Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing in sports.
Just look at how Pittsburgh recently soaked up the memories of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as he retired in January.
We’ve just returned from our long journey in the “comeback machine” to relive Sidney Crosby’s journey to 500 goals.
Those moments came during a late-season Steelers playoff push and at a time when the Penguins were battling their way to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
When things are going well, nostalgia makes things even better. But when things go wrong, good memories can quickly turn to melancholy.
Such was the case for me on Monday night when I came across one of my favorite college basketball Twitter followers, @bigeastwind. It’s a feed that delivers 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 instead of those schools interfering in the ACC and the 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 this. It’s the kind of nostalgia that’s so good it hurts. Especially when times are tough in the present.
For example, this tweet landed on my timeline as my alma mater, Syracuse, was blowing another game down to 15-15.
Also, because it’s been such a tough year being a college basketball fan at 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 weren’t many positive moments for fans and local school alumni to absorb. March Madness will be more like March Gladness. Many local hoops fans will be thrilled that the seasons are about to end.
But that underlying dissatisfaction with how the local college basketball campaign has gone has been heightened by a flashback to that 1996 season referenced in @bigeastrewind’s tweet.
I mean, reminiscing about happier times for people in Boston, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, South Bend and Morgantown when the end of every college basketball season – great or awful – meant a trip to Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament.
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That was enough to keep him engaged throughout Conference Championship Week.
But especially in 96. I mean, come on!
This may have been my favorite year watching college basketball. Never. 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 last game against this legendary Kentucky team with nine NBA players sending Marcus Camby and UMass to the semifinals.
Georgetown had Allen Iverson, three other NBA players (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 finished second in the conference with four future NBA players (Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson and John Celestan).
Then there was that epic Big East Conference Finals with Allen hits the game winner to beat Iverson and Georgetown to give the Huskies their first conference tournament title.
For me, the whole season has been college basketball nirvana. No, Pitt was not good (10-17). But Mark Blount and Vonteego Cummings went to the NBA. Jerry McCullough and Chad Varga? Classic Panther Names of Old!
The thing is, I didn’t have to search for a lot of things. Ninety percent of it is etched in my mind. I have an easier time remembering who the 1996 Villanova Wildcats fourth and fifth starters were than the 2022 Kentucky Wildcats.
The transfer portal. One-and-done. Jumping conference.
College basketball isn’t as tangible as it once was to a national audience. Teams, schools, and conferences aren’t as recognizable as they used to be.
Roy Williams has retired. Mike Krzyzewski will do so at the end of this year. Jim Boeheim will eventually do it, I think.
Part of nostalgia is familiarity. And familiarity with college basketball is virtually non-existent in 2022. And I don’t see that trend reversing anytime soon.
I understand. The times are changing. I am old and archaic. Player control. Equity for athletes. What is right is right. NIL. Freedom of transfer.
Save your emails and tweets. I say. I have to get on board or stop complaining. I go. Ultimately.
The NCAA Tournament is coming soon. An opening module will take place in Pittsburgh at the PPG Paints Arena (March 18 and 20). That will be great. It’s always great. Sports are great. The tournament is infallible.
But we are fooling ourselves if we claim that college basketball is hardwired to create the memories it once did.
So keep tweeting, @bigeastrewind. Sometimes melancholy is better than living in the moment.
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