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Blasting the past

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – John Thompson's phone rang Friday morning and Derrick Coleman was on the other line.

The former Syracuse great wanted to talk with the Hall of Fame Georgetown coach about Big East basketball. Not their legendary battles of the 1980s though, but the new glory days of the conference; in this case Thursday's victories by Villanova, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

"He was talking about what Villanova did to Duke," Thompson said. "He said, 'Now that's Big East basketball.' "

Thompson was courtside, calling the game on radio and felt the same way. It wasn't just that the league he helped build in the 1980s had two teams in the East Regional Finals – and still four alive for the Final Four – but how it was done.

Smart, tough, tenacious basketball; throwback basketball.

"There's a lot of pride there for all of us," Thompson said.

If you thought the mid-1980s were the glory days for the league, what could unfold this weekend may duplicate it. In 1985 the league sent three teams – Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova – to the Final Four, with the Wildcats winning it all.

That era was defined by its incredible talent – Coleman, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin – and larger than life coaching personalities – Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino.

The talent level, due to early entry to the NBA, isn't the same these days but the league's stranglehold on national level competition may be greater.

"What was going on back then was different in that you only had nine teams," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, a former assistant at the school. "No one left early for the NBA. It was the hottest league. Every team had four or five pros. Each team was better than the teams are now. But there weren't as many great teams in the country as there are now."

Now it's a monster of a league in every way – 16 teams stretching the conference from its Northeast roots to Florida, Kentucky and the Midwest.

There's no shortage of irony that the school logo on the court here Saturday will be Boston College's. The Eagles are the host of this regional, a once-founding member of the Big East who left the league for dead four years back to pursue football glory in the ACC.

The conference weathered that crisis and emerged stronger than ever. Now the Big East will hold a two-hour party Saturday night and send a Final Four club right out of its old Massachusetts haunt. That it occurs during the final months in the career of retiring commissioner Mike Tranghese, who held the league together when it nearly splintered for good, is poetic justice.

Everything is cyclical in college basketball but never before has one league had this many elite teams. Thursday's Big East victories came over the tournament champions on the ACC and Big Ten, plus the runaway regular season champion of the Atlantic 10.

Whatever debate there once was about which league is most powerful this season is over. Now the Big East is competing against history.

"I think in the spring last year. I said looking at the teams coming back, the players coming back, that this thing had the potential of being the best conference in history of college basketball," Pitt's Jamie Dixon said.

"And as coaches and promoters of our leagues sometimes we tend to over-exaggerate and inflate some things that never really seem to come to fruition. But if anything has lived up to it, it would be this conference and what's happened this year. To be in this position is quite remarkable [and] however it ends up, I think it did what is very hard to do, live up to coaches' lofty proclamation."

The league would have to finish this out to earn best league ever honors. At this point only one Big East entry is assured, the winner of Pitt-'Nova. If other teams join them though, this is one for history.

And history is appreciated around here. The young coaches playing here, Villanova's Wright and Pitt's Dixon, recall players such as Pearl Washington and still marvel at the two coaches who bridge the gap between old and new, UConn's Jim Calhoun and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.

For the younger players the memories are more recent, although still profound. And most of them seem to realize this is a special moment in time in the history of college basketball.

"When I'm old and I have kids, they're going to be tired of hearing about how daddy played in the best Big East of all-time," Villanova's Dwayne Anderson said.

They will also realize that all over the country, and most notably in the cities of the Northeast, kids are looking up to them the way they looked up to players of the past.

"[I'm] the whale that saved Pittsburgh," DeJuan Blair, the Panthers big center said, referencing an old movie.

Why not? In the Big East this season, anything is possible; even getting the unlikely duo of John Thompson and Derrick Coleman to exchange early morning cell phone calls.