WASHINGTON — If you’re one of the college basketball fans who can’t wait for the Big East breakup to be final, hang on. You’ll have to wait for the Final Four.
Syracuse and Marquette both won their East Regional semifinal games Thursday night and that means the Big East will have a team in Atlanta next week. It will be the fourth straight season the conference that changed the landscape of college basketball over the last three-plus decades will have a Final Four team.
Oh yeah, Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and a Final Four team last season, is still alive with the Cardinals playing Oregon on Friday in the round of 16.
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“It will be different than the Big East tournament,” Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams said after scoring 24 points in the 61-50 victory over top-seeded Indiana. “It will definitely feel familiar with different refs and a neutral court, but we’ll see them again.”
Marquette won the only meeting between the teams this season, 74-71 on Feb. 25 — the middle game of the Orange’s three-game losing streak.
This one will be in the Verizon Center — where Georgetown of the Big East plays its home game — and there will be plenty of familiar faces on hand. Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, who led Georgetown to the 1984 national championship, is doing analysis on radio. Bill Raftery, the former Seton Hall coach who made Big Monday big with his classic one-liners, is doing the color commentary on CBS.
The Big East has had 18 Final Four teams in its 33 years of competition, including six in the last seven seasons with five different schools.
This NCAA tournament started horribly for the Big East.
On the first weekend, five teams — Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Villanova — were gone from the tournament. That left Syracuse, Marquette and Louisville, and the first two of those certainly did their job.
Marquette advanced with a 71-61 victory over Miami, the first win in the round of 16 for the Golden Eagles after losses the last two seasons.
“We’re used to people not giving us credit, saying we were no good,” said Vander Blue, the man who hit the game-winning shot against Davidson in the second round and had 14 points against the Hurricanes.
“If you were to look at our roster, no one would expect us to be an Elite Eight team, our guys don’t get into that much,” he added, “but it’s good to know if you step on to the court, if you don’t give us respect, we’re going to earn it, as we work harder than, I feel, anybody in the country. And we don’t have the name of North Carolina, Syracuse or Georgetown, but we are still here, we show up every single day, and no matter how anybody feels about us, when you step in between those lines we’re all equal and we feel like we can take on anybody.”
The Big East was a 15-team league this season with West Virginia having left for the Big 12 after last season. Seven schools, all Catholic, announced during the season they were leaving to form their own conference, one without any football presence.
Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are heading for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season and Louisville will follow the season after that.
The league has placed eight or more teams in the NCAA tournament six times, something no other conference has done once, and set the standard with 11 bids in 2011, one of those records it seems will never be broken.
So why not go out with a bang? One more Final Four for sure, and the team the Selection Committee decided was the best in the field of 68 is still alive, two wins away from a ticket to Atlanta.
“There’s no question leaving the Big East will be sad, it already is in so many ways,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said in a jubilant locker room. “But it’s a chance for one more game and it will mean the Final Four.”
The Big East. The one Dave Gavitt started. The one players like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington vaulted to the national spotlight. The one that had a record three teams in the 1985 Final Four. The one that has won six national championships.
Yeah, that Big East is still around and will be for at least one more week.
“Just the win and being in the Elite Eight,” Syracuse’s Brandon Triche said. “That’s what really matters more than anything else.”
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