Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing in sports.
Just look at the way Pittsburgh recently basked in the memories of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as he faded into retirement in January.
We are also just getting back from our extended trip in the “way back machine” to relive Sidney Crosby’s journey to 500 goals.
Those moments happened during a late-season Steelers playoff push and at a time when the Penguins were fighting their way to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
When things are going well, nostalgia makes it even better. But when things are going poorly, fond memories can quickly turn into melancholy.
Such was the case for me on Monday night when I stumbled on one of my favorite college basketball follows on Twitter, @bigeastrewind, It’s a feed that pumps out highlights, clips and stories from the glory days of the “old” Big East.
Not the version that exists now with Creighton, Butler and Xavier. Good programs. Sure.
But I’m talking about the edition that existed with the likes of Pitt, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Boston College in it instead those schools interloping in the ACC and Big 12.
1996 Big East Tournament Bracket pic.twitter.com/hZNsBduN6z
— Big East Rewind & Hoops 24/7 (@bigeastrewind) March 1, 2022
Oh, what a bad time for me to see that. That’s the kind of nostalgia that’s so good it hurts. Especially when times are rough in the present.
For instance, that tweet came across my timeline as my alma mater, Syracuse, was in the process of blowing yet another game to fall to 15-15.
Also, because it’s been such a tough year to be a college basketball fan in Western Pa. Pitt (11-19), Duquesne (6-22), Robert Morris (8-23), Penn State (12-14) and West Virginia (14-16) are all under .500 and a combined 51-94.
There haven’t been a lot of positive moments to absorb for fans and alumni of the local schools. March Madness is going to feel more like March Gladness. Many hoops fans in the region will just be glad the seasons are about to end.
But that underlying discontent over how the local college basketball campaign has played out was augmented by flashing back to that 1996 season referenced in @bigeastrewind’s tweet.
I mean, just reminiscing about happier times for folks in Boston, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, South Bend and Morgantown when the end of every college basketball season — awesome or awful — meant a trip to Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament.
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That was enough to stay engaged through Conference Championship Week.
But especially in ’96. I mean, c’mon!
That may have been my favorite year of watching college basketball. Ever. Syracuse went to the Final Four in my senior year as a student with John Wallace strapping the team to his back. They lost in the final game to that legendary Kentucky team with nine NBA players that dispatched Marcus Camby and UMass in the semifinals.
Georgetown boasted Allen Iverson, three other NBA guys (Othella Harrington, Jerome Williams and Jahidi White) and Victor Page. UConn had 32 wins behind Ray Allen. BC made the tournament with Danya Abrams and Scoonie Penn. Villanova was second in the conference with four future NBA players (Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson and John Celestand).
Then there was that epic Big East Conference Final with Allen hitting the game-winner to beat Iverson and Georgetown to give the Huskies their first Conference Tournament title.
For me, the whole season was college basketball nirvana. No, Pitt wasn’t good (10-17). But Mark Blount and Vontego Cummings went on to the NBA. Jerry McCullough and Chad Varga? Classic Panther names from days of yore!
The thing is, I didn’t need to look up a lot of that. Ninety percent of it is emblazoned in my mind’s eye. I have an easier time remembering who the fourth and fifth starters were on the 1996 Villanova Wildcats than I do the 2022 Kentucky Wildcats.
The transfer portal. One-and-dones. Conference hopping.
College basketball isnt as tangible as it used to be for a national audience. The teams, schools and conferences aren’t as recognizable as they once were.
Roy Williams has retired. Mike Krzyzewski will do so at the end of this year. Jim Boeheim will eventually, I think.
Part of nostalgia is familiarity. And familiarity in college basketball is practically non-existent in 2022. And I don’t see that trend reversing any time soon.
I get it. Times are changing. I’m old and antiquated. Player control. Equity for the athletes. What’s fair is fair. NIL. Freedom of transfer.
Save your emails and tweets. I know. I need to get on board or stop complaining. I will. Eventually.
The NCAA Tournament is coming soon. An opening-round pod will be in Pittsburgh at PPG Paints Arena (March 18 and 20). That will be great. It’s always great. The sport is great. The tournament is foolproof.
But we are fooling ourselves if we are pretending that college basketball is wired to create the memories that it once did.
So keep the tweets coming, @bigeastrewind. Sometimes melancholy is better than living in the moment.
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