I grew up on Big East Basketball in the 80's and 90's, so the new face of the conference is something that I'm still getting used to.
The “New” Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden has had some predictably exciting outcomes over its first two seasons.
Last night Xavier defeated Butler in overtime 67-61 (needle slides across vinyl causing severe record scratch)…See that just doesn’t sound right to throwback Big East fans. Saying the name of two teams that we never used to recognize as basketball powerhouses back in the day and having to accept that they now represent the future of Northeast basketball is quite disturbing for old school Big East fans.
St. John’s got scraped already by Providence on Thursday. At least Villanova is 30-2 and holding on to some of that old Big East mystique. Villanova was dominant a year ago as it steam-rolled Big East regular season comp finishing 16-2, before being stunned in the conference tournament quarterfinals by Seton Hall. That’s unlikely to happen again as Villanova should win its first Big East Tournament title since 1995 in emphatic steez.
The Wildcats have got to be the “people’s choice,” especially for old school big East heads. They are located northwest of Philly and feature a Brooklyn-bred, ball-bully in JayVaughn Pinkston.
Providence has never been an elite Big East program but they made an unforgettable Final Four run once upon a time, with a young Rick Pitino at the helm and a young gunner name Billy Donovan running the show. It’s a special moment in the glorious and accolade-filled history of Big East basketball.
Georgetown is looking decent after blasting Creighton 60-55 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals match-up. Georgetown and John Thompson III manage to tread water each season and stay just respectable enough to still be considered a flagship NCAA program.
Watching this year’s Big East tournament really hurts my heart as a kid growing up in NYC in the 80's and 90's, when we had six or seven teams in the Top 20 like clockwork. Big East basketball – from Patrick Ewing to Pearl Washington to Allen Iverson and Ray Allen (you name em') – was the standard for hard-nosed, gritty, defense-heavy, electric avenue, guard-dominated, big-man prominent college basketball.
The conference represented a special group of people and transcended basketball, expressing young culture through fashion and a music sense that reflected the sign of the times. Back then, the ball bounced to the heartbeat of the streets.
“Basketball as a whole is hip-hop, but no conference reps it like the Big East back in the day,” said hip-hop legend Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest." You look at the McClain boys (Dwayne and Gary) from Villanova.
That’s hip-hop. Look at Ed Pinckney from Adelai Stevens HS in Bronx, NY. That’s hip-hop all day. Harold Jensen is even hip-hop because he didn’t miss a shot in the 85’ title game. That right there is swag, like rockin' the mike in front of a sold out arena. Its hip hop.”
“Patrick Ewing… Come on. Hip–Hop started from West Indian Culture. Kool Herc was from yard, rude boy. P Ewing he went to the same school as Guru from the legendary group Gangstar back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s hip-hop all day… Just blocking the shot and walking back down court with the scowl. Or Dikembe (Mutumbo) waving the finger after a block. That’s hip-hop. Mark Jackson from Bishop Loughlin and Brooklyn-Queens on to the NY Knicks…never had to leave NY for most of his career. That’s hip-hop personified. Even Mark being a minister right now like reverend run. That’s the evolution of hip-hop."
Yesterday Has Gone Away
The media raves about the Big East Tournament; but unfortunately, the conference is thin on elite programs in the “traditional” sense.
The conference’s main powerhouse teams over the past two decades aren’t even members anymore. UConn won three NCAA titles as an original member and then former Big East product Kevin Ollie coaches the Huskies to an improbable NCAA C’hip—as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
And now UConn balls out with the likes of Tulane and Tulsa, SMU and East Carolina. UConn beating Cincy 69-43 to advance to the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals is a far cry from the classic UConn-Georgetown Big East finals matchup in 1996.
The original Big East Conference had a special flavor and flair driven by a demographic that made sense. It was founded in 1979 as a basketball conference, when Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, and Syracuse invited Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College to join. Villanova and Pittsburgh joined shortly thereafter under the leadership of the Big East's first commissioner, Dave Gavitt.
