- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

NEW YORK — This is the last season of the Big East basketball conference as we know it. Then it only gets better.

Next year conference football powers Virginia Tech and Miami will join the ACC, taking their lightweight basketball programs with them. Boston College, a charter member of the Big East, is tentatively scheduled to join the ACC in time for the 2005-06 season but can leave the Big East whenever it’s ready to pay a $5million exit fee. The school now finds itself a basketball pariah among opponents who used to be brothers.

“I personally think it’s very sad that they are leaving,” said Jim Calhoun, coach of the nation’s top-ranked Connecticut Huskies and a native of the Boston area. “I have no desire to play Boston College. It’s not the fact that they are leaving, but how they did it. I do think loyalty is a big thing. This league has been very special to the East, It has made Eastern basketball.”

What began as a seven-member league composed of Northeast colleges in 1979 will go national in two years when the league incorporates midwestern Conference USA powers Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and DePaul. South Florida, not known as a basketball factory, also will join the Big East to complete a 16-team lineup and form one of the strongest college basketball conferences ever.

Basketball has been the Big East’s signature sport, a fact reinforced last season. Syracuse won the NCAA men’s championship. Connecticut won its second straight NCAA women’s national championship and fourth overall. The men’s NIT championship was an all-Big East affair, with St. John’s defeating Georgetown 70-67 in the finale. Four Big East teams also reached the NCAA men’s Sweet 16.

This season UConn is the unanimous preseason choice as the nation’s No.1 team. Syracuse is a consensus top-10 team and a Final Four contender. Notre Dame (No.21) and Pittsburgh (No.22) also are ranked in the preseason Top 25. Seton Hall and Providence are viewed as NCAA tournament teams.

Emeka Okafor, UConn’s shot-erasing 6-foot-9 junior center, is projected as the NBA’s top pick if he decides to come out after this season. Notre Dame’s wonderful playmaker, Chris Thomas, is on everybody’s first-team All-American lists. Hakim Warrick, Syracuse’s 6-8 skywalking forward, and Ben Gordon, UConn’s offguard scoring machine, are seen as NBA lottery picks. Charlie Villanueva, Connecticut’s prized blue-chip 6-11 forward, turned down the NBA Draft last summer for a shot at a NCAA championship with the Huskies.

In addition, the Big East leads all conferences with 11 players out of 50 nominated for the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s best college player. The NBA has drafted 164 Big East players over the years. Forty Big East alumni are playing in the NBA; 25 of those were first-round picks, including Allen Iverson and Derrick Coleman as No.1 selections overall.

“As many years as I can remember, we’ve been questioned as to how good our conference is every year,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is the only original coach left in the Big East as he starts his 28th season. “I think last year we probably answered it a little bit better with four teams in the 16 and us being able to win. … This year, looking at the conference, I think it should be at least as good as we were last year.”

The birth of the Big East was primarily the vision of former Providence athletic director Dave Gavitt, the conference’s first commissioner, and Frank Rienzo, Georgetown’s retired athletic director. Before there was a Big East, all the schools fell under the ECAC umbrella but were not in a formal league. Gavitt saw the markets these schools were located in and decided to put it all together.

“The explosion and effect it had on college basketball in the northeast was the greatest thing that has ever happened,” said St. John’s legendary coach Lou Carnesecca, who went 526-200 (.725) in 24 seasons at the New York school.

With the formation of Big East came long-term television contracts and heavy interest in the nation’s largest media markets, especially New York, where the Big East has held its conference tournament since 1983 at Madison Square Garden.

One year following the original seven-school league (Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut, and Boston College), Villanova joined. Two seasons later, Pitt followed suit. Miami was admitted in 1990; Rutgers, West Virginia, and Notre Dame in 1994. Virginia Tech in 2000-01.

In the ‘80s, the conference was loaded with marquee players and unique coaching personalities. Bench wizards included Georgetown’s towel-bearing man mountain John Thompson, Boeheim, Carnesecca, rotund Villanova guru Rollie Massimino and Providence’s dapper Rick Pitino. But it was the league’s wonderful players and memorable games that defined the Big East.

Michael Jordan, a skinny North Carolina freshman guard, swished a 16-foot jumper from the left side with 16 seconds remaining to provide the final points in the Tar Heels’ 63-62 upset of the Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas in the 1982 NCAA championship game. A lasting image of that game was Thompson wrapping Georgetown guard Fred Brown in a bear hug after Brown’s pass to Tar Heels forward James Worthy prevented the Hoyas from taking a potential game-winning shot in the waning seconds.

Two years later, however, the Hoyas won the national title by routing Houston. The following spring, Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s reached the Final Four — the only time three teams from the same conference have done so — with Massimino’s undersized Wildcats shocking the top-ranked Hoyas 66-64 in the final.

The Big East won two NCAA championships in the ‘80s and could have won five as Big East teams lost three championship games by one point. Who can forget Keith Smart’s buzzer-beating dagger from 18 feet on the left baseline that lifted Indiana to a thrilling 74-73 victory over Syracuse in the 1987 final?

The 1990s witnessed the emergence of UConn as a national power. Behind future Washington Wizards first-round pick Richard Hamilton, the Huskies claimed the 1999 NCAA national championship. The ‘90s also ushered in the NBA’s next generation when Georgetown’s Allen Iverson, UConn’s Ray Allen and Villanova’s Kerry Kittles were three of the five 1996 Associated Press’ first-team All-Americans — the only time a conference has placed three or more players on the AP’s first team. And in future years, there may be no limit to what Big East players and teams can achieve.

“What we’re looking at in basketball [the expansion] has a chance to be very, very special,” said commissioner Mike Tranghese, perhaps understating the case. Beyond special, Big East basketball is going to be greater than ever — no small feat.

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