WASHINGTON — The Big East, as we have known it the last three decades, will meet its end after this season. But before it does, the conference will send at least one team to the Final Four for the fifth straight season.
Syracuse will move on to the Atlantic Coast Conference for 2013-14, and Marquette will join the handful of Catholic schools that will form the new Big East. In the meantime, the schools will face each other in Saturday’s East Regional final, keeping one of the country’s most storied basketball conferences in the tournament spotlight.
“I wish we weren’t playing each other,” said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. “Maybe if we were in different regions, maybe we could both continue to play.
“But whoever wins, as much as they’re playing to say we are a part of this league, they’re playing to win for all the people in the locker room to advance and continue their season, to play in the Final Four.”
Three of the eight schools the Big East sent to the tournament are still alive, including No. 1 overall seed Louisville, which beat Oregon Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
“We’re going to get one in the Final Four,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “I think we’ll get two teams to the Final Four this year. Our league has been good. It’s been good all year.”
The conference that got the most attention this year was the Big Ten, which sent seven schools to the tournament and four to the Sweet 16. But after the Orange ousted Indiana Thursday night, Boeheim was reluctant to take it as a sign that one conference was superior.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the NCAA Tournament, how things work,” Boeheim said. “Some years, it really doesn’t prove you’ve got the best league, it just means you played the best during this couple-week period. But the Big East has been very good this year. It’s a good league, always been a good league.”
Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said he was aware of the talk that the Big East wasn’t as strong as in years past, and disagreed.
“I think the Big East is one of the toughest leagues,” said Triche. “Obviously, one of the reasons why I chose the Big East is because you’re going to play against strong competition, it’s going to be a battle each and every game. For one of the Big East teams to make it to the Final Four is incredible. Hopefully, it will be us.”
Syracuse forward C.J. Fair still can’t explain why his first-half dunk attempt against Indiana didn’t go down.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I maybe tried to dunk it too hard. I don’t usually miss dunks like that.”
Meanwhile, Fair has seen his role increase in three seasons, and is the Orange’s leading scorer and rebounder. In three tournament games, he’s averaged 14 points and 5.1 rebounds.
“He slowly came into the person he is right now,” Triche said. “He took his steps and waited his turn. He’s obviously playing more minutes and we need him to be that aggressive. He’s one of our go-to guys, especially in tough spots and definitely early in the game.”
Fair said, “It’s all about being more comfortable and having your coach and teammates feel confident in you and getting better each year. This year, I think I’m the most comfortable I’ve been since I’ve been here.”
When Marquette guard Trent Lockett got back to the hotel after the team’s opening-round win a week ago and saw that Harvard had upset New Mexico, he couldn’t have been more proud. He once had a special connection with Crimson freshman point guard Siyani Chambers.
“I used to baby-sit him,” Lockett said. “I was so happy to see him do so well.”
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker stumbled upon a young Chambers while he was in Minnesota scouting Lockett, who remembers Chambers playing well above his age as an eighth-grader at Hopkins High School.
“He’s a fearless kid,” Lockett said. “He’s not the biggest kid, he’s not the fastest kid, but he makes do with what he has.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.