Night Line: UConn Takes Last Act of Memorable Big East RivalryPosted by BHayes on February 14th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
The Big East is larger than two programs, but for the better part of the last three decades, it’s been next to impossible to think of Big East basketball without Syracuse or UConn coming to mind. They have proven worthy flag-bearers for one of the best and proudest basketball conferences in America, but with Syracuse flying the coop after this season and UConn ineligible for Big East tournament play, Wednesday night would be the final time the two programs would meet as league rivals. A nostalgic night indeed, but brace yourself — as the Big East (at least as we have known it) splinters apart over the next 13 months, there will be many more nights of sifting through the memories. But on this first night of bracing for life after the (old) Big East, it was a young team, led by a rookie coach who stole the show.
A failing APR score will cost UConn a berth in the NCAA Tournament this season, but give the Huskies credit: Once the talent exodus from Storrs was complete, few thought the ban would actually cost UConn anything. The Huskies have instead proved themselves Tournament-worthy over and over again in this resilient campaign, and the once-doubted Kevin Ollie has secured a long-term future in the Nutmeg State.
The two biggest reasons for UConn’s success were as important as ever on Wednesday night. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright combined to efficiently pick apart the Syracuse zone, totaling 27 points (on 16 shots) and 11 assists between them. The two lead guards have flourished under the 40-year old Ollie, who has entrusted his pair of play-makers with a freedom and confidence that Jim Calhoun (bless his heart, and his three National Championships) never did. No longer must Boatright and Napier fear a quick pull, or a (screaming, maniacal) voice in their ear after a bad shot or turnover. The result has been the formation of a backcourt that is as cocksure as it gets. UConn may be a team with nothing else to play for, but Kevin Ollie has twisted that fact into a different reality – the Huskies are simply playing with house money, and the riches are growing every week.
There was an extra dose of finality in the Hartford air tonight, as UConn’s APR penalties will prevent the opportunity for a bonus Syracuse-UConn match-up in the Big East Tournament a month from now. If we wanted to do this last hurrah right, Madison Square Garden would have to have been the backdrop. The Big East Tournament was never better than 40 (and that one time, 70…) minutes in front of a raucous but divided Garden, with Syracuse and UConn fans trading taunts and cheers at each other from the opening tip. Syracuse will carry on with the goodbye tour on March 9 at Georgetown, then at MSG, and we will take more time to think about the memories accrued over 30 years of basketball. And if you think we are getting plenty of time to relive the past now, just wait until next year arrives, when the looming departures of the Catholic 7 will definitively end the basketball conference we have come to know and love so well. Bittersweet times to be a Big East fan, bittersweet times indeed.