January 16, 2013

ZAKOUR | Interesting Start to NBA Season

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While watching Syracuse basketball take on an overmatched Central Connecticut State, the announcers mentioned that this was the last year of the Big East “as we know it,” and that we should appreciate this and just sit back and enjoy while it lasts. I can’t help but agree with this. Big East play is just heating up. We only have one more year of the greatest collection of college basketball teams ever assembled and we should take it all in for a last time. But while you’re at it, also take a moment of silence for the Big East.

I grew up on Big East basketball. Growing up in upstate New York my fondest hoops memories were following the Big East, especially the local Syracuse Orange. While the nearest NBA teams (The Knicks and Nets) languished for years, Syracuse basketball was a dominant force in the best conference for college basketball. I watched the Big East send a record nine and then later 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. Two different Big East programs have won the NCAA tournament in my lifetime. I even saw the much maligned football programs send an undefeated Cincinnati team to the prestigious Sugar Bowl. Despite this, the realities of conference realignment will claim the Big East as a casualty.

With former member West Virginia already having left for the greener football pastures of the Big 12, this is the last year of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville and even Rutgers all in the conference. Connecticut may soon be defecting as well, and the replacements have been the likes of Tulane, Eastern Carolina Central Florida, Southern Methodist and San Diego State (notably, none of these teams with the exception Central Florida are practically eastern). The word lackluster comes to mind. The Big East is becoming more western and crappy. As the Big East gropes around in the dark, desperately trying to grab a school to fill their vacancies, Boise State (again, not really Eastern) has already reneged on the Big East, preferring to stay Mountain West. For comparison, the second biggest program in the Mountain West is either one of Nevada, Reno or Nevada, Las Vegas. It’s come to this. A team chose the Mountain West over the Big East. This is the equivalent of having a drowning man decline a lifesaver because the rescue ship is sinking as well.

The Big East is rich in history, with all but one of its current 17 members (South Florida) having at least one final four appearance, a conference total of 16 final fours, and 6 national titles. Yet, it’s all coming to end to soon and for the wrong reasons. It is being broken up because of greed, and a power play by a few select conferences, namely the ACC and Big 12. Conference commissioners are after major markets and established fan bases that the Big East offers for more lucrative TV deals. The conference was founded as the best basketball conference ever created, and now will be broken up at the expense of it. The most unfortunate part of all this is that the Big East is still in its basketball prime. The Big East is still, undoubtedly, one of the best basketball conferences in college (if not the best, they certainly were last year but the Big 10 is coming on strong this year). Connecticut won the title not even two years ago amongst a field that included a record of 11 total teams from the Big East, while last year’s NCAA tournament featured 9 Big East teams, including Syracuse as a No. 1 seed. And that’s just men’s basketball. The UConn women famously won 90 games in a row – longest win steak in Division I basketball history — before finally losing to Stanford in 2010. The Big East is going from the best to an also-ran, essentially overnight, not due to any gradual decline or the product of some consecutive down years.

Against the backdrop of all this, there is talk of Villanova, Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence, Marquette, DePaul and creating their own conference and recruiting similarly proficient basketball school such as Butler to join them. I never thought one of the consequences of the Big East disbanding would be entirely new conference being created, but I greatly prefer this alternative than other conferences vultures picking at the Big East until its totally unrecognizable. This solution puts the Big East out its misery with some dignity and creates sort of a daughter conference. This new conference (which has no name yet, although I’m hearing the name “Catholic 7” being thrown around, which seems like a bad idea) is based on the same foundation of the Big East, putting football on the backburner and creating one of the best basketball conferences in the US. If this does comes to fruition I believe the watered down Big East will lose its automatic and lucrative BCS bowl berth in football, and will hopefully change their name to something more reflective of the current geography (and quality) of the conference. Yes, the ACC is probably going to become the best basketball conference in America, but its very top-heavy featuring Duke and North Carolina hogging the attention as the stars. The Big East was more of an ensemble cast, with UConn, Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and West Virginia, and Louisville all having recent strings of tournament success. And much like the great ensemble casts before it, its being broken far too soon.

Original Author: John Zakour