A sense of sadness, anger as original Big East era comes to a close

With the Big East realigning next year, coaches from the conference talk about the loss of a college basketball tradition. Newsday Staff (March 15, 2013)

If you love college basketball, and specifically Big East-style college basketball, then the sense of history clashing with the reality of college realignment was almost overwhelming Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

You had Georgetown squaring off against Syracuse in the semifinals, the quintessential rivalry that lifted the league to unprecedented heights almost as soon as it came into being in 1979. In fact, Orange coach Jim Boeheim was the last man standing Friday among the group of coaches manning the sidelines 34 years ago.

Down on the other bench was John Thompson III, whose father was Boeheim's greatest rival in those early years. And there was Big John himself sitting right behind the Hoyas, an angry bear who last week called the impending football-basketball breakup of the Big East a "damn disgrace."

He might have directed some of that anger at Boeheim except that he knows that the Syracuse coach shares his disgust, even though he coaches for one of the football schools moving to the ACC next season. Boeheim has made no secret how very much this league, these rivals and playing the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden the past 31 years has meant to him and the Orange.

Everyone in the packed house understood all of these crosscurrents and reveled in it as the two great rivals had at each other. When Syracuse forward James Southerland drained back-to-back threes to tie the Big East tourney record of 16 set by current Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara, it shook down the echoes of tournaments past.

Then, of course, the game wound up in overtime with the crowd standing and filling the building with a beautiful, deafening noise as the Orange -- after losing to the Hoyas twice in the regular season -- pulled out a 58-55 win that means the old lion, Boeheim, gets to roar in one last final Saturday night.

Asked why Syracuse would ever leave all this, Boeheim pulled no punches. "It's got nothing to do with basketball," he said. "This is just to do with football. You know that. Just wait a few more years. Everything will be gone."

He meant everything fans love about college athletics, leaving only the crass commercialism. So Boeheim embraced his last bite of this sweet-tasting apple, adding, "It means a lot to get to the finals of this tournament. It means a lot."

John Thompson III also allowed as how it was fitting that the last Syracuse-Georgetown Big East game ended in overtime. "It's a shame they're heading down to Tobacco Road for a few dollars more," he said.

In a private moment later, the younger Thompson said, "I'm tired of reading Big East obituaries. The reality of the situation is the Big East is going to play here next year."

He was referring to the seven Catholic schools -- St. John's, Seton Hall, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence and Villanova -- leaving to form their own basketball-first conference. They are expected to be joined at first by Xavier, Butler and Creighton, with St. Louis and Dayton as potential future partners.

"When we come here next year, we're going to have some of the best teams in the country, some of the best coaches in the country, some of the best players in the country," Thompson said. "Trust me, I respect my past. The Big East as we have known it and as Mr. Gavitt constructed it has meant a lot to me, to this program and this school."

At the same time, Thompson said the late Dave Gavitt, who founded the conference, would smile down on the new league, which also will draw the approval of all the old icons: former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca and Thompson's own father.

"And begrudgingly, Boeheim and Calhoun are going to be smiling on this conference also," Thompson added.

Asked if the move by the basketball schools to return to their roots might preserve not only the Big East name but also a piece of the soul of the old conference, Thompson wasn't so sure.

"The unifying feature is basketball," he said. "It's the lifeblood. So does it get us back to the soul? I don't know. You can say that if you want to."

We might want to entertain that romantic notion. But Thompson knows better what has been lost and never can be the same.