So here we are, in the Round of 32 in the Buffalo subregional, and three of the last four teams standing are members of the old Big East: Syracuse, Connecticut and Villanova, the only one that's still part of the old league.
It feels like a reunion, a chance to share old stories and reminisce about the innocent days of the Big East, before the league was ripped apart by the merciless, commercial juggernaut known as big-time college football.
But not everyone is feeling nostalgic for the old days. Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, whose team plays in the new, football-driven American Athletic Conference, said he's too busy worrying about his team to think about it. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has often spoken fondly about the old Big East since SU jumped to the ACC, seems weary of the subject.
“I just don't think about it anymore,” Boeheim said Friday. “You got to move on. You don't ask questions about somebody's ex-wife, do you?”
The interview room erupted in laughter at that one. Leave it to Boeheim. He starts off by deflecting the issue and gets off the line of the day.
“There's a good reason for that,” Boeheim said, smiling. “You can only get in trouble with answering that question – if you're married again.”
That's the thing. Boeheim resisted the move to the ACC at first. Then he slowly came around to the idea. Once the season started, he was extolling the virtues of the switch. Hey, huge crowds at the Carrier Dome for Duke and North Carolina weren't a bad thing.
Boeheim had no choice but to accept it. He's in a new relationship now. How often can you rave about your ex-wife's cooking before your current spouse throws a plate across the kitchen at your head? It's harder for the guys who left to wax sentimental about the past.
“I guess it is tougher, because we stayed,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “I know Jim and Jim – Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim – they miss it. But they're also loyal guys to their university. They realize they have to go with the decision the university made.
“But I know they miss it,” Wright said. “The Big East was so special for all of us. So was Dave Gavitt. I talked to Jim Calhoun about that the other night. I was an assistant at the time, watching it. None of us are where we are without Dave Gavitt. Those guys know it. The whole thing was his dream, and everybody stays connected to that.”
Gavitt, who coached Providence in the Ernie DiGregorio days, was the original Big East commissioner. It was his vision to bring together a bunch of small eastern Catholic colleges into a strong hoop league. Gavitt's genius and the emergence of ESPN created a national sporting phenomenon.
Sorry to come off like some crusty geezer, but we old-timers embraced the Big East, because it was an extension of the sport we loved as kids. We relish the days when those small Catholics were on equal footing with the big schools. In Buffalo, it was Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure. For me, it was Providence College.
“I think the Big East probably did the best job in the history of the sport in creating camaraderie and a pride in the conference,” Wright said. “I think of our coaches' meetings. You'd go for three or four days, get to know everybody's wives.
“When I came into the league, Calhoun and Boeheim and Rick Pitino, they really took the younger guys under their wing and created a pride. And the older guys, like John Thompson, Rollie Massimino, P.J. Carlesimo, those guys still stay connected to the league. So that Big East still means a lot.”
Yeah, wouldn't it be great to see John Thompson here, glowering at the officials with that white towel draped over his shoulder? Just one more time, it would be great to see one of Looie Carnesecca's sweaters.
It's too bad Providence, the Big East champ, didn't come here. The Friars were an 11th seed, just like Dayton. Some of my boyhood pals, who used to take the train to New York City for the Big East Tournament, were planning a trip to Buffalo if Providence was placed in this region. Just think, if PC had won here, both games tonight would feature teams from the old Big East.
But as Boeheim says, you have to move on. You can't live in the past. Life is about change, and that's certainly true in the world of college basketball. Hey, did you hear that Calhoun is being mentioned as a possible candidate for the Boston College job? He said he wouldn't rule it out. That would be something. Calhoun, at age 71, out of retirement to coach in his native Massachusetts.
In the Atlantic Coast Conference.