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1979: The Big East

November 7, 2014

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College basketball’s Big East is only a shadow of what it once was: big markets, big money, and the promise of big-time East Coast athletes staying close to home for the chance at stardom and NBA riches. It’s interesting to look back at some of the schools that made up 1979’s original Big East basketball conference, and how the league’s then-lowly status matched up with the rest of the country.

Like many of the Big East charter members, the Providence Friars were considered an East coast favorite, a regular participant in the National Invitational Tournament and occasional visitor to the NCAAs. Jimmy Walker led the nation in scoring in the early 1970s. The Friars played as an independent, and managed to make the Final Four as an Eastern Cinderella in 1973, only to be vanquished by Memphis State.

College basketball mapmakers generally placed Georgetown’s Hoyas in the middle of nowhere, even though they were located in the nation’s capital. The team’s 2,500 seat McDonough Gymnasium served as evidence for the sport’s enthusiasts that the Big East was not worthy of the moniker “big.” The school changed that when it hired ex-Providence star John Thompson as head coach in 1972. Within a span of 10 short years, Georgetown would ultimately conquer college basketball.

New Jersey’s Rutgers University received an invitation to join the Big East’s inaugural season, and turned it down. If they had accepted, the Scarlet Knights could have said they were the latest conference program to achieve NCAA Final Four status, in 1976. Holy Cross rejected the Big East as well, despite the fact the Crusaders were an NCAA tournament champion, in 1947.

Seton Hall shared the same opening line as many of the other Big East schools: a long history of organized basketball. The Pirates played their first game in 1900. But while the program was long on history, it was short on winning tradition, with its most recent hurrah coming from an 1977 NIT appearance led by coach Bill Raftery.

Few remember that the University of Connecticut Huskies boasted a significant Eastern college basketball pedigree before joining the conference. UConn was a regular in the NCAA tournament during the early 1960s, and made the field again in 1976. No one anticipated that the program, and its proximity to the Big East’s partner-in-crime, ESPN, would yield a perennial championship contender and multiple national titles.

You can’t spell Big East without St. John’s University. The team from Queens was a seasoned post-season powerhouse on the East coast, attracting great players behind coaches Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca. Twenty-win seasons were the norm, and the school ranked among the top in total Division 1 victories.

Syracuse University entered the royal realm of college basketball early, emerging with a dominant program in the early-1960s. Established national programs sought a date with the Orangemen to enhance their status, and the school began a long string of NCAA tournament appearances in 1973.

Finally, Boston College managed to receive an invite to the Big East despite its prominence in a 1978 point-shaving scandal. The Eagles became a charter member of the conference the very next year, giving the Big East its initial cachet as the bad boy clubhouse of college basketball.

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