HARTFORD, Conn. -- Patrick Ewing and Pearl Washington have come and gone. Boston College and Pittsburgh, as well. Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim are no longer dueling deep into those mid-March Manhattan nights. The Big East, as we knew it, has been dead for nearly a year now, and through it, two new leagues -- one which kept the name, another which kept the commissioner -- have emerged.
The one that kept the commissioner, Mike Aresco's American Athletic Conference, hasn't been welcomed into the college sports world with much fanfare. It was ridiculed as the weakest of the BCS conferences in football (it was), but then Central Florida won the Fiesta Bowl. Recently, Cincinnati made no secret that it wanted out of the league, and many believe that UConn does too.
Basically, the American can be viewed as a basketball purgatory for teams passed over by the ACC and Big Ten in the latest wave of conference realignment. But for now, there's plenty of optimism in AAC men's college basketball, where it looks like five teams will emerge to take the sport's grandest stage in the NCAA Tournament.
Don't be mistaken, it's not the Big East of old. Not close. But for right now, it has a fighting chance, provided the league's flagship schools remain committed to the American. And the chances for success increase a little bit with each game like the UConn-Cincinnati tilt on Saturday at the XL Center. The Husky win was the kind of game that gets people talking. That builds excitement around a budding rivalry. Though the contest was far from pretty -- the teams combined to shoot less than 30 percent and commit 30 turnovers -- it didn't have to be. The in-your-face style, from Shabazz Napier to Sean Kilpatrick and everywhere in between, was more than enough.
The sold-out crowd of 16,294 mirrored that style of play, making itself heard from the start and continuing as tempers flared in the second half. In fact, it was only the deafening roar of Husky fans that blocked the sound of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin berating official Ted Valentine after a close out-of-bounds call. As Cronin and Valentine began screaming in each other's faces and needed to be separated by Bearcats players, the crowd rose, trying to coax a technical, or better yet an ejection, out of the controversial-yet-emphatic official.
Ultimately, no technical was called, but the crowd didn't let up for the rest of the game. The final minutes had the feeling of one of those classic Big East games, complete with the traditional boom of U-C-O-N-N UCONN UCONN UCONN at timeouts, accompanied by the 90s-style NOISE! graphic on the XL Center jumbotron.
"If we're going to be a championship team, we are going to have to grind games out like this and I thought we did a wonderful job today," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said after the game.
Old Big East basketball was never about perfection. Shooting percentages were secondary to boxouts, charges taken and suffocating full-court pressure. That's what the Huskies and Bearcats provided on Saturday.
"We told them it was going to be 90 percent punches and 10 percent plays," Ollie said of his team. "There weren't going to be a lot of X's and O's in this game."
Those old, epic battles, of which Ollie was a part as a player, often came down to a loose ball or a heady play on defense. The grit, and even the ugliness at times, is what made it so beautiful.
"There are going to be games where we aren't going to score a lot of points and you have to make it up somehow, some way. As long as you play good defense, our shots are going to fall eventually," Napier said. "Our confidence is sky-high."
The American will have plenty more challenges coming on the basketball side. Louisville (and Rutgers) will leave after this season, to be replaced by Tulsa, East Carolina and Tulane. The geographically impaired league will need to rely on UConn, Cincinnati and Memphis to carry it into the national spotlight. Temple and SMU as well, if they can consistently field competitive teams. Game's like Saturday's will mean a lot more than just positioning in the conference standings. It will mean recognition for what could ultimately be a solid conference.
The Huskies' 51-45 win on Saturday was far from pretty, but the entertainment value was there, even if it was in the form of punches rather than plays.