Big East Uber Alles: Hold the Nova

Bob Liss’s annual report on the NCAA Tournament…

1. Going To The Big Dance?  You Bet

So you wanted to know what they don’t tell you about the NCAA tournament that high-jacked everyone’s attention for three weeks? Well, here are the ruminations of an old guy trying desperately to stay relevant in an age in which he can’t comprehend half the TV ads and treasures Billy Raftery because he so misses Billy Packer.

About those brackets of yours: addiction comes in many forms, and with an increasing variety of corporate sponsors, but no gambling engine quite matches the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which spurs controversies extending to my son’s correcting my pronunciation of “tournament,” insisting on denuding it of the regional inflection that rhymes tourney with journey, which he sees as an unfortunate turn of events [1].  Generational or regional?  Place your bets quickly: losers go straight home.

The run-up to the NCAA’s Selection Committee’s seeding of its sixty-eight tournament entrants is a week of conference tourneys, providing fans a chance to see their favorite teams in their own milieux, as well as to make them better bettors a week later, come Bracket Time.  Though these mini-tourneys fade rapidly from view once they have served their functions (determining seeding and collecting money), they are often intense battles between long-time rivals, and hearken back to a time that many older fans cherish and miss.

For me, a New Yorker living on the West Coast for the last thirty-plus years, the Big East Tournament is most resonant, seeming to be the surviving soul of college basketball, the direct descendant and spiritual heir of the NIT when it was an event co-equal to the NCAA, somewhat analogously to the warring pronunciations (pronounciations?) mentioned above [2].

Relishing the in-conference festivals goes along with the feeling that, with so much scandal and corruption engulfing the NCAA (enough to have taken down such multi-millionaire celebrity coaches as Louisville’s Rick Pitino, UConn’s Kevin Ollie, and pretty soon, Arizona’s Sean Miller), why care about “The Big Dance?” If you want a sobering downer, try watching “One Shining Moment” without the sound.  A former referee recently said to me that the sport no longer merits his time and attention.

The same question could of course be asked about the conference tournaments; admittedly, much of my enthusiasm for the Big East is nostalgia-driven; local rivalries trump (pardon me) national ones, though they seldom provide the thrill of an occasional Cinderella-genic upset.

This year’s NCAA early rounds were notable for their large number of upsets: six teams seeded seventh or below made the “Sweet Sixteen.” This creates excitement, but, generally, all these Cinderellas are gone by the time that things get serious, and the Final Four approaches.

Why so many staggering upsets this year?  Give it your best shot, everyone.  If your blood sport of choice is Data Analytics, you point to the three point shot as the great equalizer.  But why do the Upsetters only advance one round?  Loyola was the exception, winning three consecutive games on buzzer-beaters, then a fourth with an orchestra-like gem against Kansas State, and damn near a fifth when they led Michigan by ten with just fourteen minutes remaining.  Is it coaching?  Speed?  Size?  Preparation?  Some of each?   Some special combination of the right two?

2. The Big East

What makes The Big East such a special conference is that, originally (when founded in 1979), it represented a bringing together of a disparate group of schools that hitherto were known as “independents”–teams with no conference affiliation.   These predominantly urban basketball powers were eligible for the limited number of “at large berths” that the NCAA made available, but were also free to choose the NIT instead.  When Marquette Coach Al McGuire actually did so in 1970, he prompted the NCAA to counter that its member schools were no longer free to turn down a bid.

The formation of the Big East represented the fruition of former Providence College Coach Dave Gavitt’s idea of creating an East Coast basketball-centric conference.  With Gavitt as its first commissioner, the original Big East comprised Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Villanova, Connecticut (UConn), Rutgers, Boston College, and Pittsburgh.  Coming into existence at the perfect time and place to capitalize on the newly created television behemoth ESPN, it placed three teams (St. John’s, Georgetown, and eventual winner Villanova) in the 1985 Final Four.  Not only did Villanova win it all, but it did so with a near-perfect game against Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team that had enjoyed a Number One ranking during much of the season, alternating at various times with St. John’s (think Chris Mullin).

Battling the ACC for conference supremacy for three decades, and having expanded way beyond its original geographical boundaries (all it needed at its peak was to recruit UCLA), the original Big East was broken up in 2013. It went out with a national title won by late-joiner Louisville, an itinerant conference mercenary.

