On a Tuesday morning in Manhattan, just shy of noon, a crowd cleared the way at Chase Square inside Madison Square Garden. A walker rolled into the lobby towards a seat marked RESERVED in the front row. At 98, Lou Carnesecca cruised into a building he’s always called home, both as a St. John’s and Big East legend. The 5-foot-6 New Yorker was wearing a suit and had his hair slicked back, looking like he hadn’t lost his fastball one bit.
Carnesecca, a defining figure of the Big East glory days, helped make the conference what it was by holding absolutely nothing back, much like John Thompson Jr., Jim Boeheim, Rollie Massimino, P.J. Carlesimo and others did throughout the 1980s. When they spoke, people listened. On Tuesday, Carnesecca had some things to say, and his description of the happenings inside MSG could be applied to the last seven days in the Big East.
“It’s like a home run with the bases loaded!” he said.
What the Hall of Famer was referring to was St. John’s hiring of a fellow inductee, Rick Pitino. The 70-year-old New York native was officially announced as the Red Storm’s new head basketball coach on Monday. It was also an announcement that St. John’s was again serious about winning.
Without an NCAA Tournament berth in the last four seasons and without a win in the big dance since 2000, the St. John’s brass was tired of losing. The leadership was in place with former Providence president Fr. Brian Shanley making the move to bring a former Friars coach to Queens.
One of the most polarizing coaching figures in the history of the sport, Pitino has won everywhere he’s been in college basketball, owning 711 career victories and a combined seven Final Four trips with Providence, Kentucky and Louisville. With his name cleared from past NCAA investigations into accusations that his players received compensation when he was at the helm at Louisville, Pitino has nothing hanging over him. That gave St. John’s the opening to do whatever it took to hire a winner.
Shanley, who engineered the rebuild of Providence’s program, would not miss a chance to boost his legacy by hiring a Hall of Famer to resurrect a second Big East program. Shanley was reportedly relentless in pursuing Pitino after being unable to identify a rising star in the business.
“He’s a superstar,” Pitino said of the university president.
Georgetown makes a huge splash of its own
Roughly 250 miles south of New York on Wednesday morning, a black van pulled up to the John Thompson Jr. Athletic Center on the campus of Georgetown University. Like their rivals at St. John’s, the Hoyas place the utmost importance on basketball and are tired of losing.
That’s why Georgetown made the bold move of hiring the man who stepped out of the van on Wednesday morning, Ed Cooley. In a three-piece gray suit and a fresh set of brown dress shoes, the former Providence head coach was introduced on Wednesday at Georgetown, becoming the first coach in Big East history to go from one school to another within the conference.
The move was controversial, and it could have been handled better. But the 53-year-old said Wednesday that after spending the majority of his life in Rhode Island, “it was time for a change.” The move has sparked a massive debate on the departure, arguments over where the Georgetown and Providence programs rank in the college hoops landscape, and a newfound anger between the two schools that is a blemish on the league’s track record of camaraderie. When will the issue be resolved? It won’t be any time soon.
“It is Divine Providence that I’m here,” Cooley said at his Georgetown introductory press conference. “I needed a change. I wouldn’t change unless it provided an unbelievable opportunity. For much of my life, I’ve been looking out for everybody else around me as Coach Cooley. Everybody only wants Coach Cooley. I want to be Ed. There was a lot of soul-searching on that. I had to say goodbye to a home — to a region. That region built me.”
As for the future, much like Pitino, Cooley held absolutely nothing back on Tuesday.
“We’re not going to win a little. We’re going to win a lot,” Cooley said. “We chose a championship-level program. Ian Eagle’s going to be talking to me at some point really, really soon when Georgetown wins a national championship.”
Beyond the major statements, the arrival of Cooley to Georgetown means that the old guard — the ways of the Thompson regime — are gone.
“It’s time for a new era of Georgetown basketball,” Hoyas athletic director Lee Reed said.
The statement was meaningful because in Cooley, the Hoyas have someone who will open up the doors to the program and get the university and D.C. community’s interest back following the Patrick Ewing era, which ended with the program giving out free tickets.
The movement, statements and drama behind Big East podiums over the last 48 hours could have come straight out of a WWE event.
And guess what? It produced the best collective week for the Big East Conference since the league reconfigured. We can talk until the sun rises about what Cooley did — both Providence and Georgetown fans would partake in that — but the fact is, the pure vitriol born out of this coaching shift between the two fan bases extends beyond the northeast corridor. It has made the rivalry a national talking point in college hoops.
Imagine Pitino at Madison Square Garden on a Saturday or Sunday at high noon, or better yet, on a Friday or Saturday in prime time. He can own the attention of New York City and the intensity he coaches with along with his personality makes him such an intriguing watch.
“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, or when,” Pitino said Tuesday. “It’s going to happen.”
That’s the mindset that Shanley and Georgetown president Jack DeGioia had in their searches — these institutions, along with their fan bases, are tired of hearing about offseason moves and preseason talk. It’s been far too long since the Hoyas and Johnnies had it going, and both schools have not pulled their end of the bargain in the reconfigured Big East. With the league’s television deal up in two years, this is a pivotal period for the conference’s profile to increase. In terms of interest and eyeballs, the Big East couldn’t have asked for a more buzz-worthy 48-swing off the hardwood.
