NCAA BK

Column: Farewell to the greatest hoops league ever

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Thanks for nothing, greedy college administrators.

Because of you, we're bidding farewell to the greatest basketball conference there ever was - and perhaps ever will be.

At least the Big East as we knew it is going out in style. That's only appropriate, given all it has meant to the game over the last three-plus decades.

But watching Syracuse and Marquette advance to a regional final, assuring one will make it to the Final Four, and knowing top-seeded Louisville could very well give the league another team in Atlanta only heightens the sting of what's about to happen.

Seven basketball-playing schools are jumping off a sinking ship to form a new version of the Big East, joined by three other schools that don't have major football programs. That league will carry on the legacy of what was launched in 1979, but it's unreasonable to expect ''Big East, The Sequel'' to come anywhere close to matching the impact of the original.

For this, we should all be ticked off.

Seriously, when does it stop?

Not anytime soon, I'm afraid.

In the mess that is college realignment, we've seen longtime rivalries ripped apart, once-sturdy leagues now scrambling for their lives or gone altogether, schools falling over themselves to start football programs or move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision - all in the name of the almighty dollar.

Supposedly, this is progress.

Just try telling that to a hoops fan.

The major conferences have far too much power, there's no one with the backbone or the authority to bring a little sanity to the madness, and we're left with a wake for the Big East.

''It's a good league, always been a good league,'' Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Friday, talking about the league his school will soon be leaving.

The Orange's next loss - or three more wins - will mark the end of their time in a conference they helped start.

When this latest round of football-driven Scrabble is done, we'll have Syracuse playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference instead of the Big East (ditto for Pittsburgh and Notre Dame), we'll have Maryland playing in the Big Ten instead of the ACC, and we'll have once-mighty UConn playing in some new league with a bunch of Southeastern and Southwestern schools that used to comprise Conference USA.

Seriously, schools are changing conferences about as often as Taylor Swift writes a breakup song - maybe she could do one for the Big East - and there's still no indication that the dust is close to settling. UConn might wind up in the ACC, too. Or maybe some ACC schools will bolt for the Southeastern Conference.

After all, as Derek Dooley once said: It's not really about the money - it's about the amount.

At this very moment, there is surely some college president or athletic director or booster trying to figure out a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of the pie. Who cares if college kids have to take cross-country trips on school nights for conference games? Who cares if a once-great basketball conference is carved up like an apple pie at a Fourth of July picnic?

''There's no question leaving the Big East will be sad,'' Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said, taking a second to think long-term amid the instant gratification of facing Marquette on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.

''It already is in so many ways.''

No one has taken a bigger beating in all this conference realignment than the Big East, largely because of a decision it made about a decade after its founding to add football to its roster of sports.

A bunch of schools giddily joined up, but they had no loyalty to the original concept. Of the eight teams that first played Big East football, seven have already moved on to other conferences or soon will be.

Because of that, we may never again see one conference put three teams in the Final Four, as the Big East did in 1985 with Villanova (the eventual national champion), Georgetown and St. John's - certainly not a league that has nine teams, which was the Big East membership at the time.

If conferences continue to expand, we might see a league match the record 11 teams the Big East put in the NCAA field two years ago in its more bloated alignment - though, that's the very state that contributed to its demise.

No matter what, there's no denying what the Big East once was - and still is for another week or so.

The best in the land.

''I wish we weren't playing each other,'' said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, whose school will be moving on to the new Big East. ''Maybe if we were in different regions, maybe we could both continue to play.''

Very shortly, it won't matter. All that will be left are memories, tattered clippings and old TV footage.

Thankfully, Boeheim took a moment to reflect on Friday during his turn at the podium.

''It's remarkable that you could start a league and it could be good right away, like the Big East was,'' he said wistfully, remembering some of the early stars such as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington and Walter Berry. ''It has been an unbelievable 34 years. Over that 34-year period, it's been as good as any league. You can easily make that argument.''

Boeheim said he understands why it's happening, even though it really has nothing to do with his sport.

''It was almost inevitable that the football schools would need to get with football schools,'' he said. ''I think it will work for the basketball schools now that they're going to get together, and they will have a really good basketball league. I think that's for the best. I think it will work out, and we have a great challenge going to what will be a tremendous basketball league.''

Sorry, Jim, we disagree.

There's nothing good about breaking up the Big East.

Maybe there will come a day when we'll at least acknowledge that it was all a big mistake, acknowledge how much we've lost.

At that point, of course, it will be far too late to do anything about it.

Thanks for nothing.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Tagged: Marquette, Syracuse

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