NEW YORK —
I’m enough of a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the Vatican Bank had something to do with the dissolution of the Big East. This isn’t collegiate competition we’re watching any more. It’s thinly veiled money laundering, and it’s ruining the NCAA’s chief commodity, which is our affection.
To sit in a seat at the last Big East basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden is to feel a creeping suspicion that the craven executives who call themselves athletic directors and college presidents may have gone too far, overreached. In attempting to protect their access to lobster buffets, they’ve set in motion a fundamental destruction, the kind of sand slipping away from a foundation that creates a house-swallowing sinkhole. What fools, you wonder, thought it was a smart business move to breed this disenchantment?
Over the past 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have been one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball, but as Syracuse prepares to leave the Big East conference for the ACC and Georgetown moves to the Catholic 7 next year, former players, coaches, journalists and alumni recall the history of the rivalry.
The elemental love in Madison Square Garden during the annual Big East tournament is irreplaceable. The ring of nightclub lighting that makes the floor flare, the foot-long hot dogs at 11 a.m., the crowds wild with energy, the drab preppy grays and blues dueling with the oranges and scarlets, the drums keeping time with your pulse and the deep-throated swells of noise from the stands that rise and fall with the ball — these will be gone. In its place: liquidation, the selling off of assets.
The whole idea of conferences, back when schools first formed them, was simple geography: They were loose alliances meant to facilitate competition based on proximity, and to foster deep local fan interest. Now they’ve become cable-television deals.
It’s the scrabbling that’s so repulsive, the reek of desperation, first from the schools that succumbed to corporate raiding by the Atlantic Coast Conference, and then the shoulder-curling conduct of the Catholic Seven — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova — who have the nerve to call their abandonment of the Big East after 30 years a “philosophical” move. No, it’s a struggle over “brand.”
This is the scourge that is realignment: The constant shifting of alliances in quest of ever bigger paydays to offset budget shortfalls. And it overshadowed all the fun in the quarterfinals Thursday, made each tick of the clock regretful.
These are the sorts of things we won’t get to watch anymore: classic Big East pendulum swings, such as the one Georgetown suffered after it built a 25-8 lead over Cincinnati, only to surrender it and lead just 29-24 at halftime. The building of Garden roars, such as the one during the Syracuse-Pitt thriller, a steady ambient wave that sounded more machine-like than human. The fascinating effect of tension on individuals — Pitt Coach Jamie Dixon smiling radiantly even as a vein throbbed in his neck, when his Panthers cut the Orange’s lead to 58-57 with 30.1 seconds to go to set up a classic one-possession Big East finish, that ended with an “Oooooooooohhhhhh,” as a missed free throw doomed the Panthers. The whipsawing of emotions, such as those of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, waxing nostalgic over 31 straight years of coaching teams in this tournament.