BY CRAIG GIAMMONA
If the 2013 Big East tournament was a funeral for what had been one of the nation’s best college basketball conferences, then a Wednesday, March 20 press conference announcing a 12-year television deal between Fox Sports and the new Big East could be called a rebirth.
St. John’s and the other so-called “Catholic 7” universities will be joined by Creighton, Xavier and Butler in the new Big East starting next season and the conference will keep its postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden, officials said.
The Big East will get back to its roots next season after slowly being pulled apart by a flirtation with big-time football. And St. John’s fans are welcoming the change.
Rather than bemoaning the loss of Connecticut and Syracuse, two of the conference’s founding members, longtime St. John’s supporters are anticipating the formation of a hoops-oriented league that harks back to the program’s heyday in the 1980s.
“If you look at the teams that were in the Big East at that time, it was a basketball-centric conference and when people look back at that era, those were the best times,” said Chris Holbrook, 33, a Long Island attorney who grew up rooting for St. John’s and graduated from law school there in 2005.
The Big East started as a basketball conference, but slowly expanded over the years in a drive to be a relevant football league as well. Big East officials acknowledged Wednesday that the push toward football, which they said was undertaken to “accommodate” Syracuse and Boston College, had ultimately led to the demise of the conference.
But St. John’s fans aren’t necessarily disappointed with the results, and they believe the new Big East’s focus on basketball will bring stability to the league.
“It won’t be the same, but I’m looking forward to getting back to basketball,” said Gus Stanzione, a 1981 alumni from Staten Island who was headed into the Garden about an hour before the Red Storm were set to take on Villanova in the Big East tournament. “That’s when the problems started – when they started going after football.”
The 12-year television deal will give the conference a home on Fox Sports, and maintaining a foothold in New York City should help the league build its profile, just as it did when the Big East tournament moved to the Garden in 1983.
“Keeping the Garden is huge,” said Tom Shanahan, a 1987 St. John’s graduate who grew up here but now lives in Indianapolis. “It’s probably more important for those other schools, but it’s big to stay in the city.”
Shanahan and other St. John’s fans said keeping the postseason tournament at the Garden will help schools in the conference continue attracting talented local players, who are often more willing to leave home for college with the promise of returning to the city each year for at least a few games.
The Garden has long been a recruiting tool for St. John’s and fans of the team said the departure of Syracuse, arguably the most popular team in the city, could help the Red Storm once again rise to prominence here in New York.
“I think it could make St. John’s the New York team,” Stanzione said.
Shanahan, who attended St. Francis Preparatory High School in Fresh Meadows, hadn’t been inside the Garden in 15 years and made trip to watch St. John’s.
“Honestly, to get to see St. John’s and the rest of the teams I grew up watching, that’s pretty big for me,” Shanahan said. “That’s going to be a good basketball conference.”