Monday, March 15, 2010

Big East Comes Of Age

The Big East Conference feels like it should have been around at the dawn of the college game. The conference has become so ingrained in hoops culture that it seems historically inaccurate to read that the Big East was formed in 1979, the brainchild of former Providence coach and administrator Dave Gavitt.

Only six years after its inception, the Big East was at the zenith of its power in the 1984-’85 season. Georgetown was the defending NCAA champion and in the heady heyday of “Hoya Paranoia” with Patrick Ewing, David Wingate, Reggie Williams and Mike Jackson. But the conference was stunningly deep that season, with luminaries like Ed Pinckney at Villanova and Pearl Washington at Syracuse.

But the biggest threat to Georgetown’s dominance came from upstart St. John’s. The then-Redmen had everybody’s All-American in impossibly sweet-shooting lefty Chris Mullin, and an imposing starting five was rounded out with the fast-twitch Mike Moses, rugged inside men Willie Glass and Walter Berry, and a more-athletic-than-you-remember Bill Wennington. Future NBA all-star Mark Jackson came off the bench. The coach was Lou Carnesecca, who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Sam Fuller flick and had a predilection for a red, blue and brown Cosby sweater that took on totemic power when St. John’s rose to the No. 1 team in the nation for five weeks.

The Redmen earned that lofty position after taking down Georgetown, 66-65, at the Capital Center. Ewing was limited to only seven shots in that game. The Hoyas evened the regular-season series with a 85-69 dismantling at Madison Square Garden. It seemed inevitable that the two teams would meet in the Big East tournament final on March 9, 1985, at the Garden.

The game started on a light note, with the diminutive Carnesecca coming out of the locker room with a giant version of hulking Georgetown coach John Thompson’s trademark towel. Thompson had come to the bench in the Hoyas’ regular-season victory over St. John’s in a knockoff of Carnesecca’s famed sweater. That joviality is rarely seen among coaches anymore, as the character types have exited the stage and been replaced by men in the CEO mode who are into strategic self-interest and seem to define intensity only as nonstop screaming.

Despite the frivolity, this game certainly didn’t lack for passion. Thompson and Carnesecca were hit with two technical fouls apiece (three got coaches the boot in those days) and Georgetown’s Williams and St. John’s Ron Rowan were both ejected after exchanging blows in the first half.

Mullin struggled with his shot, but kept getting to the line and had 19 points in the first half against the Hoyas’ box-and-one defense (with Wingate chasing) that was designed to slow the St. John’s star. Ewing had three fouls in the first half, and the Redmen were surprisingly able to stay within 47-40 at halftime despite getting abused on the boards.

Georgetown put everything together in the second half. Jackson had a season-high 17 points and efficiently ran the Hoyas’ aggressive attack. Mullin couldn’t squeeze off a second-half shot until the 12-minute mark, and had only six points after the break.

Georgetown pulled away for a 92-80 victory and its fourth Big East tournament title in the conference’s six seasons. It looked like Georgetown was unstoppable, and the NCAA tournament would be a mere formality before the Hoyas were crowned as champions again.

Georgetown rolled to the Final Four and was joined in Lexington, Ky., by Big East mates St. John’s and Villanova — the first time a conference placed three teams among the last four standing.

Georgetown asserted its dominance over St. John’s again in the Final Four, 77-59. That box-and-one held Mullin to eight points, the first time since his freshman season that the senior didn’t score double figures. Of course, in the championship game, eighth-seeded Villanova shot 22-of-28 to stun Georgetown in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.

The Big East had officially reached legendary status. Perhaps that the conference made it to such grand heights in its infancy is the reason it feels like the Big East has been around forever.

1 comment:

  1. They consistently send 6-8 teams to the tournament every year, which definitely helps their status. Also, having their conference tournament held in the greatest arena to play basketball in the world also helps to the mystique. Imagine how DeSean Butler feels now that he's hit two buzzer beaters, one to win the conference tournament, on the same floor that all the Big East greats (and Knick greats) played?