketball conference when it moved its post-season conference tournament to Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena.  In the 1980's, the Big East sent eight teams to the Final Four, including three in 1985 alone.  During that decade, two different Big East teams won the national championship.

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
The only thing that rivaled the quality of the basketball in the Big East during the 1980's was the personalities of the coaches in the league.  John Thompson, Jr. and his towel.  Lou Carnesecca and his sweaters.  Rollie Massimino and his ... well, everything.  And a very young Rick Pitino at Providence.

1991 ushered in the dawn of football in the Big East.  With that came expansion and a bit of a lull in performance on the basketball court.  Four new teams began playing basketball in the league during that decade, bringing the league total up to thirteen basketball schools by 1995.  The new additions on the hard court included Miami, Rutgers, West Virginia and Notre Dame.  The decade of the 1990's did produce one national championship for the conference but only two trips to the Final Four.

The 21st Century saw a revitalization of Big East basketball.  Sure, Virginia Tech joined for basketball purposes and then left  left after only four seasons.  But five new schools were added.  And the five new additions clearly indicated a rededication to basketball excellence.   Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida all joined in 2005.  And the 21st century brought eight Final Four teams and three national championships home to the Big East.  Last season, Rick Pitino, a Big East man from way back, took his Louisville Cardinals to the Final Four.

(Sports Illustrated)
Then came this season.  I remember standing in my kitchen when I heard the news that Syracuse and Pitt were leaving the Big East for the ACC.  I knew then that the conference that I grew up with was about to die.  As I feared, the dominoes began to fall.  Notre Dame and Louisville were also defecting to the ACC.  West Virginia was already gone to the Big 12, and Rutgers was headed to the Big Ten.  I'm not too proud to say that I shed some tears.  After all, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing was one of my imaginary playmates when I was a 5 year-old girl.  And now his conference was dead.  Or at least dying.

As the finale of the Big East was taking place this weekend, I couldn't help but think of the lyrics of Semisonic's 1998 song "Closing Time."  As the anthem of my first year of college states, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."  Hence, the optimism portion of this post.  Sean McDonough was right.  This weekend was the end of the Big East as we know it.  But, on March 12, 2013 it was formally announced that the Catholic Seven would be defecting from the remnants of the Big East conference they founded.  The Catholic Seven consists of DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova.  That group accounts for half of the teams that the Big East has ever sent to the Final Four and a third of the Big East's national champions.  Those seven Catholic schools will be be keeping the Big East name.  And, they will be keeping the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden as the site of their conference tournament.  And, later this week, Xavier, Creighton and Butler are all expected to officially announce that they will also be joining the new Big East.

And while there will never again be anything quite like the Big East conference of the 1980's, there is reason for optimism next season because there will once again be conference in the north east that is focused on basketball.

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