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Former Big East lives again when Villanova faces UConn

03/21/2014, 7:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

BUFFALO, N.Y.–Conference realignment will un-align, if only for two hours or so.

At the First Niagara Center on Saturday evening, the clock will be rewound just long enough to remember what was for many years the dominant basketball conference in the country.

When Villanova and Connecticut meet in the NCAA Tournament’s third round, the old Big East will live again.

“It’s just like an old Big East game,” Villanova senior James Bell said. “It’s going to be real physical, great pace and just going to be an all-out good game.”

UConn, now in the American Athletic Conference, and Villanova, in the “new” Big East, were conference rivals for 33 years between when the Wildcats joined the conference in 1980-81 and when the Huskies departed it after last season.

Football–and the money that comes with it–was the deciding factor in all the realignment, with UConn going with the dual-sport AAC while ‘Nova stayed with the basketball-only Big East. But the new Big East, while certainly not a bad 10-team conference, doesn’t quite have the heft that its namesake, with 16 member schools, did.

Gone are perennial NCAA contenders in UConn, Syracuse (ACC), Pitt (ACC), West Virginia (Big 12) and Louisville (AAC and next year ACC), who won the national championship in 2013 in their final act as Big East members. Creighton, Xavier and Butler came aboard to join programs like ‘Nova, Georgetown, Marquette and more, but it’s not the conference that sent as many as nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, which happened back in 2012.

“You miss the good teams in our league,” Bell said. “We have great teams in our league now, [but] Syracuse, Connecticut, they brought an extra edge to our league that we kind of miss. It’s just great playing them again.”

More than just the competitiveness and physical play the league became known for was the perception surrounding it. The conference tournament, held every year at Madison Square Garden, was an event in and of itself, with downtown Manhattan transformed into a basketball wonderland for five days every March.

No matter when Big East teams played, other in the league were paying attention.

“I think the Big East probably did the best job of any conference ever in the history of sports of creating camaraderie and a pride in the conference,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I know we all still root for each other. I know we do, because Syracuse people are in our lobby.

“I’ll never forget when we played at Syracuse in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina [in 2005], when we walked into the [Carrier] Dome, everyone is like ‘hey, let’s go, Big East, Big East,’ you know. And they cheered for us. There’s just something very special about the Big East.”

Villanova’s players and coach were the most outspoken about the former megaconference at the Friday media sessions, which had Villanova and UConn players and coaches as well as the other game at First Niagara tomorrow, Syracuse and Dayton.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim almost refused to comment, asking “you don’t ask questions of someone’s ex-wife, do you?”

UConn head coach Kevin Ollie settled for the middle ground.

“You feel familiarized with them, you played against them last year. But at the end of the day, it’s a basketball game,” said the second-year head coach, who played in the Big East as a member of the Huskies from 1992-95 before a 13-year pro career. “I don’t care what league we’re playing against, we’ve got to go out there and play. I want UConn to be out on top at the end of the game. So it’s good for the media, it’s good that they set it up. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to go play.”

Villanova has held a slight edge overall, leading UConn 33-30 all-time in the series. The Huskies had been making up ground, winning 17 of the last 24 matchups dating back to 1998.

In the teams’ last meeting, on Feb. 16, 2013, Ryan Arcidiacono had the biggest scoring outburst of his freshman season with 25 points in a 70-61 Villanova win. The year before, it was then-sophomore Shabazz Napier who burst onto the scene, nailing a 3-pointer from halfway between the arc and midcourt to lift the Huskies past the Wildcats in overtime at the Wells Fargo Center.

The on-court familiarity might not matter as much as the bigger picture.

“Even though we played against Villanova, they’re a whole different team,” Napier said. “This is a new season. their players are much more experienced, and we have not played any of their guys. They’ve been playing real well throughout the whole season.

“So definitely, it’s not going to be new in the sense of Connecticut playing Villanova, but its going to be new in the sense of the plays they run and how well they run it or the experience that the guards have.”

Tipoff is scheduled for approx. 9:40 PM, and can be seen on TBS.

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