The Big East began life in 1979 as a safe harbor for tradition-rich basketball programs on the East Coast, schools tired of building their schedules around the demands of big-time football. Georgetown, Syracuse, Providence and St. John’s invited Connecticut, Boston College and Seton Hall to take part in the inaugural season, Villanova came aboard after fulfilling an Eastern 8 commitment a year later, and a modest, urban-centered, Catholic-leaning hoops conference was born.
In a few years, the Big East (with Pittsburgh in the fold) became a dominant force in college basketball, spurring the sport’s growth in popularity. Big East games were television gold, as Georgetown became a compelling, polarizing national powerhouse. The conference was a league unto itself, with its own rules (six fouls for a few years) and a Madison Square Garden tournament capable of upstaging the still-growing NCAA Tournament.
But the football threat was never far away. The forces that ripped the Big East apart exerted themselves in the early years, when Penn State flirted with membership. The Big East embraced football in the 1990s; before long, Miami-West Virginia games joined St. John’s-Seton Hall on the conference schedule. Yet the early traditions were strong enough to keep the Big East viable as a basketball super conference, with charter members like Connecticut, Syracuse and Georgetown still taking home titles, even as football obligations tugged at the conference’s core.
Only when Boise State and San Diego State announced their entries as football-only schools this year, turning the Big East into an unwieldy jumble of alliances, did the bedrock of the conference crumble. Traditional members Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova are leaving, joined by DePaul and Marquette, Midwestern Catholic city schools that bounced around as basketball orphans before the Big East, in a nod to its original charter, took them in. Once again, the basketball schools are sailing off together, seeking safe harbor.
What follows is a countdown of the 10 greatest games in Big East history. Yes, you can probably guess which game is No. 1. There are still plenty of thrills and surprises on the journey to that foregone conclusion: Controversial calls, hard fouls, coaching blunders, comebacks, upsets, dunks, buzzer beaters and, because it is the Big East, tons and tons of free throws:
10) Georgetown 82, Syracuse 71 (OT) – Big East Final, March 11, 1984
Syracuse fans still fume about this one. Georgetown’s Michael Graham was whistled for a foul while battling with Syracuse’s Andre Hawkins for a loose ball with the Orange leading by three late in regulation. When Graham threw a punch, referee Dick Paparo gestured with his thumb, suggesting an ejection and a two-shot technical foul on top of the initial foul. But the crew chief sent Hawkins to the line for just two shots. Moments later, Syracuse was whistled for a five-second violation, and the ensuing Hoyas bucket tied the game.
Paparo said that he was only calling an intentional foul, and that his gesture was inadvertent. Jim Boeheim was livid. "Michael Graham, in front of 19,000 people, punched my player, and the ref had the nerve to call it a two-shot foul,” the Orange coach said after the game. "Then the ref had the nerve, the guts, to call a five-second violation against my team. Georgetown has a great team, but tonight the best team did not win." The Orange never regained composure after the calls, and the Hoyas pulled away in overtime.
Patrick Ewing scored 27 points and pulled down 16 points for the Hoyas in a game that defined vintage Big East basketball: grinding defense, tons of fouls, intimidation tactics and an often nasty rivalry between too-familiar foes.
9) Seton Hall 68, Pittsburgh 67 (2 OT) – Feb. 9, 2004
Seton Hall was a charter member of the Big East, but except for a golden age between 1987 and 1994, the Pirates have typically been also-rans. When they faced the Panthers in 2004, the Pirates had been to the NCAA tournament just once in the previous nine years. But they were 15-5 and eager to build a tournament resume.
Guard Andre Barrett played 49 out of a possible 50 minutes, scored 20 points, and committed zero turnovers. With 9.6 seconds left in the second overtime and the game tied, Barrett drew a foul against Pitt guard Carl Krauser. Krauser fouled out, Barrett hit one of two free throws and freshman Antonio Graves – Krauser’s rarely-used backup – missed a runner on the game’s final possession.
''We want to win as many as we can and let the rest take care of itself,” Seton Hall coach Louis Orr said after the game. “Every win is a good win. Beating a team like Pitt is a great win.'' Pitt reached the Sweet 16, but the Pirates also reached the NCAA tournament and beat Arizona in the opening round. It was a victory for the old Big East during an era of transition and turmoil.
8) Pittsburgh 98, West Virginia 95 (3 OT) – Feb. 12, 2010
A latter-day gem with enough heroes to blow our word count. Nasir Robinson stole a perimeter pass as the Mountaineers tried to kill the clock in the final seconds, dishing to Ashton Gibbs for a game-tying three pointer. Gilbert Brown’s dunk and a Gibbs free throw gave the Panthers a three-point lead with 7.1 seconds left in overtime, but when Gibbs missed his second free throw, Darryl Bryant crossed the court and pulled up for a game-tying three-pointer.
