When Syracuse walked off the Madison Square Garden court two weeks ago, bemoaning a Big East title game loss to Louisville, it apparently was the end of an era. After 34 years, Syracuse's run in the conference was over. Fun while it lasted.
Well not so fast. Before the Orange bolt for the ACC and a more modest version of the Big East is reborn next year without them, fourth-seeded Syracuse will play one more conference game. Come Saturday, it will face third-seeded Marquette in the East Region final at Verizon Center — a Big East floor, naturally.
"You never know what's going to happen in the NCAA tournament," coach Jim Boeheim said. "Some years, it doesn't really prove you've got the best league. It just means you're playing the best during this couple-of-weeks period. But the Big East has been very good this year."
No arguing that. The conference's eight bids to the 68-team NCAA tournament field were more than any other conference. If No. 1 overall seed Louisville takes care of business Friday night against 12th-seeded Oregon, the league will have three squads in the Elite Eight.
"One of the reasons I chose the Big East is because you get to play against strong competition," guard Brandon Triche said. "It's going to be a battle each and every game."
One such clash occurred when Syracuse faced Marquette in late February. On that night, the Golden Eagles edged out a 74-71 victory, riding forward Davante Gardner's 26-point night on 7-for-7 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds — four on the offensive glass.
As Boeheim pointed out, the 2-3 zone that has served Syracuse so well— particularly during Thursday's 61-50 win over top-seeded Indiana — can only be so effective when an opponent's big men earn themselves extra opportunities.
Unlike Indiana, Marquette has seen the Orange's system before. Coach Buzz Williams and Co. know about the length, the discipline, the strength. And they know how to beat it.
"Their bigs got a lot of second-chance points," guard C.J. Fair recalled. "So we are going to do a good job of packing it in a little bit and making their job a little harder."
Added guard Michael Carter-Williams: "It's special that at least one [Big East] team will be in the Final Four. The Big East has been tough all year, and going against Marquette is going to be tough."
With 366 regular-season wins, Syracuse will leave the Big East as the conference's winningest program, outdistancing rival Georgetown by 28 victories. And Boeheim has been there all along, taking over at Syracuse three years before the conference was launched in 1979 as a seven-team league also featuring Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall.
On Saturday, he'll hope he has one more Big East win left in him.
"It's been an unbelievable 34 years," Boeheim said. "The history of the league in that 34-year period has been as good as any league. You can easily make the argument."
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