Roundball reign returns (Big) East
April 10, 2003
To the many vocal champions of the Big 12 out in these parts, it may come as a surprise to know that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Big East was college basketball. Oh, I know all the Dicks and Diggers have been telling us for some time that the Midwest is the center of the roundball universe, but it wasn’t always so.
Georgetown, behind junior center Patrick Ewing, won the national championship in 1984 after losing in the final game two years earlier to the once-in-a-lifetime North Carolina triumvirate of Perkins, Worthy and Jordan.
In ’85, the Hoyas made a return trip to the Final Four, where they joined two other Big East teams: the Chris Mullin-led St. John’s Redmen and the Villanova Wildcats of Ed Pinkney and the now-infamous Gary McClain. Ewing’s bid for a repeat title, however, was thwarted in the finals when ‘Nova pulled off one of the great upsets in basketball history. Still, it was the Big East’s second title in as many years.
In ’87, the Syracuse Orangemen of Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas would have given the Big East three titles in four years, but they were undone by a last-second miracle shot courtesy of Indiana’s Keith Smart. Providence, under the guidance of wunderkid coach Rick Pitino, also made a trip to the Final Four.
But something happened the next year. The balance of power, which had been centered in the East, seemingly took a dramatic shift to the Midwest. Oklahoma, with manchild Wayman Tisdale and Horace Grant’s twin brother Harvey, became the team to beat, and only an unthinkable run by Kansas’ Danny Manning and the Miracles kept the Sooners from winning the title.
The point, though, is that both teams in the championship game that year came out of the then-Big 8, greatly enhancing that conference’s national image. It didn’t matter that the league had last won a men’s basketball championship in 1952 and had sent just seven teams to the Final Four in the interim. The Midwest was suddenly a hoops hotbed.
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In ’89 Seton Hall lost an overtime thriller in the finals to Glen Rice’s Michigan Wolverines, but the game signaled a bit of a last gasp for the Big East, which went into a tournament drought with the close of the ’80s.
For the next six years, not a single team from the Big East advanced to the Final Four, leading many to write off the conference as an ’80s phenomenon, like parachute pants and A Flock of Seagulls hair. During this same period, the Big 12 sent three teams to the Final Four, winning no championships but doing enough to keep the conference’s reputation from slipping too far.
And somehow, the sterling reputation the Big 12 garnered in ’88 survived a prolonged Final Four drought in the late ’90s. In fact, for years now the league has been rated higher than the Big East despite Syracuse’s run to the championship game in ’96 and Connecticut’s national title in ’99.
All of which brings us to the college basketball season that just ended last Monday. The Big 12, on the heels of Final Four trips for Kansas and Oklahoma the season before, was rated the best conference in America, while the Big East was thought to have only one team, Pittsburgh, capable of being a national power.
That thinking held firm throughout the course of the regular season, and, come tournament time, the Big 12 was given two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed. The lightly regarded Big East, meanwhile, made headlines for getting just four invites to the Big Dance.
Through the first two rounds, the Big 12 held up its end of the bargain, putting three teams in the Sweet 16. However, the Big East, to the surprise of many, sent four.
Things continued apace for the Big 12 the next weekend, with both Texas and Kansas advancing to the Final Four alongside Marquette and an upstart Big East representative, Syracuse.
But then a funny thing happened. The Orangemen and freshman phenom Carmelo Anthony beat both teams from the vaunted Big 12, just as they had Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the earlier rounds, and won the whole enchilada.
The victory gave the Big East two titles in the last five years, compared to none in the last 15 for the Big 12, so if that conference’s fans didn’t feel a seismic shift to the East in college basketball’s power structure when Syracuse knocked off Kansas Monday night, there’s a very good reason: The Midwest never was college basketball. Unfortunately, 1988 was an anomaly and happened a century ago.