NCAA Final Four: A Sweet Yet Bitter Ending for the Big East Conference

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NCAA Final Four: A Sweet Yet Bitter Ending for the Big East Conference
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The Big East Conference is just living in the moment.

With Syracuse beating up fellow (and current) Big East foe Marquette and Louisville thwarting (future ACC foe) Duke in their respective NCAA tournament regional finals, the Big East can boast two teams in the Final Four for just the fourth time since 1985.

OK, boast may be too strong of a word.

The one thing for certain is that the Big East has two teams in the Final Four, and as great as that is for the beleaguered basketball league, nobody in the conference office should be puffing out their chest with pride these days.

In a way, the Final Four must feel like an awkward wedding where the estranged father of the bride shows up, alone, proud in the moment but avoiding all eye contact in hopes that nobody asks what the hell happened.

Seriously, what the hell happened?

The Big East should be proud of what it was and, for another few days, what it is. Yet while the league may celebrate history this weekend, it's a stark reminder of what's to come. For the Big East, nobody has any idea what that will be. 

With so many teams coming and going over the next two calendar years and the "Catholic 7" officially taking the name "Big East" as soon as next season, nobody really has any idea what will be left of the most dominant basketball conference of the last two decades.

 

The Big East Championship, Redux

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The Big East became too big to fail, as the expression goes, which is precisely why it did. 

Now, with Syracuse going off to the ACC next season and Louisville right on its heels the year after next, the Big East is holding on to two—and hopefully three—more games of its storied basketball existence.

Louisville and Syracuse met two weeks ago for the final Big East Championship game in Madison Square Garden and now have a chance to meet again in the NCAA Championship next Monday. If the Cardinals can defeat Wichita State and the Orange can get past Michigan on Saturday, it would mark first time two teams from the same conference will meet in the title game in over 25 years.

This will be no easy task, mind you, as not only are both the Shockers and Wolverines playing fantastic basketball this month, but historical precedent for two teams from the same conference playing in the title game is quite low.

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985—the year the Big East sent three teams to the Final Four—2013 marks the 19th time in 29 years that two teams from the same conference made it to the Final Four. In that span, two teams from the same conference have advanced to the championship game just twice—Big Eight rivals Kansas and Oklahoma played in the 1988 finale and Big East foes Villanova and Georgetown battled in the 1985 championship game.

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Of the 18 previous times two (or three) conference opponents made the Final Four since 1985, the chance for an all-conference national title game was possible 14 times, but has only happened twice. 

Despite both Big East teams being favored in their respective semifinals heading into the 2013 NCAA Final Four, it's historically unlikely that both will make it to the title game. Yet regardless of the historical likelihood, just getting two teams to the Final Four is an enormous distinction for any conference.

The Big East just wish it wasn't these two teams.

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Come to think of it, it may as well have been Louisville and Syracuse. The Cardinals were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and the only top seed to make it to the Final Four. Of all the Big East teams in the tournament, Syracuse has had the most consistent level of success throughout the conference's illustrious run. If the conference is going down in flames anyway, the Cardinals and the Orange may be the best two teams to man the boat before it officially sinks.

It should be noted that it also helps that Louisville—at least for now—is one of the few teams still in whatever the Big East will be called next season. If the Cardinals cut down the nets in Atlanta, the soon-to-be-named conference of also-rans can put a championship photo on their wall for a team that, technically at least, is still in the conference.

A silver lining, it seems.

 

The Big East and…Whatever

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Next year, Louisville will be the darlings of a conference in purgatory. The year after next, the Cardinals will leave whatever the Big East is going to be called to go to the ACC along with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, all leaving as soon as the spring sports season ends (and for basketball purposes, as soon as the final nets are cut down next week). 

Rutgers is leaving for the Big Ten in 2014 as well, not that the Scarlet Knights' departure from the storied Big East will have any impact on the NCAA basketball tournament success. (Rutgers hasn't qualified for the NCAA tournament since 1991, joining the Big East in basketball in 1995.)

Next year, the former Big East Conference will include the following member institutions: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, South Florida, SMU, Temple, UCF, Louisville and Rutgers. When those last two teams leave after next season, this new and currently unnamed conference will add Tulane and ECU, with Navy joining the year after. 

Also starting next year, the "Catholic 7" schools who are taking the Big East name to their new conference will include DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence, Butler, Creighton and Xavier. 

Had Marquette made it to the Final Four this season, at least then the Big East, or whatever, could claim a Final Four for a team that plans to stay in the conference. With Syracuse and Louisville in Atlanta, it says as much about the future of the ACC as it does the current state of the Big East. That's probably what the current Big East deserves.

 

The Big East "Tradition"

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When the Big East tournament came to a close this year, many fans and members of the media lamented the end of a sublime era of college basketball being killed at the expense of more lucrative football partnerships.

Much was made about the non-football schools leaving and taking the Big East name with them, but none of those teams—save Georgetown—have been much of a power over the last reincarnation of the conference. 

Over the last 15 years—technically since UConn won the title in 1999—the Big East has sent 10 schools to the Final Four, and just two have been Catholic 7 schools; Georgetown in 2007 and Villanova in 2009. (Note: Marquette went to the Final Four the year before they were in the Big East. Butler, soon to be a member of the new Big East, obviously went twice in the last four years.) 

Other than Georgetown, who won the Big East tournament in 2007, the conference tourney champion has come from a non-Catholic 7 school every year since 2000, when St. John's won the conference title. Hell, Boston College has won the Big East tournament more recently than Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall or St. John's, and the Eagles haven't been in the Big East in nearly a decade. 

Truth be told, the traditional Big East hasn't been the same for about that long. We revel at the success of Louisville in the Big East, but seemingly forget the Cardinals only joined the conference in 2005.

Rick Pitino has a connection to the illustrious past of Big East, going back to his days at Providence in the 1980s, but Louisville—as an athletic institution itself—is no different than Cincinnati or South Florida, except for all the winning.

 

The Community Title

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Winning cures a lot, but it didn't cure the greediness of the university presidents looking for a little extra taste of football money. Of course, it didn't help that since Mike Tranghese retired as commissioner of the Big East, the conference has been reduced to a glorified version of Conference USA.

Wait…glorified? The old Conference USA was a far better conference than whatever the soon-to-no-longer-be Big East will become.

Still, amid all the tumult, the conference has two chances this year to feel like the best. In a way, everyone can.

If Louisville wins the national title, the current Big East can claim ownership of another national championship for an active member—the seventh in the history of the conference—while the ACC can add yet another notch on the list of "current and future members who have won the national championship." 

If Syracuse wins the national title, even more groups can claim a piece of the crown. The once and former Big East can finish with a bang, while the ACC welcomes the reigning national champion into its basketball ranks right away.

The Big East traditionalists, who are left with no choice but to follow the name along with the "Catholic 7," can chalk up another victory for a founding member. 

Everybody wins! Right…?

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