Sunday, March 17, 2013

Big East Now College Hoops Free Bird

Considering how prevalent Big East was in national landscape, it seemed only appropriate that Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim closed down 34 years of memories.  (Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Sports)

As Ronnie Van Zant so eloquently put it nearly four decades ago, "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?"

Comparing one of the greatest entities in the history of college athletics to one of the greatest classic rock songs of all time may be a little bit of a stretch, but the lingering and damaging effects of conference realignment have turned the Big East into the college basketball "Free Bird," a once-powerful league that has seen its share of runs, yet has been rendered a free spirit due to its demise; albeit rather forced, at the expense of football and its greater revenue potential.

Mullin.  Allen.  McNamara.  Walker.  Carnesecca.  Calhoun.  Boeheim.  Pitino.  Four wins in four days.  Five wins in five days.  Six overtimes.  Names and games that will forever evoke memories of Madison Square Garden and the March magic generated by a grand vision that ultimately evolved into a spectacle just as huge as the two weeks that followed it.  All of those names, and all of those memories, were put to rest shortly before 11pm last night, tucked into the ground below after Louisville closed out the final fifteen minutes and thirty-four seconds of the final Big East championship as we know it with a 49-16 spurt to walk off the court at the Garden with an emphatic 78-61 victory over Syracuse that gave the Cardinals their third conference crown in the last five years.

Three championships in five years.  An appropriate last reign of dominance in a tournament responsible for magical stretches such as Syracuse's unprecedented four-day march from bubble team to conference champion in 2006, and the launch of Connecticut's 2011 postseason for the ages, capped off by a Hall of Fame coach and another who will have that honor next to his name sooner rather than later in a thrilling final act that seemed like it was over before it even started for much of the night.  Then Louisville went on the decisive run to immortalize themselves in the annals of history forever.

For Louisville, who entered the Big East in 2005 from Conference USA in what was initially viewed as a panic move following the departure of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, the same conference ironically responsible for the Big East's impending reformation due to the pilfering of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, their fourth championship game; and third victory, in five seasons, serves as a testimonial to the strength and parity of the conference, one that was viewed as the deepest top-to-bottom league in the nation long before its historic eleven-bid showing in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.  For Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, who are forever woven into the fabric of the majestic history created over bits and pieces of the past five decades, their performance last night could be best described as a basketball equivalent of Custer's last stand, a charter member of the Big East looking to leave a world they helped create with its final piece of glory, but done in over the final minutes just one day removed from a valiant and gritty overtime win against archrival Georgetown in a game that will be talked about for generations to come.

For Pitino, a Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised coach who had been around the Big East block with Providence in the 1980s before returning with the Cardinal program he once again left Manhattan with as the last men standing, and one who spoke at length about how much it meant to have the honor of competing in the last true Big East championship game, last night's win is the latest in a long line of accolades that will follow him into the great unknown of a conference that Louisville will be a lame-duck member of next year before they too join the ACC in 2014, and a validation of sorts to prove that he belongs in the ranks of the tournament's elite coaches, right there with the Carneseccas, Calhouns and Boeheims of the world.

However, it is not a funeral that college basketball fans are attending, but rather the end of an era that they are paying well-deserved homage to.  The Big East name will live on, albeit in a different form, with Brad Stevens and Butler expected to join alongside Xavier and Creighton, giving the conference three new members to go with the seven basketball schools who finalized their divorce from a sinking ship last month.  Football may have taken the Big East's spirit, but the promise of a new league and excitement that will soon come with it has turned the hypothetical free bird that is the Big East Conference into a phoenix, soon to rise from the ashes when it officially restructures on July 1st.  If it does leave here tomorrow, as it truly will on this seventeenth day of March 2013, not only will we all remember it, but we will remember it well, fondly recalling the thirty-four years of memories to last a lifetime and beyond, as these are the days that we will all sit back and tell our grandchildren about.

The Big East is officially free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.  Now it flies away, only to return again in the near future.