March Madness: Final Days of the Big East, College Basketball’s Best Conference
An era is ending in college basketball at the World’s Most Famous Arena on Saturday night. It will be the final game in the conference currently known as the Big East.
For years the Big East has been considered the biggest and best conference in college basketball, accolades that have been taken away in 2013. The Atlantic 10 is now the largest conference in the nation, while the Big Ten has dominated the headlines with multiple top-25 matchups on a weekly basis.
The conference will live on next season as a non-football league, but it will have a long way to go in matching the success of the conference formerly known as the Big East and soon to be the America-12.
Founded in 1979, the league quickly became a hoops power in the coming decade when six of its members made an appearance in the Final Four.
Georgetown played in three national championships games from 1982 to 1985, cutting down the nets in 1984 and coming up just short the following year against Villanova, another Big East school. Chris Mullin and St. Johns also played in the 1985 Final Four, making it the only time three schools from the same conference advanced to the national semifinals in the same year.
Syracuse and Seton Hall also played in national title games in the 80’s, coming up just short of championship banners thanks to Keith Smart’s game winning shot in 1987 and Rumeal Robinson’s free-throw shooting in overtime, two years later.
In 1991, the conference began sponsoring football and expanded with the addition of schools such as Miami, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. This decision created some tension between the football and non-football members, but the conference remained a hoops power in the 90’s.
Georgetown’s success continued with future NBA stars Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson suiting up for the Hoyas.
UConn also emerged as a championship contender with teams led by Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton. The Huskies finished the decade by winning the 1999 Final Four, the first of three national championships in the Jim Calhoun era. Success continued in the new millennium, with Carmelo Anthony helping Syracuse cut down the nets for the first time in school history in 2003.
However, only months later the conference’s future was in doubt after Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech (in place of Syracuse) accepted invites that brought the ACC’s membership to 12 schools. The Big East responded by
becoming a 16-team basketball conference with the additions of Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, and South Florida prior to the 2005-06 season.
While this was a precursor to even more realignment down the road, the conference was on the verge of a new era of dominance. In 2009, three of the top four seeds and half of the Elite Eight came from the Big East. Two years later, the conference set a record by sending 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament.
In between those banner seasons; the superconference frenzy began with the Big Ten expanding to 12 schools, the SEC reaching 14 members, and the Pac-10/12 twice failing to become the Pac-16. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Big Ten or ACC looked to expand again, with some Big East members as potential targets.
In September 2011, Syracuse and Pittsburgh became the latest schools to sign up for the Atlantic Coast Conference, after Big East officials turned down a television contract from ESPN worth about $130 million annually. The successor to the conference (America-12) has signed a contract with ESPN worth the same amount, only over a seven year period.
West Virginia continued the exodus by departing for the Big 12, while the Big East responded yet again by going after more schools from Conference USA. This was followed again by more departures with Notre Dame and Louisville accepting ACC invites, and Rutgers linking up with the Big Ten.
UConn and Cincinnati could also find themselves in that ACC in the near future, depending on what happens in regards to expansion with other BCS-conferences.
Now with the Catholic 7 leaving, 16 Big East members have left or accepted an invitation to another conference over the last 18 months.
The decision to create a new non-football league with the same name this fall marks the end of the most successful conference in college basketball history.
The reincarnated Big East will be intriguing to watch with the Catholic 7 schools and the additions of mid-majors such as Butler and Xavier, but it will have a difficult time reaching the heights of its predecessor.
A level of success that may never be achieved again by any conference.