When the reconstituted Big East Tournament returns to Madison Square Garden next March, neither Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nor Louisville coach Rick Pitino will be in the fabled building at Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street. Boeheim's school is moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Pitino's will spend one year in limbo with the remnants of the Big East football schools before joining Boeheim in the ACC in 2014.
So their meeting Saturday night in the final of the last "original Big East" tournament at the Garden really was a last call for legends. Boeheim coached Syracuse in all 34 editions of the tournament, and Pitino was part of it as head coach for Providence from 1985-87 and again with Louisville when it joined the conference for the 2006 tournament.
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Although both work for football schools that caused the breakup of the conference by moving in search of greater television money with power football conferences, neither wanted to leave the Big East because both gloried on the bright Madison Square Garden stage. Boeheim was seeking his sixth tournament title in 15 final appearances, and Pitino was going for his third in four finals.
After the Cardinals advanced with a semifinal win over Notre Dame, Pitino acknowledged the likelihood of a crowd tilted heavily in favor of Syracuse. "We know we're going to play a road game," said Pitino, who won his first tournament title in 2009 over Boeheim in their only previous final clash. "It's very exciting to be in another final game, especially the last year of existence in the Big East."
It has been an emotional week, too, for Boeheim, whose team came in slumping but has found its offense in time to make one last run at a title for the 68-year-old Orange coach. "We all sense it," forward James Southerland said of the importance of the moment for Boeheim. "This is big-time, the Big East Tournament."
Asked if he found himself looking around the Garden, Boeheim said he thought about it before his team's semifinal victory over longtime rival Georgetown. "It means a lot to us to get to the finals of this tournament," Boeheim said. "It means a lot."
The fact that Boeheim and Pitino are the ones left for last call is ironic since they exchanged barbs about the conference breakup at media day in October. Back then, Louisville had yet to be invited to the ACC, and Pitino made the argument that Memphis and Temple, two incoming football schools, were the "equals" of Syracuse and Pitt in terms of basketball tradition.
When that message was relayed to Boeheim at another table in the room, he said Pitino was "full of ---- if that's what he really said. And if he was in the Big 12, where he wanted to be right now, he'd be saying the Big 12 is the best.
"I'm really tired of hearing him say what Syracuse should be or shouldn't have done because they would have left in a heartbeat, and everybody knows it. If you think those schools are better than Syracuse for the Big East, then you don't know what you're talking about. And I think Rick's smarter than that. At least, I thought he was."
It might not have sounded like it that day, but Boeheim and Pitino respect and enjoy each other, but as longtime competitors, they can't resist taking digs at the other.
Pitino, 60, who served as an assistant under Boeheim at Syracuse from 1976-78, said he and Boeheim were at a restaurant recently kidding each other about who should retire first.
"I love Jim," Pitino said. "We're happy for him that he's in the finals, and we're excited to be in the finals."