I watched the Big East die on a Tuesday night in New York, two Marches ago. You probably did too. It was an end unbefitting such a great conference, but it was very befitting the state of USF athletics in 2013.
Beginning my senior year of high school, my father and I made plans to take a yearly train up to Madison Square Garden during my spring breaks and watch the Big East tournament. This, of course, was a tradition that wouldn't last beyond my freshman year of college, but we couldn't have known that at the time.
Our first time up was both a wonderful time and an absolute disaster: the fan experience at MSG is unparalleled, even in the Big East's dying years. For me, who had never before seen a USF game, let alone the conference tourney for one of the most prestigious basketball conferences in the nation, it was heavenly. The fans congregated pregame at Mustang Harry's, a sports bar across the street from the stadium, where they broke up into small factions by rooting interest. There were the usual suspects, of course--the place was crawling with Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville contingents, but also dotted with a few Rutgers, USF and Providence fans chatting softly at booths. A couple hours later, a multi-team, fifty-plus person exodus would drunkenly swarm up 7th Avenue toward the Garden. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing, seeing a mess of thirty-somethings in shirseys and suits all brought together by a mutual hate for one another and love of one of basketball's premier events.
We all know what happened at that Big East tournament--Jawanza's Layup and the loss to Notre Dame, which haunts my memories to this day. So my father and I went down the next year hoping to witness a better outcome for USF in the Big East's swan song.
The 2012-13 USF team was bad, as I'm sure you remember, but it was a typical USF "this team has been underachieving all season and could possibly bust out of this at any point, right?" sort of bad. The Bulls had a gaping hole down low that led to poor Toarlyn Fitzpatrick manning the 5 all season--a thought that has become increasingly ludicrous a year and a half later--but the tournament was the last hurrah for both Toarlyn and Jawanza, so it was with a dose of cautious optimism that my father and I settled in for the night's opener, USF-Seton Hall.
If the 2012-13 Bulls were the underachieving and out-of-position sort of bad, the 2012-13 Seton Hall Pirates were the "what is a basketball" sort of bad. The teams had already met once earlier in the year in late January, producing an uninspiring 55-47 Pirates victory due mainly to dreadful 33% shooting from the Bulls. Most USF fans figured it couldn't get much worse in the rematch.
Never figure things. The Bulls took the court in the infamous fifth-grade bathing suit uniforms for the first time ever, and proceeded to play some of the ugliest basketball they had all season (note: I refuse to blame this game on the uniforms. They are gloriously terrible, and USF should wear them all the time). It wasn't until late the in first half that the fans--a smattered collection of blue and green that barely filled half the stadium--realized they were witnessing something historically awful. The Bulls held a 14-13 lead with 10 minutes left in the half, and this was before the game reverted back 100 years. Each score was preluded by three minutes of nothingness, a terrible symphony of airballs and bricks and rebounds that lasted at least four possessions before anyone on the court found the basket again. It was disarmingly, brutally terrible basketball--two teams standing at the brink of the First Team to Leave the Big East Forever abyss, jostling for the right to jump first. The first half ended with the Bulls up 20-17. Here are some things that happened:
These were all consecutive possessions.
It should be mentioned that one single Bull played well this game--not the seniors or Victor Rudd or Anthony Collins, but Zach LeDay, whose effort against the Pirates deserves some sort of footnote in Bulls history. LeDay was a man fighting singlehandedly against the inevitable--in the second half, he scored all of the Bulls' points over a ten-minute stretch and grabbed the vast majority of available rebounds. LeDay, a freshman who averaged just 4.8 points per game, foresaw his oncoming death but refused to accept it. It would not surprise me if to this day he was still in Madison Square Garden, grabbing every brick and forcing up layups contested only by a swarm of imaginary Seton Hall defenders. He finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds, which in this game may as well have been 50 and 50. Without him, I'm not sure the Bulls would have scored double digits.
Thanks to the efforts of LeDay and a few Victor Rudd threes, the Bulls somehow established a 37-29 lead with just under three minutes to go. This appeared about as sturdy as an eight-point lead could ever be--the Pirates had scored 12 points over the course of 17 minutes in the second half; scoring 8 in 3 seemed highly unlikely. At this point I turned to my father and commented, "one more basket ices this."
The Bulls did not score one more basket. They tried six times, and had one of those six attempts found the basket, they would have walked out of the Garden with a rather unfulfilling win. But they didn't, and Seton Hall rattled off eight straight points to send the game to overtime. This was their last possession in regulation:
I don't remember the events of overtime clearly. All I remember is that the Bulls were down two points entering the final possession, and Victor Rudd had the ball in his hands. Rudd very well could have elected to drive and look for a layup or foul--this was probably the fundamentally sound strategy. But the Bulls were not playing fundamentally sound basketball, and Rudd mercifully made the decision to put the dog to sleep, launching a contested three-pointer that would either win or lose the game. It clanked off the back of the rim, and the Bulls lost.
The Big East tournament continued, and there were some splendid games, but everyone who had been in attendance on opening night knew the conference was already dead. Louisville launching a mammoth comeback in the title game was merely a formality--the Big East, once unquestionably the premier basketball conference in the country, was killed by a game that finished 46-42 only with the benefit of five extra minutes.
As for USF, being the first team to leave the Big East felt sadly fitting. USF's time in the Big East was fun, but they never reached the heights they could have reached. The 2007 football team was brilliant, but got tripped up a few times in close games and began a tradition of midseason swoons. The basketball team rarely escaped the cellar. And when it mattered most, when realignment took the college football world by storm and the need to perform was never larger, Skip Holtz left the football team in a crater and USF was unable to jump ship, eventually landing outside the Power 5 conferences.
I only bring this up because there's a good chance that this era in USF history is done forever. There's a new man in charge of USF athletics, and he vows to never use the word "potential" again. There are new, promising faces leading the football, basketball and baseball teams. For the first time in a long time, USF has hope, and a viable chance to right the ship from this point forward. It's not there yet, but it's certainly pointed in the right direction.
But I'll never forget watching the Big East die that night in March, and I'll never forget its Eliotian, hellish ending--witnessing something so great and powerful leaving this plane of existence with an abomination of a basketball game.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a Victor Rudd missed three