|Kemba Walker led UConn to a near-mythic five wins in five days at the '11 Big East tourney. (Getty Images)|
Will this be the last Big East tournament as we know it? Was last year's near-mythical five-wins-in-five-days run by Kemba Walker and UConn the last great March production for the league?
When conference realignment changed college football's foundations last summer (and shook college basketball off its foundations), we knew the effects of the decisions wouldn't be felt until months down the road.
Tuesday will bring the first tremor. It's the beginning of the end of the glory and pageantry and importance and identity of the Big East tournament, which is to say it is the termination of all of those things for the Big East Conference as well.
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How bittersweet that this is happening on the 30th anniversary of the first Big East championship at Madison Square Garden, a place so hallowed, the original organizers of the event didn't expect to pay the rent here as soon as they did, back in 1982.
This league isn't dying, of course, but it is changing -- mutating. The Big East will lose West Virginia -- two years after it dramatically won its first league championship -- to the Big 12 after this season. After the next one (maybe sooner), Syracuse and Pittsburgh are gone to the ACC, which is mulling -- or at least debating and is certainly tempted by -- moving its conference championship to New York City.
Think the ACC can't make the move to Madison Square Garden? Then you weren't paying attention last summer, and with that, you're underestimating the ambition of college presidents once again. ACC commissioner John Swofford did not toss the prospect aside when he was asked about it in September, and of course there is no more ripe market for the basketball-devoted ACC (yes, it also has been spellbound by football's mammon) to move into than New York City.
While that future is still down the road, the Big East is already near some significant changes. Its postseason tournament, which for 20 years has consistently been the best one in college basketball, is about to change forever. We're one year removed from an NCAA-record 11 Big East teams getting invited to the NCAAs. But what's coming for this conference feels like a transition of identity that can't be undone.
Others will join the league in the next 14 months, but can we acknowledge that hairy, smelly elephant standing right over there? Isn't anyone else in the Big East secretly trying to get out now? Does Louisville want to leave? Come on. Of course! You're telling me U of L wouldn't get out if it had a better option for football? It would love to. What about UConn? Does it want to try and finagle a way into the ACC sometime in the next five years?
The basketball will take center stage, as it should, in Manhattan during the next five days, but the uncertainty of the Big East's next five years will hang larger in the air than any celebratory banner waving from MSG's rafters. The Big East has always had a rift in philosophy due to the basketball-only and football schools. Now the divide is even larger.
We'll also be losing the coaches soon too, you know. The next wave of the old guard is leaving post. Jim Boeheim, of course, leaving along with Syracuse, and Rick Pitino said earlier this season he'll be done coaching by 2017. Jim Calhoun, at 69, can't coach forever, as much as he would like to forever prove critics and modern medicine wrong. Yes, change is inevitable in this regard; Hall of Fame coaches retiring is a part of the game, and when they do, it's normally equal parts somber and celebratory. In this case, with the retirements of these giants -- plus the loss of always entertaining Bob Huggins to the Big 12 -- the subway car exchange of all these schools is compounded by the coaching changeover.
This isn't like the last time. Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech don't have the heft that Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia do. Plus, the Big East -- for good or for bad -- responded to that poaching by the ACC by using its own tool of persuasion: the gravitas of the conference (and all that money) -- to bring five more schools in. Cincinnati, Marquette, Louisville, DePaul and South Florida migrated from Conference USA and actually gave the league a jolt, buttressing it definitively and highly atop college basketball, where it has remained for seven years.
And this time, the trade for three more defections is Memphis, Houston, SMU and Central Florida. No matter how good those latter three teams are in a given season in the next decade, they carry as much Big East cache -- and fan support -- as DePaul and South Florida. Getting Memphis was huge. The Tigers are the only program that truly feels like it belongs in the home it will move into in 2013. Temple looks imminent as well, but at this point, the Big East might as well place its offices out West with the amount of plastic surgery it has done to itself. The league is indistinguishable from what it was eight years ago.
You know the great memories, the ones you can replay in your mind without the aid of audio or video: Ewing and Georgetown's dominance in the '80s; Walter Berry negating Pearl Washington in the final seconds of the '86 final; Taliek Brown dead-eyeing home a 30-foot game-clincher against Pitt (I cannot believe it has already been 10 years); Ray Allen's tripping-on-invisible-wire winner in '96; Gerry McNamara's ownership of the Garden -- which came five years before Kemba did it; six overtimes in '09. All great memories, the stuff that helps sell glossy magazines and keeps the prestige of the tournament going.
All I'm saying is, we're now past the brink of losing that. It's done. The Big East tournament could one day feel like the Big 12. A fine, worthy, watchable conference championship to help set the table for the NCAAs. But it won't be the same. Without the teams that helped build the tournament into what it was, and still is -- even for one more year -- how could it?
This isn't founding commissioner Dave Gavitt's Big East anymore. It isn't former commissioner Mike Tranghese's, either, or your father's or your older brother's. Soon enough, it won't be yours. So to whom does it belong? Economic swinishness and an unfamiliar conglomerate of programs that will advertise the Big East, but they won't represent it.