The last Big East tournament, and the pointless demise of a great conference

John Thompson. (Youtube)
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The Big East tournament, which will begin Tuesday night, is most closely associated with Madison Square Garden, historically.

But the conference held the event elsewhere for the first three years it was played, starting in 1980: one year at the Providence Civic Center, then the Carrier Dome, and then the Hartford Civic Center.

Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt reportedly didn't want to take the big stage of MSG until the conference was ready, with enough star power to be worthy of the world's most famous arena.

Then Patrick Ewing, the biggest high school star in the country, committed to Georgetown.

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"We’re going to the Garden," Gavitt told his assistant, Mike Tranghese, who eventually succeeded him.

The tournament has been there ever since.

The complicated divorce that will split the conference forever following this season means the proceedings, which begins with a pair of low-seeded teams trying to extend their seasons and ends with a nationally televised conference final on Saturday night, will never happen in the same way again.

There will be a Big East Conference next season. The so-called Catholic 7, which is Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova and DePaul, purchased the rights to the Big East name, and will play their inaugural conference tournament at Madison Square Garden next season.

But many of the other prominent Big East schools, and the rivalries that go with them, will be saying goodbye this week.

One original Big East member, the University of Connecticut, is barred from playing in the tournament this week, since an academic penalty that banned them from the N.C.A.A. tournament is being honored by the Big East.

Syracuse, however, will be seeded fifth, and play the winner of Tuesday night's game between Seton Hall and South Florida.

Should Seton Hall advance to face Syracuse, the two original members of the Big East will play each other for the 66th time, with 63 of those match-ups having taken place since 1980. The game might lack the star power of Artuas Karnisovas, the three-point specialist from Seton Hall, or Syracuse star Lawrence Moten, who battled in a 1994 tournament game won by the Pirates in overtime, 81-80. But the matchup will be every bit as meaningful.

Notre Dame, seeded sixth, has been a part of the Big East since 1995. They are Atlantic Coast Conference-bound next year, like Syracuse, and will play the winner of Rutgers (heading to the Big Ten) and DePaul (going into the new Big East) on Wednesday.

Original member Providence, the eight seed, and 2005 addition Cincinnati, a team that has played like a prototypical Big East team (long on defense, short on offensive execution at times), will play on Wednesday. So will St John's and Villanova, who will continue their near-original Big East rivalry (Villanova joined the Big East in year two, 1980) next year in the new Big East.

The difference is, a St. John's-Villanova winner next year won't get second-seeded Louisville, whereas this year that's precisely what happens on Thursday. Louisville is another late edition by Big East standards, joining in 2005 as Cincinnati did. But Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been a Big East presence for decades. He coached the Providence Friars to their finest season in 1987, an N.C.A.A. Final Four with star guard (and now-Florida coach) Billy Donovan.

As often happened, the N.C.A.A. run was easier to manage than the Big East tournament. That same Providence team lost in the 1987 Big East semifinals, 84-66, to Georgetown.

The Hoyas, who earned the top seed in 2013 thanks to a 61-39 demolishing of Syracuse last Saturday, also play Thursday, taking on the Providence-Cincinnati winner. Following that Noon Thursday matchup, fourth-seeded Pittsburgh, another near-original Big East program (joined in 1982) will play, in all likelihood, Syracuse, assuming Seton Hall or South Florida can't upset Syracuse first. The Thursday nightcap will be third-seeded Marquette, heading to the new Big East, against the survivor of the Notre Dame/Rutgers/DePaul triangle.

Potential semifinal games on Friday include: Georgetown-Syracuse, Georgetown-Pittsburgh, Louisville-Marquette, even Louisville-Villanova.

One more player, whether Georgetown's Otto Porter, Louisville's Russ Smith, or even an unlikely hero like Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacomo can take over the Garden the way Connecticut's Kemba Walker, Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, Seton Hall's Terry Dehere or Georgetown's Victor Page once did.

Interestingly, no Big East teams are on the bubble this week. Eight of the 14 teams playing are N.C.A.A.-bound, according to E.S.P.N. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi; no one can play themselves in or out. Appropriately, the focus can be on memories this week.

Someone will make the Garden theirs in 2013, just as surely as Chris Mullin did that first year the Big East was deemed big enough to play there.

And then the conference, largely as we've always known it, will disappear forever, despite the highest level of college basketball currently played and an adoring fan base that bought up all the available tickets to the event weeks ago.

It's been a great conference for basketball, but that has nothing to do with this decision, which is happening because of the money to made by member schools by playing college football elsewhere. That is to say, the Big East is coming to an end for no good reason at all.