‘This is God’s basketball’: Coaches reflect on the end of the Big East

NEW YORK — While the Big East name and tournament will live on following this summer’s fracture, many involved with the 2013 edition treated it like a particularly contentious wake: sad about the passing, but also angry at having something so beloved taken from them.

“The fact that we’re sitting here and this is the last Big East Tournament is beyond ridiculous,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, mincing no words following his team’s elimination on Thursday. “This is the greatest tradition in college athletics, this tournament, at one site for over thirty-something years. It’s only gone for one reason: Money.”

“I’m going to miss the old Big East, “ said Providence coach Ed Cooley Wednesday. “I’m excited about our league that we’re going to be in, but to take away those rivalries…I was born and raised on the Big East, you know what I mean?”

“This is God’s basketball here in the Big East.”

The most outspoken critic about the dissolution of the Big East has been Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who’s thrown punches at pretty much everyone involved as his team heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. He’s targeted future opponent Clemson (“I’m sure there are a couple of Denny’s down there,” comparing the restaurant options to those in Providence) and current and future conference mate Notre Dame (blaming them for voting down a football contract that may have kept the Big East together). But Boeheim agrees with Cronin about the main culprit.

"If conference commissioners were the founding fathers of this country, we would have Guatemala, Uruguay and Argentina in the United States," said Boeheim back in 2011 after Syracuse announced their move. "This audience knows why we are doing this. There's two reasons: Money and football…We've played St. John's for the 50 years I've been at Syracuse, and Georgetown for 40, so yeah, there's some nostalgia there.”

He returned to that refrain on Friday night, following his program’s final Big East match-up with the Hoyas. When asked about trying to continue the rivalry, he pulled no punches.

“It’s got nothing to do with basketball, you know that. You’re way smarter than that. This is just to do with football. You know that.”

Then Boeheim got down right Nietzschean.

“It’s just where everything is going. Just wait a few more years, everything will be gone.”

He’s not wrong about football dollars being the driver of conference chaos. The latest round of conference realignment started in the summer of 2010, when Nebraska announced their move to the Big Ten. After that, the carousel of programs jumping ship started turning as each looked for the most lucrative television deal available. With more and more consumers using DVR or streaming services, live programming – reality competitions, awards shows and especially sports – became the most sought after inventory in television, with football the most valuable commodity of all. Colleges started chasing the money (the main reason for Maryland’s move to the Big Ten was because they had mishandled their athletic department finances so poorly) and other considerations – like decades of rivalries, geography and common sense – were ignored.

The Big East ended up losing six teams, with West Virginia to the Big XII, Rutgers to the Big Ten and Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville to the ACC. Eventually the basketball-only schools got tired of waiting around, breaking away and taking the name with them. Next year Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Marquette, DePaul and Villanova will join up with Xavier, Creighton and Butler for the new Big East. They’ll be one of the best basketball conferences in the country, and without the appeal of football dollars, they might be in the best position for long-term survival.

The real losers in the situation – at least for now – are Connecticut, South Florida and Cincinnati, who are yet to find a sturdy piece of debris to cling to as their conference goes down. They’ll be joined next year in a yet-to-be-named conference by a menagerie of teams, including Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU. That league will still get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it’ll receive little respect in football and will be completely unstable. As soon as any of those teams have the option of bolting to a better league, they’ll be gone.

Even as he celebrated his third Big East Tournament championship on Saturday night, Rick Pitino talked about how bittersweet the whole thing was.

“Jay Wright texted me tonight and said, ‘Hey, good luck. It's only fitting that you and Jim [Boeheim] are in the finals,’” said Pitino in his postgame press conference. “I really appreciated that. It's very sentimental.”

“Jim and I both know -- we hope we can coach as long as we can coach, but we're never going to do with in the Big East. To come back like that tonight, it shows tremendous heart. I'm really excited for them they can be part of basketball history. I'm really happy the basketball history took place in Madison Square Garden.”

Perhaps ESPN analyst Jay Bilas summed it up best after he called Louisville’s come-from-behind title victory:

“Tough leaving MSG tonight. All that remains of the Big East are indelible memories and incredible legacies. And, the great Bill Raftery.”

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