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Jim Calhoun on the End of the Big East: “We Have Been, in the Last 15 Years, the Dominant League in the Country.”

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This time of year is special for many northeastern college basketball fans because it marks the week of the Big East tournament. Some of the biggest powerhouses in college basketball duke it out for conference bragging rights. Well, now with most of the major powers in the Big East moving to other conferences next year for financial reasons, this will be the last Big East tournament as we all know it. Jim Calhoun has a lot to say about the end of the Big East. The former Connecticut head coach won’t ever forget the memories made over the years at Madison Square Garden. Jim Calhoun joined WFAN in New York with Mike Francesa to discuss the last Big East tournament as we all know it, the six-overtime loss to Syracuse, the Big East being the toughest league in college basketball and the future of the UConn men’s basketball program with Kevin Ollie.

What’s your thoughts on the last Big East Tournament with the teams that we know are the real Big East?

“It’s been quite a season for everyone in college basketball. You’re right about the Big East. I was standing with Jim Boeheim before they played us and both of us said the same thing. There’s a touch of sadness in name, anyway. I think we all feel the same way. You can’t have it any better. … It changed the face of the East, clearly, and definitively we would have never won the national titles without it. I don’t know if Villanova could have done it or any of us, including Syracuse. We took six titles from our league and all of that because of the great genius, God rest his soul, of David Gavitt. He changed the face and I think, quite frankly, he changed the face of college basketball. … I think the Big East tournament, bar none, is far away and the greatest venture experience, and everything else for the people here if you were in New York, because it was something special to have John Condon say, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden.’ And going back to 1986, when I first started in the league 27 years it ago, it was really special.”

What do you remember most about the six-overtime night against Syracuse in the Big East tournament?

“A combination of being caught in history, losing a game that we probably had won five times until the end and Jim Boeheim’s team won it. What team could outlast the other? … Athletic courage that night was on display because neither team [quit] and we had kids that didn’t play very much at all that played great and Jimmy had the same for him. It was just a magical night, long and arduous. You couldn’t stand up after the night. Neither could Jim. I don’t know if I really got a chance until that summer to really put it in perspective. I still remember going back roughly at 4:30 at night to the hotel and just sitting there and just trying to replay, but there was so much to replay. You just played 70 minutes of basketball. It was a phenomenal, phenomenal experience and we lost. That was disappointing, but to be a part of it was very special.”

Did the Big East end up building the toughest league in college basketball in its prime?

“Well there’s no question, and I know Mike Krzyzewski — he is a friend of mine — he felt that they [the ACC] were losing ground to us, and by the way it is not a coincidence, in my opinion, how we did or didn’t get in. That’s something later on to discuss. More importantly that Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse are in our league. They are trying to be what we were to some degree. We have been, in my opinion, in the last 15 years, the dominant league in the country. … Three teams in the Final Four, but the type of basketball, the physical aspect. I used to kid our officials when they were looking for three seconds. They didn’t do it by numbers, they did it by months. May. June. July. Over the back. I remember Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning coming over our back and just threw you out of the way. Once again, some of the great St. John’s teams. The more we talk, the more memories I have, and I say this, it’ll be over at the end of the week and it’ll be great and I hope the best team wins right now. The best team was Louisville when I first saw them, Syracuse when I first saw them and right now I’d say it’s Georgetown. But that could change this week.”

On the situation going forward

“I think Catholic League will do fine. I think they made the right move in my opinion. I think down the line some of us will all be back again and I believe there is going to be four major conferences with the 110 of us who have football and basketball playing together. I don’t even know what it is going to be called, but I see that coming. … Our budget is heading towards $70 million. It’s a different kind of thing, so I think we are all going to get back together. Still, playing St. John’s and playing Georgetown and playing Jim Boeheim, I am going to miss that and not seeing that. I’m optimistic with Kevin Ollie and the team we have coming back. We are going to be fine. UConn has 27 straight winning seasons. We’ve had some great successes here and great players here and we’re going to be fine, but bottom line this is the week to look back. … It’s sad, but it’s something to look back and kind of stir up some memories because that tournament has brought up so many memories for people. It’s absolutely phenomenal. It captivated the greatest city in the world. It’s amazing.”

Can UConn be UConn without you in the future? What’s the future of the program?

“I think our future is going to be fine. Kevin Ollie has done a tremendous job this year winning 20 games with the injuries he had, and Shabazz Napier has emerged as one of the great point guards in the country. He’s an incredible leader, and quite frankly if most of those kids return — and I think they are going to — and we have a very good recruiting class. A couple of 6-foot-10 kids that will really help us. We can build as other people have. I watched Bob Huggins of Cincinnati, who are a national power. I watched John Calipari at Memphis, another national power, do it. Is it hard? Of course it is. We’re looking right now at our scheduling. Our schedule is going to have to change. We can’t rely upon six ranked teams in the Big East and maybe we played 10 games against those six. Those 10 games alone you wouldn’t think that much from an outside schedule, so everything is going to have to change, but I love the school. I love what Kevin Ollie is doing. Five of my former players are assistants. We’re going to be fine.”ame

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