NCAA BK

Big East tourney feels like a wake

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK CITY

The Big East basketball tournament begins Tuesday night. Perhaps, after all that’s been written on the split of the Big East, that’s all that really needs to be said. College basketball fans have wrought their hands for years during this period of football- and money-driven conference realignment. It’s thrown into question everything we once thought was held sacred in college basketball, from the Kansas-Missouri rivalry that dated back to the Civil War, to the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry that provided us with some of the most exciting Big East moments, to the simple but flawed idea that college basketball was in control of its own destiny.

“Everything we thought was a constant isn’t,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

This week at Madison Square Garden, there will be a wake.

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Among the teams playing in Tuesday’s first-round games are Rutgers and South Florida. Nothing against either of those schools, but could there be two more perfect examples of how the Big East has authored its own demise than the existence of these two schools, who were both added to the conference in the scramble to turn the Big East Conference into a football power?

The sadness that shrouds this week’s festivities at the greatest arena in the world is deserved. For decades, the Big East tried to be something that it never was. It got caught up in big-money college athletics, the world where football drives the bus and every other sport is just along for the ride. In retrospect, before the conference realignment of recent years became a scourge on college basketball, how could we have ever thought a conference that differentiated between “football schools” and “non-football schools” was in any way structurally sound?

This week’s Big East tournament – the closest thing you’ll get to the insanity of a college spring break in midtown Manhattan – will have the complexity of the emotions that we see in any good Irish wake. Coaches and fans will spout their anger about the end of a tradition that’s gone on here for 31 years. When a death seems unfair, anger is a natural reaction. “Which football cavemen did this to basketball?” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said recently. His school is moving to the ACC two years earlier than scheduled, leaving the crumbling Big East as soon as it possibly can.

In the next sentence, though, Brey spoke warmly about the final time he’ll lead his team to the Madison Square Garden court in the event that marks the annual beginning to March Madness.

“I’m going to cherish this Big East tournament,” he said, “because obviously Syracuse and Pitt are gone, and things are changing after this.”

Along with the anger, this wake will include much nostalgia. There will be tributes to Dave Gavitt, the Providence basketball coach and athletic director who dreamt up the idea of the basketball-centric Big East and became its first commissioner. There will be much reliving of the tournament’s greatest moments: Chris Mullin leading St. John’s to win the first tournament held in Madison Square Garden in 1983, Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown facing Pearl Washington’s Syracuse, UConn and Syracuse going to six overtimes in the second-longest game in college basketball history, Kemba Walker and UConn winning five games in five days and then going on to a national title, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson and Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles and Sherman Douglas.

“All these kids know the Big East is going to become whatever it will become,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “The Catholic league will become whatever it will become. But kids will know it’s not Syracuse versus Georgetown, Pearl versus Patrick Ewing.”

There are the more personal memories, too, the ones that happened in quiet moments off the court. That’s Cronin’s favorite Big East tournament memory. Last year, Cincinnati made the championship game, where they lost to Louisville. Both were surprise teams, Cincinnati a four-seed and Louisville a seven-seed, and both used their Big East tournament success to catapult them to NCAA tournament success, Cincinnati to the Sweet 16 and Louisville to the Final Four.

But that’s not the memory that sticks out for Cronin. Instead, he remembers the bus ride to last year’s championship game. When he’d started at Cincinnati six years before, the Bearcats had only one scholarship player after the program had been ravaged with sanctions; they didn’t even make the NCAA tournament his first four years. On the bus ride to last year’s championship game, Cronin’s five-year-old daughter – who was born just as Cronin began at Cincinnati – sat with him, starting at the sites of New York City, excited to run on the court before her father’s team played.

These are the types of stories shared at wakes, stories that show how a simple little basketball tournament can transcend sport.

“I really think it’s an epic story, the Big East and how it unfolded,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, the only coach whose career spanned the beginning and end of the Big East, said recently.

This wake, however, will end differently than most. Yes, the Big East conference as we know it will soon be finished. But the Catholic 7 – which include four of the charter members of the original Big East – have over the past several months managed to give college basketball its first piece of good news about conference realignment. First was the news that the seven Catholic institutions were no longer letting football drive the bus. They are going back to the basketball-first roots of Gavitt’s original Big East, and are now looking to add Xavier, Butler and Creighton.

Last week came another piece of news: The Big East tournament will be saved. The Catholic 7 plan to purchase the “Big East” name, and plan to continue holding their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. No, it won’t be exactly the same. The new Big East isn’t the old Big East. Charter members UConn and Syracuse won’t be part of the mix. Neither will Pitt, who joined the conference three years after its founding. We should still mourn what the Big East tournament has been over the past three decades, which is nothing short of the greatest conference tournament in college basketball.

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But this is the wake’s happy ending: In the Catholic 7, what we really have is a Big East Part II. It’s not the same, but in many ways, it’s an improvement on Gavitt’s dream. There won’t be the big-money pressure to compete in football. It’s a basketball-first conference that knows what happens when you stray from your roots. It’s as if the old Big East were reincarnated in a better form.

So mourn the death of the Big East this week. You should. It’s healthy to remember what the conference has been. But this week’s Big East tournament should be a realization of something else, too: The world will always change around us. But sometimes we can shape our own destiny. Next March, when the teams of the new Big East march into Madison Square Garden, it will be the perfect example of how everything around us can change, but we can make sure some things stay the same, too.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown

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