The Louisville Cardinals enter the NCAA championship game as the odds-on favorites to cut down the nets for the first time since 1986. This will also be their last game representing the Big East, as one of the most prominent basketball conferences will face a major shakeup after the season.
The Cardinals spent 21 years in the old Metro Conference and established themselves as a powerhouse under coach Denny Crum, winning two national titles and making 13 Sweet 16 appearances. After the 1996 season, the Metro Conference and Great Midwest Conference merged to form Conference USA. The program went into a brief downturn during this time, going four straight years without advancing past the first round in the tournament.
Following Crum's retirement in 2001, Rick Pitino took over and led the team back to national prominence. During this time, the first wave of conference realignment occurred when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the Big East. Looking for replacements, the Big East invited Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida to jump from C-USA to one of the power conferences. All five teams answered the call.
Louisville spent less than a decade in the Big East, but they instantly became one of the top programs in a stacked conference. Over eight seasons, they made the NCAA Tournament seven times, reached the Elite Eight two times, the Final Four twice and the championship game this season. The football program in particular benefited from new competition and a chance at an automatic BCS berth, rising to national prominence by winning the 2007 Orange Bowl and 2013 Sugar Bowl.
The Big East has been the biggest victim of the conference reshuffling from 2010-13. In 2011, West Virginia accepted an invitation to join the Big 12, while Pittsburgh and Syracuse both announced that they would be joining the ACC in 2013. But it wasn't until the fall of 2012 when the dominoes really started to fall.
Once again, Louisville was the benefactor of another conference's exodus. After Maryland announced it would join the Big Ten, the ACC reached out to Louisville to replace them, and they accepted. Shortly afterwards, Rutgers also joined the Big Ten, and the conference really blew up when the seven Catholic schools defected, taking the Big East name with them. The remaining schools picked up some C-USA scraps and rebranded themselves as the American Athletic Conference. Louisville will play just one season in this new conference before joining the ACC in 2014.
The Big East as we used to know it will go down as one of the greatest basketball conferences we will ever see. Over 34 years, they have provided 45 Final Four appearances, 11 national champions and one of the most consistently entertaining conference tournaments in the nation. The old Big East will leave behind a legacy that few conferences can claim to match.
Louisville won't have complete strangers in the ACC -- they will be reunited with old conference foes Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame -- but it won't feel the same. The Cardinals may have spent less than a decade in the Big East, but in their short time they played some memorable games and quickly developed rivalries with schools like Marquette and Georgetown.
It will be a shame to see the gang split up, but Louisville has a chance to send the conference out on top, by adding one more title to its long list of accomplishments.