Sports

Keidel: Not So Big East — Once-Great Conference Will Soon Be A Carcass

A general view as the St. John's Red Storm play against the Pittsburgh Panthers during their first-round game of the 2012 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

A general view as the St. John’s Red Storm play against the Pittsburgh Panthers during their first-round game of the 2012 Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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At the risk of redundancy, here’s yet another monologue on Manhattan’s onetime eminence, back when Madison Square Garden was the main nerve of sports, from boxing to basketball. Even when the Knicks were two-decades deep into this four-decade championship drought, there was sure to be a great brawl, whether on canvas or a sacred slab of hardwood.

Back when remote controls were cool and your cable channels were listed in letters, the Big East conference was the preeminent basketball league in America. In the 1980s the Big East had its mail forwarded to the Final Four. Georgetown went three times in four years, losing to Michael Jordan the first time and then winning a ring, and then succumbing to a feverish Villanova team that drilled 70 percent of its shots.

Syracuse was a Keith Smart shot from winning in 1987, and nearly played a Providence team coached by some kid named Rick Pitino, who led a line of no-names to the same Final Four. Even Seton Hall came within a few minutes of a championship, losing to Michigan in the 1989 Finals.

The Big East was a euphemism for big-city ball and ballers. It takes no effort to recall the clubs or their players, from Mullin, Jackson and Berry to Ewing, Martin and Wingate to Pearl, Derrick and Sherman. There was such a surplus of talent that even second-tier teams like Pittsburgh got some serious scraps, with studs like Jerome Land and Charles Smith making Western Pennsylvania a most ornery destination.

Those teams and those years brainwashed a generation of Big East devotees, like yours truly, who stuck through the ’90s drought and the failed Hoya empires of Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson. And then UConn took over, with three NCAA titles while spawning a conga line of NBA players, starting with Ray Allen and ending with Kemba Walker. And yes, there was a time when you could call Carmelo Anthony a champion. The former Syracuse freshman led the Orangemen to Jim Boeheim’s only championship in 2003.

The first shot was fired in the fall of 2011, when the aforementioned Panthers and Big East monolith Syracuse renounced their memberships to the Big East, igniting an ACC exodus. A year later, Rutgers ran to the Big Ten for the cash and cachet of recruiting and TV contracts. Then Louisville jumped to the ACC. Then came the death blow, the Big Seven Catholic schools — Georgetown, DePaul, Villanova, Providence, Marquette, Seton Hall and St. John’s — taking the back door from a crumbling conference.

Soon the Big East will be a carcass, an empty vessel inside which will grow the weeds of recollections, snapshots and video tape. Some things evolve, other devolve. And while all this maneuvering was made to pacify the pigskin crowd, which has all the money in college sports, there was room in the northeast for college basketball, particularly since the Tri-State Area has no iconic football team. Now there’s nothing to nurture us in NYC between the NFL and MLB seasons, unless you love hockey in the rare moments they actually play a full season.

Maybe Madison Square Garden is still “the world’s most famous arena,” but it’s no longer the best. Without boxing and Big East supremacy, there are only the Knicks and Rangers, the former without a title in 40 years and the latter with one Stanley Cup since 1945. If that’s evolution, some of us prefer to be left behind, with our VCR and DVD players flipping through our cable menu for SportsChannel. What letter was that, again?

Do you see the Big East ever recovering from all the defections, or is it doomed for good? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…