Call it the Big Least College basketball: Expansion, Proposition 48 and other factors bring lean times to a one-time showcase league.

March Madness

March 07, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- There has always been an air of expectancy about the Big East tournament since it first came to Madison Square Garden; the atmosphere similar to that of a heavyweight fight. A seat to the semifinals was the toughest ticket in town.

One thing was obvious last night: It's not 1985 anymore.

That's the last time the Big East was the biggest player in college basketball's landscape, the new kid who quickly became king. That was the year the then six-year-old league sent three teams to the Final Four and a fourth to the Sweet 16.

It was the league of dominant teams with oodles of talent among its players, a league that boasted experienced stars and future NBA stalwarts such as Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, as well as a play ground legend named Pearl Washington. There were were up-and-coming players such as Mark Jackson and Rony Seikaly.

It was the league of nationally ranked teams with loads of personality among its coaches, a league that saw Lou Carnesecca wear ugly sweaters and Rollie Massimino wear expensive suits, a league in which relative unknowns named Gary Williams and P.J. Carlesimo made their first national splashes.

Where did you go, John Thompson? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Carnesecca is retired and, two coaches later, the St. John's Redmen are now the more politically correct Red Storm.

Massimino is a retread, trying to revive his career at a decidedly bottom-tier Cleveland State.

Williams is an ACC guy at Maryland, after being a Big Ten guy at Ohio State. Carlesimo is The Coach Who Got Choked.

Question: Can you name one Big East player not named Felipe Lopez?

Another question: Will the Big East ever come back?

"The bigger any league gets, the odds are you're going to have a couple of bad teams," Williams said recently. "The best thing we did [in the ACC] is that we stopped after adding Florida State. I also think the Big East is always compared with what it did in 1985. Nobody did that before and no nobody has done it since."

Even in its prime, the Big East was top-heavy. People who remember how good Georgetown, St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova and Boston College were forget how bad Seton Hall and Providence were back then. Connecticut and Pittsburgh were mostly non-factors.

But that was before the Big East expanded. First, it added Miami to give the league a Division I-A football power. Three years ago, NTC Notre Dame, Rutgers and West Virginia joined. The Scarlet Knights, who last night lost to Connecticut, 64-50, were the first of the new group to make it to the semifinals.

"I don't think expanding for football helped," said Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno, who worked for the Big East for 12 years. "When you expand, you become a different league."

In essence, the Big East became a league without identity. But the downfall of the Big East can't be attributed solely to expansion. The onset of Proposition 48 (and later Proposition 42) eliminated a significant portion of the league's inner-city recruiting base. And increased television coverage gave other leagues a chance to compete for exposure.

The decline of the league's two signature programs, St. John's ++ and Georgetown, didn't help. The Red Storm -- even the most politically correct traditionalists can't get used to that name -- will going back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. The Hoyas haven't been there for two years.

The brief revival a couple of years ago, when the league boasted three first-team All-Americans and six first-round draft picks, appears to have passed. The league will likely get five bids to the NCAA tournament when the selections are announced tomorrow, but will any advance to the Sweet 16?

The most attention the league received this season happened when commissioner Mike Tranghese agreed to let Connecticut women's star Nykesha Sales score an uncontested layup after tearing her Achilles' tendon in order to break the school scoring record.

Maybe the Big East can come up with a similar gimmick to get its men's tournament some much-needed pub. The league is filled with players who'll be earning paychecks in the CBA or some foreign outposts, and coaches who take themselves far too seriously.

You could make the argument that the Big East's mediocrity is merely a byproduct of college basketball's overall malaise, that the trickle-down effect from not getting kids into school or losing stars such as Georgetown's Allen Iverson two years early has hurt the Big East more than the ACC or Pac-10.

You could also make the case that the Big East was hurt by its own stunning success and that, if not for North Carolina or Duke or Michigan, you could say the same things about the ACC or Big Ten. The shame is that for the first two days of this year's tournament, you couldn't find more exciting games than in the Big East.

Three went to overtime, including one to double-overtime.

Two were won on last-second shots, including one that put Rutgers in the semis.

But hardly anyone noticed.

Or cared.

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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