As we approach March Madness and the conference tournaments leading up to it, I am saddened by the fact that there is no longer a Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. Although it has been a while since the Big East broke up in 2013, it is hard to get over the destruction of what was once the greatest conference in college basketball.
Before its collapse, the former Big East was comprised of Cincinnati, UCONN, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, University of South Florida, Syracuse, Depaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence College, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and West Virginia. With the exceptions of West Virginia, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Louisville, the Big East never had much success with regard to football.
The lack of football competition is what ultimately led to the conference breaking up since the schools with strong programs wanted to play in better football conferences such as the ACC in the case of Louisville or the Big 12 in the case of West Virginia. Football creates more revenue than basketball does due to television contracts, so it was worth it for these schools to leave the Big East.
Yet before its downfall, the Big East was the premier basketball conference in the NCAA Division I. Legendary teams, coaches and players were all part of the Big East over the several decades it existed. Some of the most famous former Big East players include Chris Mullin of St. John’s, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown, and Ray Allen and Kemba Walker from UCONN. The list goes on and many of these players had great success at both the college and NBA levels. Coaches such as Jim Calhoun for UCONN, Rick Pitino for Louisville and Jim Boeheim for Syracuse were all legendary coaches who were able to lead some of the most successful college basketball programs in history.
Even greater than the caliber of the coaches and players who made up the Big East was the iron grip the conference used to have over the NCAA tournament.
There were some years such as 2011 when the conference sent over half of its members to the NCAA tournament. For one conference to send ten teams to the NCAA tournament is an incredible feat.
For those who do not know, in order to qualify for March Madness, teams can either win their conference for an automatic bid, or they will receive an at-large bid based on their performance during the regular season. This is determined based on factors such as win-loss record and strength of opponents.
So in 2011, UCONN qualified because they won the Big East conference tournament that year, but then nine other programs received at-large bids from the tournament committee. In the 2009 tournament, three out of the four one-seeds on the bracket were UCONN, Louisville and Pittsburgh, all of whom were members of the Big East.
In the thirty-four year lifespan of the Big East from 1979 to 2013, teams from the conference won the NCAA tournament ten times. In other words, almost a third of the NCAA tournaments during that era were won by teams from the Big East. By comparison, the Big Ten Conference, a conference that many consider to be exceptional for basketball, produced only four national champions during that same timespan.
In some years, the Big East tournament that took place at the end of the college regular season was more exciting than the NCAA tournament itself. In years where several of the teams from the Big East were in contention for the national title, the Big East tournament provided an accurate preview for what was to come in March Madness.
The tournament used to be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a location many consider to be the premier basketball arena in the nation. Games would be sold out and there was always a massive television audience as well.
The tournament provided an opportunity for the teams who have had a worse regular season record due to the high level of competition among Big East teams to compete on a national stage for a bid to March Madness. Although there have been many fantastic moments throughout the history of the Big East tournament, few compare to the run made by UCONN in 2011.
The Huskies finished the 2010-2011 regular season with a win-loss record of 21-9 and an in-conference record of 9-9. With a record like this, the Huskies were the ninth seed for the Big East Tournament and were hoping that an impressive showing in Madison Square Garden might get them a bid for March Madness.
Led by Kemba Walker, the UCONN team won five games in five days and received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for winning the Big East conference. The Huskies’ fourth win was a thriller against Pittsburgh. With only a few seconds left in the game and the score tied at 74, Kemba Walker hit an amazing buzzer beater to win the game and advance to the finals of the tournament. Kemba Walker would go on to lead the Huskies to victory in the NCAA tournament.
Since 1999, UCONN has won four national titles and has become one of the most successful Division I programs in history. It is a shame we can no longer watch them compete against the likes of Syracuse and Georgetown in Madison Square Garden.