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March Madness hasn't yet begun, but college basketball fans are keeping an eye on one basketball conference which is about to end as we know it. Some big teams are leaving the Big East after this season wraps up to pursue more lucrative deals in other conferences. NPR's Mike Pesca was at the Big East conference tournament at Madison Square Garden this week. He has this report.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The Big East: born 1979, died 2013. On the court, there were triumphs. Off the court...
MICK CRONIN: The whole thing's tragic.
PESCA: Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin mourned the dead and offered his concise necropsy.
CRONIN: You know, the fact that we're sitting here and this is the last Big East tournament is beyond - there's a great - this is the greatest tradition in college athletics. This tournament at one site for over 30-something years. It's only gone for one reason: money.
PESCA: Well, money and football, or specifically money from football. Syracuse Rutgers, Louisville and Pittsburgh all think there is more money to be made in more football-centric conferences - not the Big East - where basketball is king. This is a dagger to quote one former Big East coach, for this league was not only founded on hoops but has embraced a specific brand of basketball, one that still holds appeal to players like Pittsburgh senior Tray Woodall.
TRAY WOODALL: Coming out of the games with busted lips and black eyes and things and that sort, you know, we guys, we just - we're used to that, you know? And we feel like it's a battle every game for each and every team from Syracuse all the way down to DePaul, South Florida and teams of that sort. And when I say those teams, I'm just talking about the (unintelligible), not the way (unintelligible) understand this. But, yeah, just everything, playing against these teams, it is always a constant battle. And I think today was a prime example of a typical Big East game. It's just basically the toughest of the toughest, man.
PESCA: Woodall's younger teammates will be playing in the ACC next year, a pretty fair league. In truth, a more accomplished league than the Big East these last three decades. But in its heyday, the Big East had something beyond future Hall of Fame players and rabid rivalries. This was a league with personality. Just think: When we speak of great moments in basketball histories, we usually uses phrases like stole the ball or drained the jumper.
The Big East's most memorable moment might have been when Coach John Thompson wore the sweater. If you don't get the reference, ask a hoops fan. There's too much history and not enough time. So much history that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was on a veritable nostalgia tour this week according to his coaching rival Jay Wright of Villanova.
JAY WRIGHT: He'll never admit it, but he's a little sentimental. I know he is. He stopped in our locker room before the game. I know this league means the world to him. He went and hugged John Thompson after the game. He don't hug. He's not a hugger.
WRIGHT: So all of us - this means a lot. This is really big to us.
PESCA: Wright went on to connect the history of his program to the present.
WRIGHT: If not for Rollie Massimino, you know, I'm not even a part of this. And if not for the Big East, Rollie Massimino is not Rollie Massimino. And he knows it. We all know it. And if not for the Big East, Villanova's not Villanova.
PESCA: All the original Big East schools can play the connection game: Rollie at 'Nova, Louie at St. Johns, PJ at the Hall. There was an upstart named Pitino at Providence who became an eminence as a cardinal at Louisville. Jim Calhoun won three championships at UConn. There was Hoya Paranoia, there was Jerome Lane's smashing backboards at Pitt. And, of course, the 1985 Final Four: three quarters Big East, never been accomplished by a conference before or since.
If all this leads you to conclude that the lamentations for the present are actually a bit of nostalgia for a time when the shorts were small and the Georgetown center is big, you're right. Therefore, St. John's coach Steve Lavin is also right to embrace what's coming. Lavin points out that seven of the current teams will play on under the name Big East.
STEVE LAVIN: 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 bar, you know, logo. So we got the right branding. We got good leadership.
PESCA: The remaining schools - Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul and Marquette - are being called the Catholic Seven. But the new Big East will not be a resurrection. They'll have to reach outside the tenets of their religion for the right analogy, perhaps a reincarnation taking another form. Not as big, still not exclusively east, but each season's final conference tournament will be held in the Garden, and the sport of basketball will be at the center of it all. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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