Gorman: Last rites for 'God's basketball'
Before they bid farewell to the old Big East, so to speak, its coaches waxed nostalgic about the best conference in college basketball and a tournament like none other.
When it came to hyperbole, no one could compare to the proverbial newcomer from Providence. Not only did Ed Cooley, the Friars' second-year coach, say he was “born and raised on the Big East,” but he also took talk of Madison Square Garden as a basketball mecca a step further.
“I don't think there's any better basketball in the country. Big Ten, ACC, that's just basketball,” Cooley said. “This is God's basketball here in the Big East, and it's unfortunate the things that have happened.”
Perhaps Cooley, being at Providence and all, meant former Friar standout God Shammgod. Or St. John's forward God's Gift Achiuwa.
If this is really God's basketball, heaven help us.
The beauty of the Big East was in its brutality, and Thursday's Pitt-Syracuse quarterfinal was a prime example of what separated Big East basketball from the ACC and all others. There were bodies flying all over the floor, whether it was 7-footer Steven Adams cutting open his knee while diving for a loose ball, three Panthers getting taken out under their own basket to spark a Syracuse 3-on-1 fast break or Dante Taylor getting a cut, above his right eye, that required six stitches.
“Just the whole tradition and the whole style of play, coming out of games with busted lips and black eyes and things that we saw, guys are used to that,” Pitt fifth-year senior guard Tray Woodall said. “We feel it's a battle every game with each and every team, from Syracuse all the way down to South Florida. … It's the toughest of the toughest.
“I'm going to miss this.”
We all are, especially coming here to watch games at the Garden. There is no better venue — or atmosphere — for a college basketball tournament, which is why it has hosted the Big East Championship every year since 1983. That is only one thing that distinguished the Big East tourney. Eleven schools won titles. Entering Saturday night's final Big East championship game, only 12 of the 30 champions were top seeds. In the past five years, two No. 7s, a No. 9, a No. 3 and a No. 1 won.
“It showed that every team in this tournament believes that they can win it,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, whose Panthers won the 2008 title as a No. 9 seed but lost four of the past five years as a top-four seed. “I think that's what separates this tournament from other tournaments: There's a history of teams coming from lower seeds and winning it, and there's so many different programs that have had their year and had their time.”
That's why it's sad to see this come to an end, with Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse off to the ACC, the remaining so-called football schools forming their own conference and the seven Catholic schools keeping the Big East moniker, whatever that's worth.
“I'm glad we got the name because the brand is very important in anything: Coca-Cola, Hershey's; you can't go wrong with a Hershey's bar logo. We've got the right branding. We've got good leadership,” St. John's coach Steve Lavin said.
“So I'm bold on the future of the Big East, and yet I know that we lost some titans. We lost some great rivalries and some great coaches and great institutions, and unfortunately that's kind of the world we live in and the beat goes on. You reinvent yourself and do the best with the group we have, and I still think we're going to be the one of the preeminent groups in the country.”
Let's be clear: The Big East, as we knew it, is dead.
That says something about the sad state of college sports. The best conference in college basketball is splitting up because of football and the television revenue that new alignments will bring. So the sport that sent Pitt to Birmingham for the Compass Bowl three years in a row gets preference over the one that sent the Panthers to the Garden every year.
One minute, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is reminiscing about how his whole basketball life has been spent playing and coaching at the Garden; the next, he's embracing a move he never imagined, to the ACC.
“The Big East, as great as it is, has changed over the years,” Boeheim said. “This was inevitable. There was no way this wasn't going to happen. It's a miracle that it didn't happen sooner.”
Or, as Cooley might put, maybe it was God's Gift to God's basketball.