The “Catholic Seven” (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Villanova) that formed the original nucleus of the now-venerable conference chose to separate from the football playing schools (Syracuse, Louisville, and UConn) in order to focus on basketball.  Their settlement agreement allowed them to retain the Big East Conference name, along with the rights to their conference tournament in Madison Square Garden, (where the Big Ten now conducts its tourney as well).   Butler, Creighton, and Xavier also joined the conference on its July 1, 2013 launch date.

Navigating without the football schools, the Big East has fared much better than many expected it would.  This year, reminiscent of 1985, the conference boasted top seeds in two of the four brackets (which have become geographically meaningless): Villanova, ranked Number One intermittently through the season, and Xavier, which was beaten by Providence in the Big East semi-final, and only won their opening NCAA tourney game, not even advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.

The conference sent six teams to the NCAA, where nobody came near to Providence in contesting Villanova, which won all its NCAA games by at least twelve points, but needed overtime to defeat Providence in the Big East Tournament Final. Nova lost four in-conference regular season games (to Providence, St. John’s, Butler, and Creighton); its only losses of the season.

Somehow, despite its regal status, perhaps because of the ongoing resonance of its 1985 “perfect game” against heavily favored Georgetown, Villanova gets the reflexive sympathies of underdog-loving fans all over, except in parts of Philadelphia, where they have traditionally shared the limelight with Temple, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle, and even sometimes Penn, the landlord of the Palestra, where the Big Five cavort.

Nova’s rigorous eschewal of the prevailing one-and-done approach of perennial powers like Kentucky and Duke endears them to real fans of college basketball.  Coach Jay Wright has created a culture that stands as a beacon of light among a group of perennial super-powers where corruption and hypocrisy rule.  Wright’s environment nurtures player development: Player of the Year Jalen Brunson stayed three years, and will graduate in June; athletic forward Mikal Bridges has gone, in two years, from a role player with a barely passable shot to a probable lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft

The Wildcats reached the Final without ever being in trouble, outside of the West Virginia game, in which they trailed 50-44.  At half-time, always forthright and personable, Coach Wright candidly remarked “We’ve never played anyone that physical.” Then, suddenly after falling eight points behind, off they sped to a 60-54 lead, as freshman big man Omari Spellman (The Cardinal?) got hot along with Brunson, adding his 18 to Brunson’s 27, for a 90-78 win.

3.  The Elite Eight.  The Loyola Sub-Plot

The tourney is essentially a three weekend affair, a three-part play, with four faux-regions: in Loyola’s (which had seemed to be Kentucky’s, after top- seeded Virginia was routed by completely unknown University of Maryland of Baltimore County), all the beasts were sacrificed early, setting up a regional final between ninth-seeded Kansas State and eleventh seeded Loyola, which had won three straight games with last minute heroics.

Loyola’s place in basketball history, despite its 1963 NCAA title, is terribly underappreciated.  And if you had seen that Final (the first one to be televised nationally), you’d know why: a decidedly superior Cincinnati team that had won consecutive titles–against Jerry Lucas’s and John Havlicek’s Ohio State juggernaut–clearly dominated unknown playground style Loyola[3] for thirty minutes, piling up a seemingly insurmountable 15 point lead.

At which point, inexplicably, the highly disciplined Bearcats went into a stall [4]. That let Loyola back into the game, which they then proceeded, in wildly exciting fashion, to steal, making household names of the previously-unknown Jerry Harkness [5], Victor Rouse, and Lester Hunter.

By the time of the Kansas State game, you could really root for this Loyola team. Coached by Porter Moser, an energetic Rick Majerus disciple whose mantra was simply “Believe,” they featured an expert passing 6’9” 260 pound freshman center–Cameron Krutwig–and Kansas high school gym rat best friends Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, neither of whom had been of interest to Kansas or Kansas State recruiters.  Though lacking size other than Krutwig, the Ramblers had five legitimate scorers, a stingy defense that gave up just 62.5 points/game, and an overall field goal percentage of 50.7.

In their 78-62 Elite Eight win over Kansas State, Loyola’s first ten minutes were symphonically brilliant; almost joyful, reminiscent of that other bandit Loyola school, the Western one, under Paul Westhead, which beat Michigan 149-115 to reach the Elite Eight in 1990.  How come, you thought, they needed all those buzzer-beaters to achieve their earlier upset wins?  The ultimate compliment: this club could play nicely in the Big East, were Chicago inclined to let them go.

In other regional finals, Michigan pulled through, as did Villanova; no big surprises.   In the Behemoth Battle between One Seeds, Kansas beat Duke in overtime.  Good riddance to the ACC: let them eat football.

