How about this for a final curtain call?
The Big East Conference as we know it is not only going out, it’s going out with style and with a big ol’ bang.
Out of the eight Final Four teams on both the men’s and women’s side, five are from the Big East: Louisville and Syracuse for the men and Notre Dame, Connecticut and Louisville for the women.
What a shame that this power conference in basketball, will be no more at the end of the school year. Conference shifting and realigning in the name of football is tearing the mighty Big East apart.
Under the circumstances, it seems only fitting that the Final Four and its exclusive stage has become host of the league’s farewell party.
“It’s quite a swan song for the Big East, that’s for sure,” said DePaul women’s coach Doug Bruno, whose team just finished its seventh season in the Big East. “The Final Four, with five Big East teams, is a statement of how tough the players, the teams and the coaches are in the Big East and of what we’re dealing with every night in this conference.
“I say, ‘Welcome to our world.’ This is a conference that has juggernauts at the top, really good teams in the middle and teams you can’t go to sleep on at the bottom. This league was made for basketball, it was invented 35 years ago for basketball and it’s been such a great basketball league. The sadness is that it’s being broken up for football.”
Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Rutgers (2014) and Louisville (2014) are moving on while Connecticut, Cincinnati and USF will be part of the altered Big East, which will be renamed the American Athletic Conference. West Virginia left last year.
Seven of the current Big East schools — all Catholic and including DePaul and Marquette — will remain together and retain the Big East name. They’ll add three other schools (Creighton, Xavier and Butler) to round out to 10 members.
“This new league isn’t going to be any Little Sisters of the Poor league,” Bruno said. “We’ll still be a strong league in our own right. The new Big East is going to perpetuate what the league was started for in the first place. This will be a very strong basketball league.”
But without a doubt, big-name opponents like Notre Dame and Connecticut, which set the gold standard for women’s basketball in the current Big East, will be missed. It’s quite a recruiting tool for a coach like Bruno to be able to tell a prospect that Notre Dame and Connecticut will be on the schedule every year.
“Well, Notre Dame and DePaul have already agreed to continue to play each other every year in the nonconference,” Bruno said. “And we will continue to upgrade our nonconference schedule beyond that. What I’m most proud of at DePaul is that we’ve been in five leagues over my time here and yet we continue to win no matter what league we play in because we play so many ranked teams in the nonconference. That’s why we’re always able to recruit.”
Agreed. Bruno has never shied from a tough schedule. To be the best, he knows that his team must play the best. Being in the brutal Big East was certainly a convenient way to try to do that.
Perhaps I spoke too soon on Baylor center Brittney Griner, or maybe I just jinxed her.
Either way, one day after I wrote last week’s glowing column about Griner and my disappointment that the Chicago Sky, which has the No. 2 pick in next week’s WNBA draft, will miss out on getting her, the biggest upset in the history of women’s basketball went down.
Griner and the Baylor Bears, heavily favored to repeat as national champions, lost in the Sweet Sixteen to a Louisville team that took Griner out of the game, and made her look (gasp!) human. She scored 14 points on just 4-of-10 shooting.
I’m mostly kidding about the “spoke too soon” part, of course. I think Griner will still be a major star in the WNBA for many years to come. But keeping her in check sure looked doable in the Louisville game. There’s hope for all WNBA teams not located in Phoenix!
With Baylor out of the way, I think this is Notre Dame’s year. Finally.
The Irish have finished as the national runner-up two years in a row now, with losses to Texas A&M and Baylor in the 2011 and 2012 championship games. It seems fitting that Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins would finish off her career with a national title, the only thing missing from an otherwise brilliant pedigree.
Of course, Notre Dame will have to defeat Connecticut in the national semifinal Sunday for the fourth time this season in order to get to the title game. No easy task. Connecticut is playing its best basketball right now and some of its key freshmen have evolved and improved since the earlier games in this highly charged series.
Meanwhile, Louisville and Cal are both exciting, Cinderella-like teams that are on a roll right now. I expect Louisville to forge on to the championship game for an all-Big East final, but that’s where its magic will end.
A win by Diggins and Co. in the finale would give Notre Dame its second national title. The Irish won their first championship in 2001 when Sky center Ruth Riley was their prized centerpiece.
The women’s Final Four tips off on ESPN Sunday with the national semifinals. No. 2 California (32-3) will take on No. 5 Louisville (28-8) at 5:30 with No. 1 Notre Dame (35-1) and No. 1 Connecticut (33-4) to follow at approximately 7:30 p.m. The national title game will be shown on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Miami Heat forward Shane Battier says that there will be a woman playing in the NBA in our lifetime. And Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said that he would consider drafting Griner in the second round of this year’s NBA draft. Griner tweeted recently that she would be up for that. She said, “I would hold my own! Let’s do it.” Could Griner or any other woman play in the NBA?
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