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Little Time to Weep for the Big East

Philadelphia — If it were possible, you would have felt sorry for Rick Pitino on Tuesday night.

His Louisville basketball team was No. 1 in the country just a few days earlier. It blew a last-minute lead over Syracuse on Saturday to drop to No. 5. Then it came to a half-empty Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night for an eminently winnable game against Villanova.

The Wildcats were on a three-game losing streak that coincided with the beginning of the Big East portion of their schedule. With a freshman point guard and a habit of turning the ball over a dozen times a game, Villanova should have been a snack for Pitino’s bigger, more experienced, more everything Cardinals.

But this is, or was, the Big East. Stuff happens. And the stuff that happened to Pitino’s team was nearly enough to wrinkle the jacket of his $2,000 suit.

Horrid shooting. Lazy rebounding. Inattentive defense. Abysmal free-throw shooting.

“The unique thing about the Big East, before it breaks up, is all the different styles,” Pitino said a day before this second consecutive loss. “You can lose to anybody on any given night.”

It was any given night for Villanova. Jay Wright’s team had every opportunity to let Louisville slip out of reach. Early in the second half, the Cardinals seemed poised to quell Nova’s attempt to stay in the game. But they never could pull away, and then Villanova suddenly had a chance.

That was all it took, a chance. With just over seven minutes left, sophomore Darrun Hilliard drove, took a hard foul and somehow flipped the ball into the basket. He made a free throw and Villanova was within 52-49. The game had turned. Starting with that play, ‘Nova outscored Louisville, 27-12.

With a minute left, the ramps behind the baskets filled with raucous Villanova students. At the buzzer, they poured onto the court.

Many of these kids picked Villanova after Wright’s team went to the Final Four in 2009. Their parents were in college when Rollie Massimino’s team won it all in 1985. They were expecting a lot of nights like this.

There is nothing as much fun in sports as toppling a giant — unless it is toppling one as imperious as Pitino. With the Big East in its long, slow fade, there was every chance this was the last time Pitino would ever coach a team in Philadelphia, at least in a conference game. Villanova sent him off in fine style.

It was almost enough to make you mourn the demise of the Big East. Almost.

Seeing the conference go down is a bit like seeing a big box store such as Borders or Circuit City sitting empty. Those mega-stores put a lot of smaller shops out of business. If they couldn’t survive in the cutthroat business climate they helped foster, no one is going to shed a tear. It’s like feeling sorry for a shark that dies from overeating.

The Big East was developed as a television product. It grew with the explosion of revenue from ESPN and other cable channels. It mercilessly poached schools from other conferences, always looking to make itself bigger and stronger.

It was its commitment to the Big East that caused Villanova to drift away from the Big Five back in the 1980s. The City Series eventually was restored, but it has never been quite the same phenomenon. It just isn’t marketable to the national TV audience that every college program is seeking now.

This isn’t one of those weepy, the-old-days-were-so-much-better columns, either. There have been plenty of memorable 21st-century college basketball games involving Philadelphia’s six Division I programs.

It’s just that, once you say goodbye to Big Five doubleheaders at the Palestra, there isn’t much sentimentality remaining when it’s time to say goodbye to that storied Villanova-Louisville rivalry.

Louisville was in the Big East for a grand total of eight seasons. This is a box-store rivalry. It drew a crowd that seemed smaller than the announced number of 11,887 and, for much of the game, much quieter.

But those final minutes are what college basketball is all about, whether in a box-store arena or the mom-and-pop Palestra. It was just plain fun to watch Villanova pull off what may well be the highlight of its season.

If the Big East has provided anything, it has been big villains — coaches and players it feels good to beat. For what may be the last time in Philadelphia, that was Pitino last week.