Split next year results in plenty of nostalgia

Wizards center Emeka Okafor played for Connecticut in three straight Big East tournament finals at Madison Square Garden, winning two of them.

But one of his favorite memories of a tournament that helped create and define the madness of March over the last three decades came in the stands. It happened as he looked into the crowd while he returned to the court from a timeout.

"I saw some fans arguing," Okafor said. "They weren't Connecticut fans, weren't related to who we were playing. I saw them arguing, I saw beer flying and punches being thrown. That's just the type of intensity and the vibe that was in the building. People just love to be competitive. There's a lot of school pride, and they just love basketball."

*?All times p.m.

At Madison Square Garden
In New York
First round (Tuesday)
No. 13 USF vs. No. 12 Seton Hall, 7
No. 14 DePaul vs. No. 11 Rutgers, 9
Second round (Wednesday)
No. 9 Cincinnati vs. No. 8 Prov., noon
USF/SH vs. No. 5 Syracuse, 2
No. 10 St. John's vs. No. 7 Nova, 7
RU/DP vs. No. 6 Notre Dame, 9
Quarterfinals (Thursday)
8/9 winner vs. No. 1 G'town, noon
5/12/13 winner vs. No. 4 Pitt, 2
7/10 winner vs. No. 2 Louisville, 7
6/11/14 winner vs. No. 3 Marquette, 9

The knockout competition at the world's most famous arena won't go away when Georgetown and the rest of the Catholic 7 schools break free from the football members of their league next year. They will keep both the name and the stage for their conference showcase.

But after 33 years in which it often has been the centerpiece interlude between the regular season and the NCAAs, the Big East's conference tournament will downsize significantly.

"I think [it] was a combination of coaches and players that came through the years [that have made it special]," said former Georgetown guard Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, who helped the Hoyas capture the first title at Providence Civic Center in 1980. "Back when it first started, you had Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson Jr., Rollie Massimino, Bill Raftery. You had a bunch of great coaches back then, and a lot of players came through those teams."

From Dwayne "Pearl" Washington and Patrick Ewing to Allen Iverson, Gerry McNamara and Kemba Walker, the list of names is as long as the tradition is storied.

No. 5 Georgetown (24-5) heads to New York this week with a budding star -- unanimous All-Big East first team forward Otto Porter Jr. -- and the top seed in the tournament for the third time under coach John Thompson III.

The Hoyas have been the No. 1 seed in the tournament five previous times (1984, 1987, 1989, 2007 and 2008), and every time they have reached the final, losing just once. Only in 2008 did they both fail to win the tournament title and fail to turn their seeding into at least an appearance in the Elite Eight.

When Georgetown last reached the Big East final in 2010, they drew underrated Ohio in the NCAAs and were bounced straight out. That year they started as the No. 8 seed and played four times in four days. They're 2-0 at the Garden this year (wins over Texas and St. John's) and will enjoy a double-bye to Thursday's quarterfinals for the first time. That means three wins will equal the school's eighth Big East championship.

"Yes, this is going to be the last year with this group [of schools]," Thompson said, "and as most of the coaches have been echoing all year, is that somewhat sentimental? Yes. But I'm just as excited because we'll be back next year."