CONFERENCE CALL: BIG EAST TO BIG LEAST?






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Michael, Matt
Date published: February 15, 2012

On Feb. 12, 1980, after Georgetown defeated the Syracuse University men's basketball team 52-50 to snap SU's 57-game home winning streak in the final game at Manley Field House, Hoyas coach John Thompson ignited one of the fiercest rivalries in college sports with these six words: "Manley Field House is officially closed."

Now, one Michael Graham punch and 87 memorable games later, the question is this: How soon before the rivalry is officially closed?

Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced last fall that they're leaving the Big East Conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Big East officials have said they plan to hold the Orange and the Panthers to the league's 27-month exit timetable, which means the basketball teams would have to stay in the Big East through the 2013-2014 season.

But that could change. West Virginia is bolting the Big East for the Big 12 Conference, and the Big East had said it was going to hold the Mountaineers to the 27-month timetable, too. WVU sued the Big East, challenging the league's bylaws, and the Big East countersued.

Last week, the Big East and WVU reportedly reached a settlement that will allow WVU to gain full membership in the Big 12 by this July 1. WVU is paying the Big East a reported $20 million, $9 million of which is being paid by the Big 12.

With the Mountaineers erased from the Big East football schedule, the remaining Big East teams, including Syracuse and Pitt, will need to find one more game. The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger reported last week that the Big East will compensate Rutgers and Syracuse by having them play twice this fall.

But that's just the kind of thing big-time conferences want to avoid. They also like to avoid having too many teams, which is what's going to happen if SU and Pitt stick around for the 27 months. To remain a viable football conference, the Big East has added Boise State, San Diego State and Navy for football only, and Houston, Southern Methodist, Central Florida and most recently Memphis for all sports.

It's unclear exactly when those schools will join the Big East. Depending on their timetables, it might be better for the Big East to cut ties with Syracuse and Pitt early than deal with the scheduling nightmares and the bad pub that goes with having two lame duck members.

So, to get back to where we started, Syracuse's 64-61 overtime victory over Georgetown Feb. 8 may have been the last time the longtime rivals will play a Big East game at the Carrier Dome, and it may have been one of the last games they'll play for a long time.

If Syracuse remains in the Big East next season, there's no guarantee the Orange will play the Hoyas twice because of the league's unbalanced schedule. They only played once this season, and if they play only once next season the game will be in Washington, D.C., Big East officials have already confirmed.

Whether it's in 2013 or 2014, Syracuse is leaving the Big East. And while it sounds nice to say the Orange and Hoyas will continue their rivalry as non-conference foes, the reality is that once SU leaves for the ACC, there's no guarantee they'll meet in anything other than the NCAA Tournament.

While they've bit their tongues publicly, Georgetown and the Big East's other basketball-only schools (St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall) have to be furious that SU and Pitt are leaving and putting the final nail into the coffin of the original conference that was formed for basketball. Current Georgetown coach John Thompson III, the son of the coach who closed Manley, didn't sound so eager to continue the rivalry after the Feb. 8 game at the Dome.

"Yes, it's important to Georgetown. Yes, it's important to Syracuse. Yes, it's important to our conference," Thompson said. "But they're leaving, so now we'll see." We'll see. Isn't that what you say to your kids when they want an expensive gift you can't afford?

After all, why would Georgetown want to help Syracuse by visiting as a non-conference opponent for a game that would attract 30,000 to the Dome? Yes, Georgetown would receive a substantial payout for playing there, but it's not like Georgetown couldn't find another place to play a lucrative road game.

Would Syracuse want to play the Hoyas in Washington? Maybe, but again the Hoyas might not go for that. Remember last year, when Georgetown went out of its way to prevent Syracuse fans from attending the game at the Verizon Center? The Hoyas did not release tickets to the general public like they usually do, and they made it difficult for the Syracuse Alumni Club of Washington to purchase tickets.

Still, there was a large contingent of SU fans at the game. While a Syracuse-at-Georgetown non-conference game is a lock to sell out, do you think Georgetown wants to go through that embarrassment again with a non-conference foe that, in the Hoyas' minds, left Georgetown at the altar? Georgetown is still Georgetown, and the Hoyas could easily fill that spot with another attractive non-conference opponent.

Let's hope Syracuse and Georgetown can find a way to keep playing after the Orange joins the ACC. But unfortunately that's not a given-the way it was a given was that no matter where the teams stood in the league standings, a Georgetown-Syracuse game would be something special.

"It's always been a good game, always will be as long as we keep playing," SU coach Jim Boeheim said after the Feb. 8 game. "It always is."

Orange Slices: SU's win over the Hoyas enabled Boeheim to pass Dean Smith on the all-time Division I victory list with 880. The only coaches ahead of Boeheim are the retired Bobby Knight (902) and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (921 and counting). In passing Smith, who recorded all of his wins at North Carolina, Boeheim became the all-time leader in wins at one Division I school.

SU's 85-67 win over Connecticut Feb. 11 attracted 33,340 fans to the Carrier Dome, the fourth-largest crowd in the Dome's 32-year history. The three largest crowds were all for Villanova games: 34,616 on Feb. 27, 2010; 33,736 on Jan. 21, 2011; and 33,633 on March 5, 2006.

"It's overwhelming. Sometimes I just get the chills," said Orange senior Kris Joseph, who has been on the floor for three of the four largest crowds. "I can't even explain it. Words can't explain how it feels to be out there when you score a basket or you know you make a big play and 33,000 fans are just screaming, chanting. It's a great feeling."

The 41st annual SU Men's Basketball Hardwood Banquet will be held March 4, at 5 p.m. at the OnCenter, 800 S. State St. Proceeds benefit the Conrad McRae Endowed Men's Basketball Scholarship and the men's basketball job program. At the banquet, former SU standout Sean Kerins will receive the Vic Hanson Medal of Excellence for outstanding contributions to college basketball. The banquet includes a silent auction of sports memorabilia, a player autograph session and an opportunity to bid on having players sit at your table. Tickets are $75 per person and $750 per table of 10; they are available through Feb. 28 at the Orange Club in Manley Field House or by phone (443-1419 or (877) CLUB4U).

-Matt Michael

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