NEWARK, NJ — Dave Gavitt would have been proud if he was looking down on the basketball court inside of the Prudential Center on Wednesday night.
It definitely would help in putting a smile on the late, great college basketball coach and innovator that a member of the Big East Conference, Seton Hall University, was playing against one of the blue bloods of the game, five-time national champion Indiana. Gavitt, a 2006 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, not only coached in the Big East Conference when he was at Providence College, but was the man who founded the basketball league that captured the imagination of fans all across the country, starting in the 1980s and catapulting towards and through to the 21st century.
What made the Big East a national brand – and an indelible one at that – were the dominant big men, fearless inner-city guards who would venture into the land of giants with reckless abandon and the national television exposure which showcased all of that precocious talent to the masses.
Given all of that, Wednesday night was a clear case of Back to the Future. In a game that was part of a series of match-ups between members of the Big East and Big Ten Conferences honoring the visionary, the Pirates, ranked No. 22 in the nation, showed their Final Four credentials to a Fox Sports 1 audience, defeating the Hoosiers 84-68. Angel Delgado, the nation’s leader in double-doubles last season, ate up the Hoosiers’ interior defense to the tune of 19 points and 11 rebounds. Khadeen Carrington, the preseason All-Big East First Team guard and Brooklyn native, scored 17 points and dished out five assists while another New York City native, wingman Desi Rodriguez out of the Bronx, led all scorers with 23 points, with his all-around game prompting Pirates head coach Kevin Willard to call him “one of the best players in college basketball” after the game.
As the sport continues to focus on labeling multi-faceted players as “wings” and “bigs” and shifting away from the dominant low-post center, Delgado is a throwback to the days when giants like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Emeka Okafor roamed the Big East and ruled the college basketball world. Though he has added a 15-foot jumper to his arsenal in the offseason, Delgado’s forte is catching the ball in the low post, utilizing post moves to score or get fouled and crashing the glass on both ends. If one gets to see Delgado play, it certainly looks as if he plays with a chip on his shoulder.
That’s because he does, and it comes from wearing the jersey of a school from the storied basketball conference every time he graces the hardwood floor.
“I got to tell you something: I’m a Big East guy,” an ebullient Delgado explained to me after the win against the Hoosiers. “I’m always going to be a Big East guy, so I kind of want to protect the Big East. That’s what I tell my guys. We got to protect the Big East because the Big East is the best conference in the whole country. Every time all the Big East schools play the Big Ten, I’m there watching. I want them to win, because we’re a Big East school and we have to protect our league.”
“We came with the mindset that we got to destroy everybody.”
Said like a true Big East lifer, huh?
Like Delgado, Carrington, who went to the same high school (Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin) as former St. John’s standout point guard and longtime NBA player Mark Jackson, also sees himself as a Big East guy, as he shared with me after the game that he always wanted to play in the Big East since he was a kid.
“I was a Syracuse fan when I was younger,” said Carrington.
Wait. What? Not Seton Hall?
“[Syracuse] just kind of played my game, guys like Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche. Those guys, I loved the way they played.”
Carrington’s dream school (his words) never offered him a scholarship to play his collegiate home games at the Carrier Dome, though, if that did happen, his vision of playing in the Big East would have been no more since the Orange jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference back in 2013. But his dream of playing in the Big East is indeed a reality now. Oh, and he’s more than happy to be wearing the blue of Seton Hall instead of the orange of Syracuse.
“I made the right choice,” Carrington said assuredly. “I’m a Pirate now for life.”
While one of the teams involved in this game came from the Big Ten, the ties to the halcyon days of the Big East were still pretty strong on the Hoosiers’ sideline. First-year Indiana head coach Archie Miller grew up in Beaver Falls, Penn., just 30 miles northwest from the University of Pittsburgh, a longtime Big East stalwart before its move to the ACC. His brother, current University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller, was a standout guard at Pittsburgh and played inside the legendary Fitzgerald Field House. Though Archie ended up playing in the ACC at NC State collegiately, as well as spending six seasons as head coach at the University of Dayton before coming to Bloomington, his basketball IQ was developed by being immersed in Big East basketball during his developmental years.
“I grew up in the prime of the Big East’s heyday,” said Miller, who pointed out just before that comment that Gavitt was “a pioneer” in the game of college basketball. “I watched hundreds and hundreds of Big East games growing up, and I’ve always been a fan. And to be able to be kind of a part of the Big East and the Big Ten, I think it’s really good.”
Even after conference realignment almost tore the league asunder almost a decade ago, many, including Miller, have marveled at how the league has continued to thrive on the hardwood despite that poaching from other conferences.
“The Big East has really morphed itself and has continued to be an excellent conference through all the transitions and what not,” Miller continued. “That’s a credit to their leadership. They got great teams. I think they got teams in this league like Seton Hall, to me, that can beat any team in the country with their personnel.”
On the opposite sideline, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, born in Long Island and also raised in the shadow of Big East basketball, knows what it’s like to play in the conference, let alone coach in it; He played his final three seasons of college basketball at Pitt, coached by his father, Ralph.
“I think the fact that we honor Dave [Gavitt] is tremendous because he was the Big East,” said Willard after the game. “His son, Danny, is a good friend of mine. I think when people have laid the groundwork before you, it’s important to remember the people that really put the hard work in. It’s special, and [our] kids understand it and if you talk to the kids about it, they understand there was a guy that really laid it all on the line so that they’re in this great conference.”
Players such as Delgado, who will now have the chance to play in front of one of his idols during this season: former Georgetown center and new Hoyas head coach Patrick Ewing, arguably the greatest player the legendary conference has ever produced.
“I looked at a lot of highlights, and, Patrick Ewing, he was great in college,” said Delgado. “I watched a lot of him [on video]. Now that we got to play against them, it’s going to be crazy. I’m going to go the hardest I can against Georgetown because he’s a guy that you’ve been watching for so long and you can go against him. It’s going to be great.”
When the greats of the Big East’s past, like Ewing and St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin, coach against the greats of the conference’s present like Delgado, always remember Dave Gavitt, and not just during this event that bears his name. He is the man who made all of this possible, and, arguably, is the most important person in shaping the modern game – and overwhelming popularity – of college basketball.