(Todd A. Smith)

Who said what about the Big East?

Well, some sports commentators like ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser implied that the Big East did not measure up to other premier basketball conferences like the Big 12.

And that’s no knock on Kornheiser because he is an East Coast dude and definitely not hating on his “homeboys.”

However, I never believed that Big East basketball could not measure up to the boys out west, and this year’s NCAA Tournament proved it.

And now the world should believe that as well after the UConn Huskies ran roughshod over the NCAA tournament field, culminating in a 76-59 drubbing of San Diego State.

Like the college football bowl season, the NCAA tournament is often a gauge to see how powerful each college conference is.

One can even say that the NCAA tournament is more of a barometer because there is no doubt that every team is giving it their all in an effort to cut down the nets in the championship game.

By far, the SEC is the best football conference.

But some believe that schools from other conferences beat the SEC schools in non-playoff bowl games because those SEC teams have lost interest when they are not competing for the national title.

I always thought that was just an excuse.

But there should be no excuses made in basketball, especially after the Big East finished 11-4 in NCAA tournament play.

Obviously, UConn went undefeated (5-0).

However, Creighton went 3-1 in the tournament.

Additionally, Xavier went 2-1.

Marquette finished .500 in NCAA tourney play at 1-1.

And Providence went 0-1.

Pretty darn good for a conference that is long past its glory days.

Unfortunately, in sports and in life perspective can become reality.

But no sportscaster has enough time to study all teams and all conferences.

Therefore, their perspectives can be warped by sports highlight shows and headlines.

Maybe it is because the Big East does not have a huge ESPN contract like other conferences.

Many of the Big East games are relegated to Fox’s FS1.

Like it or not, ESPN is called the worldwide leader in sports for a reason.

And when the Big East became the Big East thanks to marquee players and a partnership with ESPN in the 1980s, there was no escaping their dominance.

Full disclosure.

I am too young to remember the glory days of the Big East in the 1980s with Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas, Chris Mullin and the St. John Redmen (now Red Storm) and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and the Syracuse Orangemen (now Orange).

Back in those days, Big East battles were de facto NBA battles because everyone with eyes could see that players like Ewing and Mullin would thrive in the league once their college days were done.

If those stars played in the modern era, they would no doubt be one and dones.

If that happened, maybe the Big East of the 1980s is not as revered as it is today.

Therefore, fans and sportscasters need to take that into consideration when ranking the best conferences.

Since many players do not stay in college three or four years, sometimes it is difficult to tell how good their stars are.

Some sports commentators even believed that the Big East should not receive the classification of a power conference.

However, UConn showed how powerful they were throughout the entire 2023 NCAA tournament.

They blew out opponents.

The outworked opponents.

They embodied the heart of their coach, the gritty Dan Hurley who has an emotional roller coaster of a story that has inspired many.

Young Hurley had big shoes to fill when he entered Seton Hall University in the 1990s.

His father Bob Hurley was a legendary Hall of Fame high school coach.

Additionally, his big brother Bobby Hurley was the point guard on two national championship teams at Duke University.

So, when Dan could not quite reach those heights, coupled with his brother surviving a horrific automobile accident, the young Hurley experienced some extremely dark days in his life.

He thought about leaving basketball behind permanently, instead focusing on getting into law school.

Truthfully, with the pressure he faced to live up to his family’s legacy in basketball he did not know what he wanted to do in life.

The UConn coach said, “I just think at that time I showed an incredible amount of vulnerability, which, as it turns out, the more we learn, nowadays, being vulnerable shows a lot of strength. When you could be honest about something that’s hurting you and making you question how much longer you even want to continue.

“When you get to that level of sadness, you have to have the strength to ask for help. And in my way of asking for help was leaving the [Seton Hall] team and quitting the game.”

Nevertheless, he persevered after he got the help he needed.

Later, he returned to the game that has been synonymous with his family.

He carved a lane of his own in the college coaching ranks.

Now, he has his own championship ring to flash at family reunions.

The Hurleys, who have always been a close-knit family, were there to root on Dan during his one shining moment.

Dan’s son Andrew Hurley dribbled the clock out then bounced the ball hard off the NRG Stadium court, and Bob and Bobby stood by with pride as Dan cut down the nets, a tradition for college championship teams.

But Dan’s grit and perseverance kind of sums up the stereotype, true or not, about tough East Coast kids who never back down from a fight, no matter how high the odds seem stacked against them.

Although not an East kid, Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo of Bamaka, Mali played outstanding ball while fasting during Ramadan.

Nothing is tougher than that.

When a team has those tough characteristics, it is hard not to put them up there with the best of the best.

And after the 2023 NCAA tournament, it should be hard for anyone to say that the Big East Conference is not one of the best.

Todd A. Smith
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