4. Final Four, Finally

So we were left with a Big Boys semi-final, one featuring teams that deservedly were One-seeds, and the other an extension of–or an end to–the Loyola party.  Which would a Big East fan prefer to watch?  Villanova, though a One Seed, was a team that people who like underdogs instinctively favor.  To see them play Loyola in the Final would have been dreamy, but Michigan squelched that fantasy[6], coming back from a ten point deficit in the last fourteen minutes to win 69-57.  Loyola finished their season 32-6.

Villanova’s shooting exhibition in its Final Four 95-79 annihilation of powerful Kansas was a joy to behold, rivaling Loyola’s gem against Kansas State.  They launched forty (!) three-pointers, making eighteen, which were distributed in seemingly random yet equitable fashion; not just their guards, but also their impressive young big men, Spellman and Eric Paschall.   It was easy to see why this team led the nation in scoring.

Michigan’s path to the Final had involved beating distinctly lower seeds (no team seeded higher than sixth) than Villanova had routed.  This was no bully villain, like Duke or Kentucky might have seemed: coached by John Beilein (long on brains, integrity, and dignity; if short on charisma), their star was a 6’11” German–Moritz (Moe) Wagner. He did it all against Loyola, finishing with twenty four points and fifteen rebounds, a combination previously achieved in a Final Four game by only two players: all-time greats Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and Larry Bird (later Larry Bird).  They sported an improbable transfer from Division III Williams College, Duncan Robinson II, Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.

Both teams went right to their stars, Brunson and Wagner.  Michigan jumped to a 21-14 lead, with Wagner getting eleven.  But after that, Donte Divincenzo, the Big East’s Sixth Man of The Year, completely took over: at half-time, Villanova led 37-28, with Divincenzo, incredibly, having outscored the entire Michigan team 18-14 over the last 12:44!

In the second half, after Brunson (Big East Scholar/Athlete of the Year) got in foul trouble, Divincenzo again took over.  Scoring eleven straight points (many of them electrifying, as were his blocked shots–one with two hands, the other- amazingly–in two stages, one hand after the other), he finished with 31 points,  allowing Villanova to coast to a decisive 79-62 win, just their second tourney outing under 81 points, and their sixth straight double digit win.

Underdogs no more, Villanova had its second NCAA title in three years.  If you wanted to see how they could lose, you’d have to get the films of Big East regular season games.


  1. To me, this reflects a lack of appreciation of soul language, a refusal to legitimate musicality (which Bob Levin championed in these pages. January 7, 2018.  as a justification for word choice,
  2. If John Wooden is the saint of NCAA basketball, so Al McGuire is the saintly sinner of the NIT, growing up in the apartment above his father’s bar, as the younger brother of the more talented Tricky Dick, once Bob Cousy’s only recognized rival, as only East Coasters seemed to count. Salaries were such that West Coast Cousy-equivalents like San Francisco’s Cap Lavin chose to make a better living teaching high school. For his part, Cousy had refused to report to the team that drafted him (The Tri-Cities Blackhawks), as he was trying to establish a driving school in Worcester, Massachusetts and could not afford to relocate to the Midwest.  Eventually, after a dispersal draft of the defunct and bankrupt Blackhawks, he bargained Celtics owner Walter Brown into giving him a $9,000 salary.
  3. That Loyola team also made civil rights history by defeating a Mississippi State team that had to sneak out of their own state to play that game, as Loyola had a then unheard of four black starters, and Mississippi teams were prohibited from playing against even one black player. They were a genuine forerunner to the more chronicled Texas Western champions, who upped the ante to five black starters against lily-white Kentucky in the 1966 Final.
  4. There was as yet no shot clock in college ball, which had survived two point-shaving scandals, but still had Dean Smith’s four corners offense, the ultimate stall, in its near future.
  5. Still spry and youthful at 76, the Bronx’s own Jerry Harkness, as left-handed as Lenny Wilkens, did the team broadcast for Loyola. He won the PSAL title with DeWitt Clinton, upsetting Boys High, when Connie Hawkins was a junior, playing forward, with Billy Burwell at center.
  6. Not that there was no findable underside to this story (with its feel-good photo opportunities for their 98 year old team chaplain Sister Jean). Leave it to Dave Zirin (The Nation, March 16), to mock their name (Gentile Arena) and point out that, as students were protesting against the Jesuit school’s plans to spend 18.5 million dollars (two million of which were siphoned from student tuition) on a new practice facility, a black Loyola student was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and arrested by Loyola police.  Zirin adds that the video of his arrest went viral, reaching close to three million viewers.