Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (23) drives past Syracuse's C.J. Fair (5)...

Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (23) drives past Syracuse's C.J. Fair (5) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Big East Conference tournament. (March 9, 2012) Credit: AP

The unexpected Cincinnati-Louisville final Saturday night, also known as the pilot episode of "Conference USA comes to the Big Apple," likely was only the beginning. It was a dress rehearsal for the Big East's post-Syracuse era, and a warm-up for the goodbye.

Top-seeded Syracuse will not leave the conference at least until the end of next season, but when it was unseated from the tournament by Cincinnati on Friday night, there already was an air of wistfulness. "We're going to miss Syracuse," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, the one who came up with the Conference USA moniker for Saturday night's Ohio River rivalry championship game.

It was the first Big East final without one of the conference's seven original teams, and it seemed like an omen. Isn't it only a matter of time before Madison Square Garden hosts a final involving Memphis, the Big East-bound team that did win Conference USA Saturday? New geography is underfoot, and it is heading south and west.

If the past week has proven anything, it is that the Big East schools in closest proximity to the Garden are not so close to contending for the championship. St. John's, Rutgers and Seton Hall were a combined 1-3 in this year's tournament, and none has reached the Big East final since St. John's won it in 2000.

Syracuse, with its massive alumni presence in Manhattan, has taken on the mantle of the home team. Pitino said that before his team beat Notre Dame in the second semifinal Friday night, his players were rooting for the Orange against Cincinnati, reasoning that they wanted another shot at Syracuse. "I said, 'You guys are sick . . . It's the fans. You have to play a road game,' " Pitino said.

Truth be told, many people connected with or interested in the Big East probably were cheering the same way Louisville's players were. Syracuse has been entwined in the league's life and legacy from the beginning. To mark the 30th anniversary of the tournament at the Garden, conference officials listed the top 10 moments in the event's history. Three of the top four featured Syracuse: the six-overtime win in 2009, Pearl Washington getting his buzzer shot blocked by Walter Berry, Gerry McNamara's late-game heroics in 2006.

There were other unofficial big moments, too, such as Washington's roundhouse punch on Patrick Ewing in 1985 and Leo Rautins' tip to end triple overtime in 1981. Syracuse placed four members on the all-time tournament team (McNamara, Sherman Douglas, Washington, Jonny Flynn), more than any other school.

"Look, some of us were born in New York City and can't fathom Syracuse being in the Atlantic Coast Conference," Pitino said. "I can't fathom the 'why' part of it. Memphis will be very exciting for the league, Temple will be very exciting for the league. I think we're going to miss Syracuse because the side of their court says, 'New York's College Team.' "

Credit Cincinnati, under coach Mick Cronin (a former Pitino assistant), for overcoming New York's college team on its own turf. "You know, Cincinnati came out on fire," Syracuse guard Dion Waiters said, adding that the loss will motivate his team. "I mean, winning the Big East don't mean nothing at all. We're trying to win the NCAA Tournament."

But losing in the Big East hurts, just as losing Syracuse is bound to hurt the whole conference. "The interesting thing is how many people they'll bring to Tobacco Road," Pitino said, referring to ACC country. "There's not many Syracuse alums on Tobacco Road."


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