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Big East coaches prepare for one last tournament

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Will the Big East Conference’s swan song bring tears, or cheers?

When Seton Hall and South Florida tip off at 7 tonight at Madison Square Garden to begin the 34th and final Big East Tournament in its current form, it will signal the beginning of the end to a glorious run for a league that began with former Providence coach Dave Gavitt’s vision of a powerhouse Eastern league in 1980.

Oh, sure, the name will be retained by the seven current Catholic schools, plus a few more such as Butler and Xavier, who have decided to form their own basketball-only conference and play their tournament at the mecca of college basketball on Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street in New York City.

But it won’t be the same. Although some of the names and faces will remain, the mystique of the Big East will be forever changed once the 2013 championship is decided Saturday night.

“It’s been a great honor and a privilege to be a part of this league, and most importantly, to be associated with the people who have made it such a unique conference,” said Villanova’s Jay Wright on the final Big East coaches teleconference. “Many of the current players have grown up Big East fans, loving every minute of this league. It’s a shame we’ve come to this point. But we have such great memories to carry with us. Those will never go away.”

Even the ever stoic Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, the only current coach who has been on the sidelines for every Big East season, waxes nostalgic when talking about the end of an era.

“We’ll keep playing great teams when we get to the ACC and I’m sure we’ll find some great rivals in that league as well,” Boeheim said. “But they never will compare to what we’ve had here. It’s hard to believe that 34 years have gone by since Dave Gavitt brought us together.

“I’m sure he never expected this thing to grow and expand like it has. It helped build our program into a national contender, as it has for many other teams. That’s what I’m most proud of, the legacy we’ve left for those to come.”

Gavitt asked Syracuse, then a member of the ECAC Conference, to join with Georgetown, St. John’s, Connecticut, Boston College, Seton Hall and Providence to form the Big East Conference for play beginning with the 1979-80 season.

Syracuse tied with Georgetown and St. John’s for first place in that inaugural season, and the Orange lost to Georgetown in the very first Big East Tournament held at the Providence Civic Center to begin a fierce rivalry that has lasted more than three decades.

Leo Rautins’s famous tip-in at the end of the third overtime helped SU beat Villanova in the second Big East final held at the Carrier Dome in 1981.

It then moved to the Hartford Civic Center in 1982 before finding a permanent home at MSG in 1983. Since then, the memories of great games and great players are too numerous to mention.

“That was the move that pronounced the Big East as a national player,” said Wright, who was an assistant coach under Rollie Massimino at Villanova from 1987-1992. “Dave had his eye on the Garden since the day he formed the league, and, eventually, things got worked out. We’ve been able to play at the best basketball arena in the country all these years.”

Villanova joined the Big East to make it an eight-team league in 1980. Pittsburgh followed in 1982 and Miami joined in 1991, becoming the 10th member.

The addition of Notre Dame, Rutgers and West Virginia in 1995 boosted the membership to 13 teams, and Virginia Tech became the 14th member in 2000.

Miami and Virginia Tech split for the ACC in 2004, followed a year later by Boston College. But the Big East was able to snare Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida from Conference USA that same season.

The status quo remained until SU and Pittsburgh were wooed by and eventually decided to join the Atlantic Coast Conference nearly two years ago when conference realignment really developed.

West Virginia then departed for the Big 12, Louisville decided to follow SU and Pitt to the ACC, Rutgers unexpectedly accepted a bid from the Big Ten, and Notre Dame announced it, too, would bolt for the ACC.

“It’s a shame that we’ve come to this,’’ said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose Hoyas will be the No. 1 tournament seed this season. “In its heyday, basketball ruled the Big East. It not only brought national attention to our league, it forced us all to build better facilities, to hire better coaches and to expand our other sports programs. Our legacy will always be built on competition, intensity and great players and coaches.”

Georgetown and Connecticut, which is banned from this year’s tournament because of academic issues, each have seven Big East tournament titles, followed by SU with five.

“It’s been a glorious run,” said Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon, who has been associated with the Big East since first joining Ben Howland as a Pitt assistant in 1999. “I can’t think of a place I’d rather be than in Madison Square Garden during a Friday night semifinal.”

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