“We’re always texting each other, rooting each other on this time of year to rep the Big East,” Cooley said following his Wednesday press conference. “Now, we’ve got to add Coach Pitino into the mix.”
And that’s just it: this conference-defining week started long before St. John’s and Georgetown made their hires. It’s quite revealing that those two schools went for major splashes, but they went for them because the pressure is on to win, and they’re tired of watching conference colleagues from their couch every March.
Making waves on the court, too
These hires would be strong in the news cycle as is, but they’ve overshadowed a pretty big step for a conference that saw Villanova struggle this year: for the first time since the conference reconfigured to 10 — now 11 with UConn returning in 2020 — the Big East has three teams in the Sweet 16.
And interestingly enough, regular season and tournament champion Marquette is not one of them. Here’s the lineup:
- No. 4 seed UConn in the West Region: The Huskies meet Arkansas today at 7:15 p.m. ET in Las Vegas.
- No. 6 seed Creighton in the South Region: The Bluejays meet Princeton on Friday at 9 p.m. ET in Louisville.
- No. 3 seed Xavier in the Midwest Region: The Musketeers meet Texas on Friday at 9:45 p.m. ET in Kansas City.
With 12 NCAA Tournament units collected due to five teams being in the tournament and a 7-2 record by the league in the big dance, a nice windfall is coming. A source tells FOX Sports that each unit is “worth a little over $2 million in total paid out over six years, turning to roughly $340,000 per year split among the 11 members.”
Beyond the financial benefits, the conference has also shown that it’s not just the Villanova show. This collective tournament performance is exactly what the conference needed following the retirement of Jay Wright last year, because, for the last decade, he carried the weight for the Big East, winning national championships in 2016 and 2018, and advancing to a Final Four in 2022.
“It’s a battle every game in this league,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, who’s in his 13th season, said this week. “You really can’t take anyone lightly.”
Despite an early-season six-game losing streak for the Bluejays through a challenging schedule and star center Ryan Kalkbrenner’s illness, Creighton is in its second Sweet 16 in three years.
Xavier was ahead of the field in making a splash hire in Sean Miller, yet this whole week nearly began with an absolute nightmare before it could even get off the ground. The Musketeers were in a 13-point hole to 14-seed Kennesaw State in the second half of just the second game of the entire day on Friday, but the Miller Effect showed in the final 10 minutes. Behind Colby Jones‘ defense, Jerome Hunter’s career day and Jack Nunge continuing to lead, Xavier gutted out a win that seemed to carry momentum into the Musketeers’ commanding Round of 32 win over Pitt.
Xavier and Creighton joined the Catholic 7 back in 2013 and have more than proven their value. And then there’s UConn, the institution that previously provided the conference-shaking moment when it announced its return in 2019.
UConn, which started 14-0 and was ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll at one point, has won its first two NCAA Tournament games by a combined 39 points. Adama Sanogo is playing as well as any big man in America right now, going off for 52 points and 21 rebounds in the first two victories. Sophomore sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins is playing like a top-20 NBA Draft pick at the moment, while Andre Jackson provides leadership and is one of the most unique talents in college hoops, and Tristen Newton has developed into the point guard head coach Dan Hurley hoped he could be.
The Huskies are in their first Sweet 16 since 2014, and the burden is off the back of this program in the Hurley era after they’ve notched multiple wins to reach the second weekend of the tournament. Devo Davis, Ricky Council IV and a surging Arkansas team await Thursday. The Hogs are coming off an upset over defending national champion Kansas and have reached back-to-back Elite Eights.
But the fact UConn is involved in a game of this stature again is huge. The Huskies are back at the big boy table in college hoops, and based on upcoming recruiting, there’s zero slowing down. That only elevates the Big East brand, because the Huskies are as important to the fabric of the league as anybody.
The Huskies, Musketeers and Jays might not be expected to reach the Final Four, but the prospect of one of them doing so would be a huge step for the league’s national profile. In a climate in which college football rules — and that’s not changing anytime soon — the Big East has stood the test of time with basketball as its baby and big-name coaches as its collective face.
“It’s a family in the Big East,” Pitino said on Tuesday.
He’s right, but even families do fight. The Providence faithful are angry because of losing Cooley, a coach they had grown to love, and the shock of his leaving is a fresh wound that will be there for a while.
But that passion is what makes the Big East, the Big East.
College hoops is the main act, and during the most important time of year, the conference is reminding everybody of its presence.
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Steps away from the Chase Lobby, back in 1982, Big East founder Dave Gavitt was surrounded by the big-name coaches outside Madison Square Garden. Forty-one years later, through all the twists and turns across the landscape of the NCAA, the conference still calls The Mecca home.
Carnesecca’s smile on Tuesday was as wide as it was all those years ago. Because even now, the passion he feels for the league still hits enough for the man to wake up, suit up and catch a ride to Midtown Manhattan at the age of 98.
Based on the moves of the last week, many more are going to follow Louie … which seems like a pretty smart idea.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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