This season's Big East Tournament, which opens Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, will serve as a sort of swan song for what is considered by many to be the nation's deepest basketball conference. West Virginia, the 2010 champion, is departing for the Big 12 after this season, while Pittsburgh and Syracuse - two teams with rich histories at the Garden- will be gone as early as 2013. With so many story lines to choose from, these are the three we're thinking about the before tipoff:
Red Storm forlorn?
St. John's coach Steve Lavin is still recovering from offseason surgery to treat prostate cancer, and player decommitments and transfers have left fill-in Mike Dunlap with just six scholarship players, five of whom - including Queens native and Honorable Mention All-Big East forward Moe Harkless - are freshmen. A nightmare first-round matchup with the Panthers (16-15, 5-13 Big East), who routed the Johnnies 89-69 two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, figures to put an exclamation point on a season in which almost nothing has gone right for the Red Storm (13-18, 6-12).
Before the defending national champion Huskies had their "One Shining Moment" in Houston last season, Kemba Walker led the team on an unprecedented five-game run in the Big East Tournament to lift Connecticut from a No. 9 seed in the Big East to a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance. he Huskies are back in the lower half of the conference standings this year, as is NCAA hopeful Seton Hall and its senior leader, Jordan Theodore. Fallen giants Villanova and Pittsburgh are also playing on the tournament's first day. Can one of these teams catch fire like UConn did last season?
The tournament before the tournament
The Garden is called the "Mecca of basketball," and the Big East Tournament is one of the prime reasons why. For five days each March, the arena plays host to some of the best players and coaches in the country, historic rivalries and pulsating action - sometimes from noon to past midnight. It's a college basketball fan's dream that is perhaps second only to the late rounds of the NCAA tournament in terms of passion, excitement and quality of play.