Patrick Ewing was in the building to witness the last gasps of the old Big East.
In March 2013, Ewing donned the pageboy cap he wears while traveling and made the trip to Madison Square Garden to watch Georgetown and Syracuse square off for one last time in the Big East tournament. He had been courtside a week earlier at what was then called Verizon Center, making sure to catch the last regular season Georgetown-Syracuse game of the year as well, just in case it was the final time the two rivals faced off as league foes.
On both occasions, Ewing felt the same pang of emotion he had experienced years earlier, when Boston College became the league’s first founding member to leave the conference in 2005 and start a wave of realignment. He felt disappointment.
“I was disappointed to see a lot of those teams that I played against go, Syracuse and Connecticut, Boston College, the teams that helped to form the Big East,” Ewing said Tuesday. “I was disappointed to see those teams leave.
“But I believe in my heart that the teams that are here now — I mean, look, we have 10 teams in the Big East. And seven of them made it to NCAAs.”
When Georgetown (10-1) hosts Butler (10-3) at Capital One Arena on Wednesday to open conference play, Ewing will step into a Big East that is nearly unrecognizable from the league he helped turn into a national powerhouse as a player in the 1980s.
Only five teams remain from the Big East of yore — Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova are all familiar to the former center. But for Ewing, who didn’t pay much attention to college basketball in the three decades he spent in the NBA after graduation, the rest are new.
He didn’t know much about programs such as Xavier, Marquette and DePaul until he was hired as Georgetown’s coach in the spring. When asked Tuesday whether he had ever even been to Omaha, where Creighton is, he simply smiled.
But Ewing isn’t worried about adjusting.
He contends that while the locations are different, the high quality of play throughout the conference is the same — and he knows how to thrive in that competitive environment.
Heading into its first week of conference play, the Big East has four teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25: No. 1 Villanova, No. 6 Xavier, No. 23 Seton Hall and No. 25 Creighton.
“For everybody, it’s going to be a dogfight like it was back when I played, in my era,” Ewing said. “Every time you played someone, it was always a dogfight, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Indeed, Ewing has the benefit of rejoining the Big East in its fifth season following the major realignment in 2013 . The conference shed its regional personality but has a strong basketball identity nonetheless, crowned a national champion in 2016 and sent seven of its 10 members to the NCAA tournament last spring.
The league’s character wasn’t always so defined. Villanova Coach Jay Wright, now one of the faces of the conference, started out as an assistant for the Wildcats in 1987. He coached during the era of Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim. When the new league formed in 2013, there was plenty of adjusting and soul searching.
“I grew up watching the Big East and watching Walter Berry and Chris Mullin and all those guys play. That was just the ultimate in college basketball to me,” Wright said Tuesday. “So when it broke up, I really, personally, thought, ‘Hey, it was a great run. For me, personally, this job’s probably going to change. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ We were at a point where we were in the top conferences in the country for basketball, and now all of a sudden it’s gone.”
Georgetown center Jessie Govan, a New York City native who grew up believing the Big East was king, went through a similar acclimation to the new league before he became a Hoya.
“I remember going to the last Big East tournament before the reconstruction when Georgetown lost to Syracuse in overtime” in the semifinals, Govan said. “I remember that. In New York, you had two New York teams in the Big East and then you had Rutgers and Seton Hall right across the bridge [in New Jersey], so it was a lot of Big East tradition when I was growing up. . . . I got a chance to see the new Big East teams before I got here. I remember Creighton with Doug McDermott and things like that.
“So it was like, yeah, we were losing a few of the good teams, but we’re getting some great teams in return.”
Govan believes the Big East has proved itself as one of the country’s top conferences since that realignment, which puts Ewing right back in his college comfort zone.
Unlike Ewing, Govan and the other veteran players at Georgetown also have experience going against schools such as Butler, which has four scorers averaging double figures this year and is led by senior forward Kelan Martin (17.9 points per game).
Even so, Ewing doesn’t plan on leaning on his players for advice or tips when it comes to travel. Getting used to the new Big East is nothing to worry about, Ewing said Tuesday.
“It’s just a part of life.”