Big East is big news again, 20 years later

Updated: October 10, 2005, 5:31 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is part of a four-day, seven-piece series on college basketball's biggest change agents in the past 20 years and what the future will bring.

The Big East of the 1980s was a bruising league, possessing intimidating players, Hall of Fame coaches and national-title contenders.

Now, 20 years after the Big East was the nation's "it" conference, with three teams making the Final Four in 1985 -- culminating in one of the greatest upsets in the event's history: Villanova over Georgetown -- the Big East is once again back on top ... although the formula has changed a bit.

Patrick Ewing
Malcolm Emmons/US PRESSWIREEwing and Georgetown were '85's dominant team -- until the title game.

Yes, there are still Hall of Fame coaches -- Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun were just inducted last month. And yes, there are still national-title contenders. Two of the past three national champs are from the Big East -- Syracuse in 2003 and Connecticut in 2004 -- and Connecticut and Villanova could be top-five teams to start the season.

Add Louisville and Marquette, and four teams now in the conference have made the Final Four in the past three seasons. Don't forget West Virginia, which went to the Elite Eight last season and lost to Louisville in Albuquerque.

"We had three Final Four teams in 1985, and this year we've got 10 out of 16 teams that could be really good [read: NCAA-caliber]," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.

Still, this isn't the Big East I grew up with. The league, now with 16 teams, is the largest in the country and the largest since the WAC also had 16 from 1996-99. More importantly for Big East purists, the league is no longer all about the intimidation and bruising, gritty style that symbolized its play in its mid-'80s heyday. The league also is lacking true marquee stars in the spirit of Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin -- an issue that runs across today's college basketball landscape.

No one who coaches in the league is about to downgrade the conference's talent. In the past couple of years, the Big East has seen imposing players like Connecticut's Emeka Okafor and Syracuse's Hakim Warrick. And, as West Virginia coach John Beilein points out, a player like Connecticut junior center Josh Boone can be a disruptive force.

But the difference today versus two decades ago is that there aren't players in the Big East who will draw the crowds. Most folks go for the games and to root on the schools, not necessarily to see a talent they might not see again. For basketball fans who grew up in the Northeast, the prospect of going to see Ewing roam the paint or Mullin rain down jumpers was a draw. There also were legendary coaches like Georgetown's John Thompson, St. John's Louie Carnesecca and Villanova's Rollie Massimino.

"The Big East back then had so much media attention because of the markets it was in," Beilein said. "Carnesecca and John Thompson added so much luster to the league. We don't have those same personalities. But we do have two Hall of Famers and a third in [Louisville coach Rick] Pitino. The players don't stay as long, but we have some come along, like Carmelo Anthony for a year at Syracuse."

Chris Mullin
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesMullin's lefty stroke carried the Johnnies to the Final Four.

Still, for all Anthony did for Syracuse, he wasn't around long enough to build a cult following.

The style of play has changed, too. The Big East isn't a brute league any more simply because the rules have been altered.

"Back then, the league was more of a grind-it-out conference and there would be wrestling matches inside with Ewing going against [St. John's center Bill] Wennington," Beilein said. "It was more of an NBA style, a physical toughness inside. You can still have that today, but that would probably get you into foul trouble. There is still a rising pro on almost every team, but Okafor was a rare one -- a shot blocker who could be intimidating. When they get to that maturation point, [typically] they're already in the pros."

Georgetown coach John Thompson III, the son of the former Hoyas coach, said that Ewing, Mullin and Syracuse's Pearl Washington were those "special type of players." But he added, how do we know that in 10 years people won't say the same thing about the players who come out of the league now?

True, although we're not talking about how good they'll be in the NBA but rather how imposing they are or were in college.

The person who might have as much perspective as anyone on the Big East is Pitino. He coached in the league in the mid-1980s at Providence, leading the Friars to the '87 Final Four. Now, 18 years after that trip and his last game with the Friars, he's back in the Big East. He had stops at Kentucky and the NBA's Boston Celtics before going to Louisville, where the Cardinals were in C-USA for the past four seasons under his watch.

"Back then, we had a true league champion, but now television dictates who is going to have the easier path and who is not," Pitino said. "Notre Dame was hurt the past two years by its schedule and now is playing rebuilding teams twice in DePaul, Marquette and Providence."

Pitino's reference to the unbalanced schedule is a necessity of a 16-team league. The league didn't want to go beyond 16 conference games, which meant each team would play only three teams twice. The league and its television partners at ESPN and CBS essentially dubbed Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia as the top six teams this season -- which creates more difficult league schedules for those clubs.

The schedule variance may also help competitiveness top to bottom, an aspect of the conference that Pitino thinks is vastly improved.

"This league is much deeper," Pitino said of the conference now versus the '80s. "You're not going to have a Ewing, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson [of St. John's] or Ed Pinkney [of Villanova], because those types of players aren't getting to their fourth year. It's the deepest conference ever."

"No one will be surprised if a team from the middle of the pack wins it," Thompson III said. "There are so many tough teams from top to bottom."

From the start in 1979, founding Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt had a dream of corralling the best Eastern teams, and he went about picking the right schools that would garner the most television interest.

The original seven members were Syracuse, Connecticut, Boston College, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John's and Georgetown. Villanova was added a year later. Pittsburgh entered in 1982. Miami came on board in '90. Notre Dame, West Virginia and Rutgers arrived in '95 (except for the Irish in football).

The blossoming of the Big East in the 1980s was one of college basketball's most significant moments. The same could be said of this year's expansion to 16 teams. The agreement is for at least five seasons, but no one is quite sure whether the football-playing schools can coexist in the long-term with the non-Division I-A football members.

Beyond that, there are NCAA Tournament access issues, as in how many teams can get into the Dance. There are also conference tournament issues, because four coaches will be twisting in the wind each March as their teams sit home and watch the 12-team event. Ensuring that everyone is pleased with their schedules, television appearances and the like will be an ongoing struggle for the league office.

Regardless of all the challenges and the differences from yesteryear, one thing is certain: the Big East is a beast again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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