Depending on how the game was going, the huge crowd at Madison Square Garden on Saturday seemed more in favor of St. John’s, the hometown favorite, or Villanova, the national champion. Either way, it always was really loud, which proved that the Big East is more than just an old echo.
It is fine and vibrant, here and now. Memories alone do not draw 17,309 and spark the electricity that ran to the end of the Wildcats’ 70-57 victory. Nor does provincialism keep a conference afloat. The Big East is legitimate, as real as the title banner that Villanova earned last April. And every team in the conference composed of mostly smaller urban Catholic colleges has hope because of it.
Villanova’s triumph in The Big Dance told all of the conference’s schools that you can get there from here, with “here” being a long way from touchdowns, field goals and punts.
“No disrespect to football, but it kind of ruined the original Big East,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said after his team’s youth proved no match down the stretch for Villanova’s championship mettle. “Now it’s back to its rightful place as a basketball conference, and I think it’s a tremendous conference with built-in rivalries, home-and-home series that I think will grow organically. I think the way it’s set up now is perfect.”
Before last spring, words like those sounded like a cross between local chauvinism and wishful thinking, but not now. Not after Kris Jenkins sank that three-pointer at the buzzer to beat North Carolina and raise an entire conference’s pedigree.
Jenkins was not as good a marksman Saturday, missing all but one of his 10 shots. His three-pointer with 4:56 remaining was a big one, though. It gave Villanova a 12-point lead and showed that a savvy team can do what it needs to do even on a mediocre day.
They are mostly good days for a conference that seemed to be heading south toward oblivion when the likes of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Rutgers jumped out to follow the pixie dust of joining major football conferences. It has not worked out tremendously for most of them, and even Syracuse, which has continued to be successful, knows deep down what it is missing.
“I think all of us have been lifted by each year, getting five teams in the NCAA Tournament, six teams in the NCAA Tournament,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We were saying somebody has just got to break through. We didn’t know who it was going to be; we knew somebody was going to break through. It happened to be us.
“Then you come back and see this season, you see what everybody does non-conference. A game like this today: 18,000 people at the Garden, Chris Mullin coaching St. John’s. It’s as pure as it gets,” Wright said. “We root for each other, the coaches, during the NCAA Tournament, we text each other. Just like back in the old days. We feel like it’s us against the football world.”
The football world took it on the chin strap last March Madness. The Big East might not send someone to the Final Four every year, but it knows magic can happen any year.
Villanova senior guard Josh Hart has seen it and been part of it. He has not regretted for an instant having enrolled at the city school in Philadelphia.
“After I committed, there were a lot of changes, a lot of moves,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s one of the best basketball conferences. That’s something I always had pride in, something I have pride in now and something I’m going to have pride in after I’m gone.”
St. John’s players did and still do take pride in Villanova’s title.
“A lot of people say the Big East is not the same as it was back in the day. The fact that they won the championship, they just represented for our conference,” said Malik Ellison, who scored 10 points Saturday.
He expressed the feeling that if Villanova can do it, eventually so can St. John’s. Of course, Villanova also is a big obstacle for the Big East’s other dreamers, but that is a story for another day. For now, on the conference’s campuses, hope is as pure as it gets.