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Big East: One More Time, With Feeling

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(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

(credit: Chris Chambers/Getty Images)

By Andrew Kahn

NEW YORK — Steve Bosco stands under a banner he had made to thank the Blarney Rock staff for making the pub his “home away from home” for 23 years during the Big East Tournament. New York City has a lot to offer, but Bosco and the 10-15 other Syracuse basketball fans he travels with spend most of their time in a half-block radius, shuttling from the pub to Madison Square Garden to Hotel Pennsylvania.

On Friday afternoon, Bosco was at the bar, in the same corner he’s always been, before the final Syracuse-Georgetown game. He had made the four-hour drive from Syracuse, thinking of his favorite tournament memories along the way.

Syracuse will play in the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, which currently holds its league tournament in Greensboro, N.C. “I don’t know what we’ll do next year,” says Bosco, who enjoys the Big East Tournament more than the NCAA Tournament. He compares Syracuse’s departure from the Big East to “a death in the family.”

Bosco has associated March with New York and the Garden for so long that he may return next year anyway. The pub’s owner has promised to put the ACC Tournament on a television for him.

The death of the Big East as we know it hit home last week as 14 teams arrived at the World’s Most Famous Arena (Connecticut was ineligible). Next season, the “Catholic 7” — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s — will be reportedly joined by Butler, Creighton, and Xavier in a basketball-only conference that has paid to keep the Big East name and will play its postseason tournament at the Garden, at least next year.

Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida will be joined by five other schools to create a new conference (possibly called the “America 12”). Louisville and Rutgers will compete there next season before leaving for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively. Those two schools made a decision to bolt during a time when the conference was falling apart and, geography be damned, had taken on Boise State and San Diego State, among others, two schools that left the Big East before playing a game. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will join Syracuse in the ACC next season. Need a chart? How about a Tylenol?

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Nearly every Big East coach spent time this past week reflecting on the conference. “If not for the Big East, no one knows about Villanova,” coach Jay Wright said. Providence coach Ed Cooley, who has spent his whole life in the northeast, said, “This is God’s basketball here in the Big East, and it’s unfortunate, the things that have happened.” There was plenty of storytelling and praise for Dave Gavitt, who served as the league’s first commissioner in 1979.

There was also some fantastic basketball. Syracuse and Georgetown needed overtime to settle their semifinal matchup, fitting since nobody wanted to see this rivalry end. With ’Cuse clinging to a 55-53 lead in overtime, the Orange’s C.J. Fair threw down a vicious dunk over Otto Porter, Jr. “I missed everything else I tried,” said Fair, who was 3 for 16 shooting. “Going to the basket, I had in my mind I was going to go up strong and try and dunk it. It was a big momentum play for us.” Fair’s struggles against Porter were understandable. After the game Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called Porter, a sophomore, the best small forward he’d ever seen in the Big East. “If we were still in this league, I’d be saying that to get him out [to the NBA],” Boeheim joked. “But we’re not.”

The dramatic ending was a rare treat in this year’s tournament. Only three games were decided by four points or fewer. In Saturday night’s final, Louisville dominated Syracuse over the last 15 minutes to turn a 45-29 deficit into a 78-61 victory.

For the second straight year, Peyton Siva was named the tournament’s MVP. He wreaked havoc in the backcourt with Russ Smith, who played with a heavy heart after his high school coach passed away on Thursday. Jack Curran, 83, was a New York City legend, the basketball and baseball coach at Archbishop Molloy in Queens. Smith was expecting to see Curran during his time in New York. He scored 28 points against Villanova the same day Curran passed. “Today was definitely Coach Curran day for me, and it will be the rest of my life,” Smith said after the game.

Louisville’s semifinal game against Notre Dame featured two Adidas-sponsored schools wearing alternate uniforms for the tournament. The Irish looked like a pack of neon green highlighters when they huddled up. Louisville’s Stephen Van Treese said most players like the new look, but he acknowledged they’re not for everyone. “I don’t think Coach [Rick Pitino] was thinking, ‘Hey, let’s wear sleeves and camo.’” No word on what Bill Clinton thought of the attire. The former president, a friend of Pitino’s from his Kentucky days, stopped by the Louisville locker room after their quarterfinal victory over Villanova.

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Clinton was one of the lucky ones to be in the building. For Friday’s semis, any ticket on StubHub for less than $350 was snapped up immediately. It’s a small example of the money involved with big-time college athletics. And it disgusts Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who railed against the NCAA on Thursday afternoon. “Nobody cares about student athletes. All anybody cares about is money.” He noted his team had to miss classes to attend an NCAA Tournament press conference last year as an example of the NCAA’s “hypocrisy.” Like many, Cronin views conference swapping as a money grab, with the athletes and fans suffering the most. “What made college sports so special is tradition. The fact that we’re sitting here and this is the last Big East Tournament is beyond ridiculous.”

Though it was not a popular sentiment, there was some discussion about the positives of conference realignment. The focus in the new Big East will be on basketball as opposed to football. Cooley speculated that “without change, sometimes there’s no progress.” Boeheim is happy he’ll have familiar company in the ACC. “Nobody should ask how the Big East was broken up. People should ask how it stayed together [for so long].”

The players, for the most part, didn’t appear to be nearly as affected as coaches, fans, and the media. After the Georgetown game, Fair, a Syracuse junior, was asked if there would be any sadness in the locker room since this was the last trip to the Garden and last game against a major rival. “I don’t think it’s going to be sad for the players. Maybe for the alums,” he said. His teammate, senior James Southerland, is dismissive of all the negative chatter. “It’s definitely one of the most significant rivalries in college basketball, but it’s nothing to be sad about,” he said about the end of Syracuse-Georgetown. “People are going to look forward to North Carolina and Duke. It opens a new door, moving to the ACC. Nobody has ever experienced a Duke-Syracuse game at the Carrier Dome. It will be a great opportunity for everybody.”

Not everybody wants to trade their old experiences for new ones. On Friday afternoon, as Steve Bosco stood in the corner of the bar, a street artist appeared outside the window and sketched a portrait of the Syracuse super-fan. Bosco stood patiently, joking about how the drawing would come out. When it was completed, he held it up next to his face for his friends to see. A comparison could be made to the new Big East: the drawing looked like him, but it would never be confused for the real thing.

Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local who has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at http://andrewjkahn.com. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.

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