Sunday, March 17, 2013

Midnight In the Madison Square Garden of Good And Evil

We shall not see their like again. But at least Rollie cleaned up a bit
As I've mentioned elsewhere, rooting for a conference is a lot like rooting for a law firm. For all of the protestations of tradition and competition and everything else, it's a business partnership and nothing more. When the first rumblings of dissolution shook the Big 12, nobody remembered that it had been built on the still-warm corpses of the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference. Coach K might have ranted against Maryland leaving the tradition and the rivalries of the ACC, but once upon a time Duke bid the Southern Conference a hasty farewell. And Louisville, well, Louisville basketball's been a part of 6 different conferences over the years, not that anyone's rushing to hand a nine-figure TV deal to the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. 

That being said, I find myself sad that the old Big East is dead.

Of course, it's not quite all dead. Next year, the so-called "Catholic Seven" schools will pick up the conference name and the conference tournament lease on Madison Square Garden, scrape three other basketball-only schools off other conferences, and pretend that whole detour into the BCS never happened, though what exactly that will mean for their NCAA selection hopes remains to be seen. A cynic would say that having a bigtime football program somehow mysteriously helps your basketball team seem better, which is why we refer to "big six" conferences in college hoops; an entirely different cynic would simply point out that schools with a lot of football revenue tend to have better facilities for basketball, too, and that doesn't hurt recruiting one little bit. Either way, the notion of a consistent power basketball conference is one that hasn't been tried in a very long time, and the Villanovas of the world may find themselves rudely surprised when their bids start drying up because they're suddenly bereft of the guys who play foobaw.

(The three schools the Catholic-Seven-Who-Are-the-Once-and-Future-Big-East are considering are supposedly Butler, Xavier, and Creighton, with VCU coming up on the rail as a 12-1 longshot. Creighton and Xavier are Catholic schools, while Butler and VCU are not. They will, however, add RPI, which in these matters is a more important form of faith in something invisible.)

And yes, the Big East has been in its death agonies for a while. Simultaneously derided for its weak football and raided by other conferences looking to, err, bolster their football - check the percentage of ACC championship appearances by former Big East schools since BC, VT and the U got lured away - the Big East has been filling and patching for ages, and sooner or later there's nothing to patch with. The last straw was apparently the inclusion of Tulane, whose athletic programs can best be described as   prime suppliers of opportunities for guaranteed Senior Day wins, but even before that, the "Big East" had long since lost its identity of Eastern/Northeastern schools, largely urban, with small student bodies and an athletic focus on basketball.

(And before anyone snickers at the memory of the Big East stretching to San Diego and Boise, remember that next year the ACC will include a team in those renowned coastal states, Indiana and Kentucky. Unless global warming returns us to Cretaceous-era sea levels, that doesn't sound like coastal property to me.)

Still, I can't help but be a little sad that Saturday marked the end of the Big East as we knew it. It's a truism that everyone thinks the greatest sports era ever is the one in which they first learned to watch sports, and for me with college hoops, that was the days when the Big East was in its pre-football glory.  It was a coaches league, defined by Lou Carnesecca's red sweater and Jim Boeheim's scowl and John Thompson's glare and Rollie Massimino looking like he'd just woken up in an industrial clothes drier. It was the 1985 NCAA finals, when three of the four Final Four teams were from the Big East, and 'Nova was nearly perfect to bring it all home. I watched that game in the basement of the house I grew up in just outside of Philly, drinking way too much root beer and holding my breath on every agonizingly long 'Nova possession, and covering my eyes every time Georgetown got the ball. It was magical. And lured in by that, I watched the Rony Seikalys and the Gerry McNamaras, the Kevin Ollies and the Ray Allens, the Allen Iversons and the Alonzo Mournings and all the rest. 

Now it's gone, and I'm a little saddened. Not for the conference - like I said, it's a trade association, a legal fiction designed to funnel millions of dollars from one place to another. But because something that was a constant part of the landscape when I was growing up, when I was old enough to realize there was a landscape to my life, is now gone. Things fall apart, especially when enough money is waved around. The center cannot hold, not when everyone's actively taking gouges out of the fringes. And the things that were always there in the background as constants we could orient ourselves from, no matter how silly or trivial they were in the grand scheme of things, fade away.

Goodbye, Big East. Thanks for the memories. I'm sorry there won't be more.

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