The conference remained largely unchanged until 1991, when it began to sponsor football, adding Miami as a full member, and Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia as football-only members. Rutgers and West Virginia upgraded to full Big East membership in 1995, while Virginia Tech did the same in 2000. Notre Dame also joined as a non-football member effective in 1995.
Stud schools with mythical players and coaches.
Even the newer teams were able to make significant historical contributions and raise their university’s overall profile and recruiting reach through their affiliation with The Big East. The tourney games at MSG dating back to the early 80's are treasured gems in basketball lore. They are significant dates and emotional barometers that mark the timelines of people’s lives.
I was a sixth-grader and just soiling my basketball oats in 1985 when The Big East romped through March Madness and put three teams in the Final Four; Villanova (National Champion) Georgetown (Runner-up) and St. John's (lost to Georgetown). It was NBL (Nothing but legends) swishing NBN (Nothing but net). Chris Mullin, “Action” Jackson and Walter Berry made St. John’s more than just a Catholic university in Queens. They were led by the legendary Louie Carnesecca. Villanova’s Pinckney and his firecracker HC Rollie Massimino were always turnt up. I always loved G-Town’s Reggie Williams.
It was the height of Big East basketball’s glory years and the most teams any conference has ever gotten to the Final Four in March Madness history. The championship game also produced one of the most improbable wins in NCAA history, when the Wildcats shot nearly 80 percent from the field and defeated the mighty Hoya Destroyas machine led by its larger-than-life leader and cultivator of black men, John Thompson.
Ben Osborne is Slam Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. He said this in a conversation we had back in 2013:
“Younger people from the Northeast --if they even care --look at the Big East like… isn’t it that Conference that used to put eight teams in the tournament every year... but for guys who are in their 30’s and older, the Conference is way more than basketball. ““In my time as Editor at Slam beginning in ‘07, it was a conference that had a lot of great teams. In my time as a rabid NY basketball fan and on the path to being a professional journalist, the Big East had a swagger; they had great shoes and great players. They were on ESPN as much as anyone. They were big and bad.”
We all know the tragic story by now. As college athletics became more and more of a money-driven entity, the lure of football riches took precedence over the quality and practicality, tradition and history of once-sacred basketball conferences. Conference Armageddon almost sucked the life out of The Big East.
First Boston College began the trend and bounced to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two of Big East basketball’s most storied programs, joined the arch-rival conference as well in 2011. To a Northeast basketball fan these moves were akin to a Southerner going to fight for the North in the Civil War. That set off the mass exodus of teams. West Virginia, a rising program, high-tailed it to the Big 12 conference to get in on that football stash. Two more powerhouses in Notre Dame and Louisville bounced for ACC-land in 2012.
Just like that, the mighty BE conference was on its last legs and everybody was looking for a bailout plan. But instead of dissolving the conference, a new day emerged as The New Big East was formed, composed of the "Catholic Seven" members of the Big East Conference (1979-2013): Marquette, DePaul, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova. In December 2012, these schools chose to split from the football playing schools in order to focus on basketball. Butler, Creighton, and Xavier University were added to the mix and the Big East hoped that current and new fans would take to both the old and new faces that formed the conference.
While there is promise for the future, it's been a challenge based upon the results so far.
Last season, the Big East had zero teams get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The lack of success in March led to questions in November regarding the strength of the conference. More than the quality of basketball, it kills me to see traditional Big East squads playing on the other side of the country.
This New Big East will take some getting used to. At the very least I’d like to see a championship game match-up on Saturday that includes two Big East originals. There’s a great chance that can happen. Entering tonight’s Semifinals games, Villanova will meet Providence and Georgetown will play Xavier in the second game at 9:30 p.m.
If the Hoyas can hold up their end of the bargain, maybe we old school Big East fans can have a trip down memory lane on Saturday night at MSG.