Pitt took a three-point lead in the second overtime but fouled Da’Sean Butler while he was attempting a three pointer. Butler sank all three free throws to again knot the game. Travon Woodall appeared to float a game-winner after a flurry of put-back attempts by Pitt, but the officials ruled that his shot came a split-second after the buzzer. The third overtime devolved into old-fashioned Big East free-throw attrition, with Brown and Gibbs scoring the points that put the game away from the line.
Pitt-West Virginia lacked the “bus ride up I-95” character of the classic Big East. Even as a super conference with a heavy Midwestern presence, however, the Big East remained a place where great rivalries – the Panthers and Mountaineers have squared off 184 times since 1906 – could shine.
7) Syracuse 77, Providence 63 – NCAA Final Four, March 28, 1987
The game itself wasn’t great -- neither team shot well in the cavernous Superdome, andthe Orange used a 53-35 rebounding advantage to keep the Friars at arm’s length all night long. But the moment was: two Big East teams in the Final Four, Providence having topped Georgetown in the Elite Eight to get there. The game represented a show of power for the Big East at its peak, a time when the nine-team conference routinely sent five or six participants to the NCAA Tournament. The caliber of talent on the court in New Orleans that night is staggering: Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas leading the Orange; Billy Donovan, Marty Conlon (a freshman role player who would go on to bigger things) and coach Rick Pitino for the Friars.
If you only remember Coleman as the low-energy NBA lug with an albatross salary, you would not have recognized the collegiate Coleman, who had an alley-oop dunk to put the Friars away and wrenched away offensive rebounds for put-backs on missed Providence free throws. But the pesky Douglas was the star of the game, shutting down Donovan as an outside shooting threat. “With Donovan, I just didn't want him to take a breath without my being there," Douglas said after the game. Donovan never did.
6) Villanova 78, Pittsburgh 76 – NCAA Elite Eight, March 27, 2009
Scottie Reynolds carved his name into Big East history with a weaving dribble-drive and a floater over Gilbert Brown to give the Wildcats a two-point lead with 0.5 seconds to play. Levance Fields missed an opportunity to erase Reynolds’ name when his 70-footer clanked off the rim.
There were 15 lead changes in this game, five in the final six minutes. But Reynolds’ cross-court odyssey – after an inbound pass that was nearly grabbed by Pittsburgh – was the play for the history books. "In that situation, you have four dribbles and a shot,” Reynolds said after the game. “That's five seconds. All that goes in your head. That's why we practice that every day in practice so we can make an instinct play. We did that. It worked tonight.”
This game drew obvious parallels to Villanova’s 1985 championship run. The Wildcats were heavy underdogs, the Panthers were a top seed; former coach Rollie Massimino watched as a fan, just as current coach Jay Wright watched the 1985 championship game as a fan. Those parallels ended when Villanova lost in the Final Four. But coming just days after another classic between traditional Big East powers (see below), Reynolds’ floater was not just a game-winning shot, but one of the final defining moments of Big East history.
5) Connecticut 75, Georgetown 74 (OT) – Big East Final, March 9, 1996
Ray Allen and Allen Iverson did not stay in the Big East very long, but they made their final moments memorable. Allen, who had been shut out for the entire second half, launched an off-balance jumper with 15 seconds left which somehow found the net, capping a 12-point Huskies run to erase an 11-point Hoyas lead. Iverson then went coast-to-coast (of course) but missed a jumper from the foul line. Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams’ put-back caromed off the front of the rim, and the Huskies won a game that Georgetown appeared to have sewn up just minutes earlier.
Despite the presence of Iverson and Allen, and despite the UConn victory, Georgetown forward Victor Page won the tournament MVP award; King had several huge games as Iverson taffy-pulled opposing defenses away from his teammates. And despite the fact that Connecticut, Georgetown, and Villanova were all ranked in the AP Top 10 for most of the year, it was 15th-ranked Syracuse that reached the NCAA championship game. The Big East was expanding in odd ways, and players like Iverson and Allen were barely dipping their feet in college hoops before rushing to the NBA. The Big East would have other fantastic seasons, but never again would it have quite the up-and-down concentration of talent that it possessed in 1996.
4) Syracuse 83, Villanova 80 (3 OT) – Big East Final, March 7, 1981
“This is probably what they had in mind when they built the spaceship-clone Carrier Dome -- 15,213 semi-hysterical Central New Yorkers with nothing else to do on a snowy afternoon except intimidate the enemy to death,” wrote Lewis Freidman in The Philadelphia Inquirer after a relatively weak Syracuse team -- the Orange were just 18-11 during the regular season -- upset a Wildcats team that beat them twice in the regular season.
The Orange overcame a six-point deficit with two minutes to play in the first overtime. Villanova needed two jumpers in the final minute to erase a four-point Syracuse lead in the second overtime. A Leo Rautins tip-in with three seconds left in the third overtime gave Syracuse an 82-80 lead. Villanova coach Rollie Massimino then made the biggest mistake of his storied career: He called for a timeout, but the Wildcats were out of them. “Welcome to coaching,” Massimino said after the game.
