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Big East tourney marks end of an era

Legally, the Big East's schools won't go their separate ways until July 1, but in spirit, this week's men's basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden is about saying goodbye.

For one last time, teams that have shared decades of tradition will meet in Manhattan, but the atmosphere will be something like the inevitable farewell of a Senior Night. This is a memorable lineup, coming together one last time, then going their separate ways.

Those memories feature national players of the year such as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Emeka Okafor, coaching legends such as John Thompson Jr., Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and teams that captured six national titles.

"It's sad. You hate to see it happen, but you have to be realistic, that this was inevitable and coming for a while," ESPN's Jay Bilas said Monday. "It's hard for all of us to say, 'We all knew this was coming,' and then be horribly upset about it. But I'll miss all of it. The semifinals and finals of that tournament are kind of the two best nights in basketball. There's going to be a void."

The league's 15 programs are headed in so many directions — four to the ACC eventually, Rutgers in a year to the Big Ten; three more, including USF, to a new, unnamed league, and seven traditional basketball schools moving on but keeping the Big East name and its postseason home in New York.

Calhoun, the former UConn coach whose Huskies are not in this year's tournament as a penalty for low APR scores, said he will think this week of Big East founder Dave Gavitt and the genius of what he created.

"He put together arguably the best basketball conference in history, and Madison Square Garden is the mecca," Calhoun said. "It was a special place, and by keeping it in one place ... it's not going to be the same. They can't replace Syracuse, can't replace us. The Catholic 7, I think they'll do well in that league. My point is we had something very special, and it's a shame."

The Big East's power is still strong — the league has six teams ranked in the top 25 this week, but four of those — Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh — are off to the ACC, a league with only two ranked teams. Georgetown and Marquette will stay in the new Big East, but the collective strength and unprecedented depth of the league will never be the same.

"For a basketball guy, you can't do much better than a Friday night for the semifinals, with 19,000 people in Madison Square Garden," Calhoun said. "I coached 58 games there. It's a time lost, and a time I think won't be replaced. It was a great neighborhood battle. It's too special to just leave with a whimper and not a bang."

The new Big East will be more like its humble origins than anything in recent years — the "Catholic 7" include four charter members from 1979-80 — Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall, as well as Villanova, which joined in the Big East's second season. DePaul and Marquette, who joined in 2005-06, will stay, with Butler, Xavier and one other school forming a new 10-team league that will keep the Big East name and continue to play in MSG.

That leaves USF, Cincinnati and Connecticut, along with the reinforcements once due to join the Big East this summer, who will instead comprise an altogether new league, still awaiting its name. What they'll be called and where they'll play their tournament will be answered in upcoming months.

USF hasn't made a huge impact on the Big East since joining in 2005, but the Bulls have become much more competitive in the past four seasons under Stan Heath. The Bulls went 11-67 in their first four years in the Big East; since then, they're 27-45, including a 12-6 record in 2011-12 that sent the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years.

"It's been a great experience," Heath said. "The way we've grown our program, to play a little more on a national stage like last year, that was huge. It's been a great plus, with a lot of great memories of last year's team and what we did, and even (2009-10) when we knocked on the door hard (going 9-9 in league). There's sentiment, for sure, but in life, you learn that any change is normal. I still believe there's a bright future for our basketball program."

Even young players such as USF sophomore point guard Anthony Collins can appreciate the tradition they've been a part of. Collins grew up watching his brother J.D. play for West Virginia in the Big East and will miss the chance to line up as a Big East player in New York each March.

"I wanted to play against the best, and I'm glad I could do that. I'll never forget that," Collins said. "I grew up watching my brother in this league, watched the six-overtime game (Syracuse-UConn in 2009), watched Kemba Walker (win five games in a row for UConn in 2011) before I came here. It's a lot of memories."

Even with West Virginia already gone to the Big 12, with Connecticut absent this week, this is the final collection of Big East basketball. Its members can certainly thrive individually, but there remains a sentimental attachment to the league itself, which always seemed stronger than even its individual schools.

"Something will step in and fill the void. It just won't be the same," Bilas said. "There have been other things that have been great over the year that have gone away. The world stays on its axis. But we're losing something really cool and I'm going to miss it. There's definitely going to be a sadness walking out of there on Saturday night."

>>Tuesday

USF vs. Seton Hall

Big East tournament opener, 7, Madison Square Garden, New York. TV: ESPNU

Big East tourney marks end of an era 03/11/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 11, 2013 8:03pm]

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