NEW YORK – The matchup in the final Big East tournament final, at least as everyone in college basketball has come to know the event, perfectly captured the narrative of the conference’s entire lifespan, 1979-2013.
There was Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim with, as he put it earlier in the week, his “whole life” wrapped up in this league, always at the same school, always in the conference, a witness to every single one of these events. And there was Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, part of the old-school Big East when he led Providence to the 1987 Final Four, part of the in-the-moment Big East as the Cardinals’ head coach.
And they are, willingly or not, part of the exodus, and therefore the end. In two years, those same two coaches could well meet for another conference championship. Except the stage on which they would compete would be Greensboro Coliseum, and the league in which they will play is the ACC.
Boeheim began the Orange’s run to Saturday’s final by saying, “Things have kind of been two years coming,” and he’s right. Saturday merely brought finality with Louisville’s 78-61 victory over the Orange at Madison Square Garden. The place pulsed one more time as Syracuse built a 16-point lead. It pulsed again as the Cardinals erased that in less than six minutes, taking control with an emphatic 27-3 run based in the Big East’s calling card: defense. Incredibly, the Orange managed precisely two field goals over the final 15 minutes 50 seconds.
So Louisville won, and its fans were delirious. But even at the most manageable funerals, those that celebrate a life rather than mourn a loss, there is grief and sorrow. Each of those came in abundance to the Garden, tinged by more than a bit of rage at the forces that have long since fueled college athletics.
“What made college sports so special is really tradition,” Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said after his team lost to Georgetown on Thursday. “The fact that we’re sitting here and this is the last Big East tournament is beyond ridiculous. This is the greatest tradition in college athletics, this tournament, at one site for over 30-something years. It’s only gone for one reason: Money. Money.”
It is why there has been cynicism mixed with the sentimentality at this, the last of 34 such events, the last of 31 straight at the Garden. The Big East name will carry on, and even place some of its longtime member schools (Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova) under its umbrella. But when Louisville — in the Big East in the first place because of the ACC’s original pillaging of the conference in the mid-2000s — moves to the ACC in 2014-15, that conference will have as many former members of the Big East as the reshaped Big East itself: Boston College, Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
“What was coming was inevitable,” Boeheim said. “Nobody should ask how the Big East was broken up. People should ask: How did it stay together with the differences?”
The differences, of course, were that some of the conference’s schools played big-time football and some did not, so there were natural fault lines. And that dynamic tugged at this year’s event, because here they call basketball “The City Game.” Basketball, not football, provided the electricity on Seventh Avenue. Basketball, not football, drove the talk here this March, just as it did in all the Marches over the past three decades.
Still, the memories overrode the misery for most here this week, and those memories are rooted in what remained even Saturday night: the competition. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey met with his staff Friday morning, long before his team was to face Louisville in the semifinals.
“Look at the matchups today,” Brey said he told them. “They blow away any other league. Are you kidding me? Just the sounds of the matchups,” because Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Georgetown all mean something in college basketball, and they were all, for one last week, in the Big East.
So there were more memories created this week. The overtime game between Syracuse and Georgetown in one semifinal. Former president Bill Clinton appearing in the Louisville locker room after the Cardinals’ quarterfinal victory. Orange forward James Southerland draining all six of his three-pointers in the quarters, helping him to 19 in his four games, breaking the mark of former Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara for most three-pointers in a single tournament, a mark he was set to break in the final.
And there was Boeheim on Wednesday, poking his head into the Villanova locker room prior to the Wildcats’ game against St. John’s. He sought out Villanova Coach Jay Wright, against whom he has coached the past dozen years, against whom he will coach no more.
“He’ll never admit it, but he’s a little sentimental,” Wright said. “I know he is. . . . I know this league means the world to him. He went and hugged [former Georgetown coach] John Thompson after the game. He don’t hug. He’s not a hugger.”
Saturday night, the last hugs came. And whatever the motivations and machinations surrounding what is to come, the sense of loss proved inescapable.
“It’s just been such an amazing place,” Boeheim said. “Unless you were here for all of them, you probably can’t grasp it, and I can’t explain it probably as well as I should.”