Danny Schayes hit a technical foul free throw, and the game was out of reach for the Wildcats-- this was the era before the three-pointer. In fact, this was so long ago that the Big East tournament win did not even give Syracuse an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament. The Orange went to the finals of the NIT.
3) Notre Dame 116, Georgetown 111 (4 OT) – Feb. 9, 2002
A four-overtime game is guaranteed to have so many storylines that it becomes almost a season unto itself.
Irish freshman point guard Chris Thomas played all 60 minutes. Not only was he still standing at the end (“my feet are blue,” he said), but he did not commit a single turnover in four overtimes. Notre Dame center Ryan Humphrey picked up his fourth foul with 13:41 to play in regulation, then somehow played 34 minutes without picking up his fifth. Georgetown guard Kevin Braswell had the opportunity to hit game-winners at the end of regulation and both the first and second overtimes. He missed all three. “It was the worst game of my life,” he said afterward.
Mike Sweetney had 35 points, 22 rebounds, and six blocks for the Hoyas. But late in the final overtime, when Sweetney became the fourth Hoyas starter to foul out, the Irish went on an 11-point run to finally put the game away.
This game took its toll on both participants, particularly the higher-ranked Irish, who lost their next two games, then bowed out the Big East tournament early. The Irish bounced back and nearly upset Duke to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tourney, but a seven-point lead with 4:28 to play evaporated as the Blue Devils raced past them for an 84-77 win. Did the Irish still have blue feet from a month earlier? "To say that we were tired, that's a cop-out," senior David Graves said after the game. Easy for Graves to say: He played “only” 49 minutes against Georgetown.
2) Syracuse 127, Connecticut 117 (6 OT) -- Quarterfinal, Big East tournament, March 12, 2009
Six overtimes. Three hours and 46 minutes of basketball. Syracuse and UConn tipped off on a Thursday night at Madison Square Garden and kept playing until 1:32 a.m. on Friday morning. Syracuse point guard Johnny Flynn played 67 minutes, scoring 34 points with 11 assists. "I can't even feel my legs right now," Flynn said after the game.
The Orange almost won this game in regulation, twice. Kemba Walker scored on a put-back with 1.1 second left to tie the game at 71, but Eric Devendorf of Syracuse launched a prayer at the buzzer that went in. Devendorf and the Orange celebrated, but officials reviewed replays for five minutes before determining that the shot was late. So began a marathon of missed buzzer-beaters that extended into the night. By the sixth overtime, eight players had fouled out, but Syracuse sixth man Andy Rautins -- son of Lou Rautins, who played a big role in game No. 4 of this list -- hit a three-pointer to start the period, Paul Harris added five quick points, and the Huskies finally surrendered.
What goes through a player’s mind at 1 a.m., after more than an hour of playing time? “I was thinking," Flynn said, "'Lord, just get this game over with. Whoever wins the game, let's just get it over with.'"
1) Villanova 66, Georgetown 64, NCAA Championship Game, April 1, 1985
The perfect game. The ultimate upset. The Cinderella story that captured the national imagination and signified that the NCAA Tournament was the one American sporting event at which anything could happen.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats engineered the biggest upset in college basketball at the end of a season of transition for the sport itself. The tournament had just expanded to 64 teams. The shot clock was introduced the following year, the three-pointer adopted and standardized a year after that. Broadcasters and television networks had just begun to popularize the term “March Madness.”
Legend has it that Villanova gave the “four corners” strategy one last hurrah before the shot clock’s arrival, and the Wildcats did slow the game down at times. But the relatively high score reveals that Villanova did much more than play keep-away. Long stretches of perimeter passing ended with sudden entry passes for easy buckets. Ball-handlers challenged Patrick Ewing, then dished away as soon as he committed. The Wildcats shot 22-of-28 from the field. Three starters played all 40 minutes. Facing an intimidating opponent notorious for instigation tactics (see game No. 10 on this list), no Villanova player committed a fourth foul. Villanova did not win by killing the clock (though it helped), but by playing the kind of precise game that could prompt an upset in any era.
Whole books have been written on the significance of this game. Without the Villanova upset, it is hard to imagine college basketball being as big as it is today. Television coverage and the bracket culture are built on the belief that David can not only beat Goliath, but he is likely to do it five or six times across a three-week tournament. College basketball became a national pastime in 1985, and the Big East was America’s conference, a place where anyone could be David and a small city college, freed from the demands of big-time football, could become a worthy Goliath.
(Think we missed a game? Not enough Huskies or Hoyas on the list? Think the Red Storm got slighted? Let us know! A list of games this good, spanning 30-plus years, is just begging for some “honorable mentions.”)