BUFFALO - Fancy meeting you here. The beauty of this early phase of the NCAA Tournament is that teams come from all over, from many different conferences, and they wind up at the same spot. The disparity is represented here by the likes of Syracuse, Connecticut and Villanova all having come from different conferences.
Except, of course, anyone who has spent a week in early March at Madison Square Garden knows you never had to use your imagination to see those three teams under the same roof. It happened regularly and it was quite a show. A wistful person could say they all belong together, as they were before the old Big East splintered and re-emerged before this season.
So what we have here is a reunion.
"It's very cool," said Jay Wright, coach of Villanova, the one team still representing the Big East (against Milwaukee Thursday night). Wright and his wife ran into Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at the hotel Tuesday night. "[We] spent an hour in the lobby talking about the ESPN special '30 for 30' and the good old days. And it's really cool to see the Connecticut people. It's very cool."
It's also very rare. Syracuse, which will play Western Michigan today, is a high-profile new member of the ACC, and UConn, which plays St. Joseph's Thursday night, sort of got lost in a game of league musical chairs last year and wound up in the American Athletic Conference. The whole thing seemed a bit odd, or maybe not. "From Villanova to Syracuse to us, there's no strange reason why any of us are here. We work hard," UConn's Shabazz Napier said.
He added that he found his team's new conference "super competitive.""The Big East, I just miss the matchups in Madison Square Garden, that's the biggest thing," Napier said.
Syracuse senior C.J. Fair pointed out that the style of play in his new conference was not as different from the Big East as people had said it would be. "You get a taste of everything in the ACC, not just one style," he said. Still, he added, "What I would say I missed the most in the Big East was just the Big East Tournament, just playing in the Garden. That's the one thing I really missed."
Boeheim wasn't buying that. "If the Big East was exactly what it was years ago, then I wouldn't have wanted to leave and it would have been a bad thing. But we didn't leave that. We left a league that was moving all over. It just wasn't the same," the Syracuse coach said. "So I don't have that nostalgia because that league wasn't there."
But is the current world order better, or as good? "We miss some of those teams and I could see how they would miss playing in Madison Square Garden," Villanova senior guard James Bell said. "We still have a great league, and it's an honor to represent the Big East."Syracuse's Baye Moussa Keita acknowledged having recently watched a tape of his team playing Georgetown at the Garden -- now a relic of a rivalry. "Now," he said, "you have to make new rivalries."
Everyone will live. So says Boeheim after a year in the ACC: "The restaurants were pretty good. It surprised me."