By JOHN F. SILVER
HARTFORD, Conn. — It’s a rivalry that is 33 years old and in the fast moving world of college sports, that’s about as old as rivals get.
Syracuse and UConn are two of the marquee programs in the Big East. For ages, Jim Boeheim matched up with Jim Calhoun with their all-time wins record at times close enough where a week could change who was on top of the other.
The two schools became the epitome of Big East basketball.
The schools have played 88 times overall and 70 times as conference mates. In that time, UConn has won three national titles and been to four Final Fours while the Orange have three Final Fours to their credit and won the championship behind Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
That rivalry came to an end, at least for the time being on Wednesday, as UConn defeated No. 6 Syracuse for the first time in three tries in a 66-58 win.
The game was an ESPN featured game during rivalry week taking its rightful place before Duke-North Carolina.
Will the game ever be played again?
Syracuse is off to the ACC. The Catholic schools are forming their own league and Rutgers and Louisville are also leaving for the Big Ten and ACC, respectively. UConn’s left in what is going to be a new and lesser Big East starting next season.
This is the last time the two rivals will play with the Huskies being ineligible for the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
“It’s hard with the rivalry being over,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “It’s hard and we hope we can play them somewhere else.”
Boeheim has never minced words at his disappointment about the Big East breaking up. He’s also blunt about the prospects of this game staying on the schedule. Before the Big East, Boeheim noted that St. Bonaventure was the Orange’s biggest rival.
Syracuse and St. Bonnies haven’t played in a decade. That doesn’t bode well for UConn-Syracuse in coming years.
“It’s been a great series,” Boeheim said. “Connecticut and Syracuse have had so many great games over the years. It’s one of those things that goes away…the league wasn’t able to be kept together. I feel bad about the whole thing. If we signed the football contract two years ago we wouldn’t have this.”
Boeheim is of course referring to the Big East turning down a lucrative television offer from ESPN two years ago that would have paid each team in the league $11-13 million. The league decided to try its hand in the open market, but was raided with Syracuse and Pittsburgh going to the ACC last year, and this past year Louisville to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten. In response to all the turmoil, the Catholic seven of Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, DePaul, Villanova and Seton Hall elected to start their own league, which could begin in 2014.
UConn is left with Cincinnati and South Florida in the Big East with a host of C-USA schools coming in over the next two years.
The games between UConn and Syracuse have always been memorable, with the six-overtime game in the Big East quarterfinal in 2009 among the 14 times the schools have met in the Big East tournament.
Perhaps UConn’s first coming of age victory came in the 1990 Big East title game when the school won its first Big East men’s championship over a Derrick Coleman-led Orange team in Madison Square Garden.
For most of that time, Calhoun has roamed the sidelines battling Boeheim. Calhoun was back at the XL Center on Wednesday and spoke with the New Haven Register about the UConn-Syracuse rivalry.
“There isn’t any question in my mind they’ve been our No. 1 rival in the Big East,” Calhoun told the Register. “I don’t remember a game played with them that wasn’t meaningful.”
Ollie was first introduced to UConn through the Big East television package and games against Syracuse. He watched the two foes battle it out in the late 80s and early 90s as a player at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. The Big East had that kind of national reach in basketball.
Conference realignment has gutted the Big East and the loss of playing Syracuse is perhaps the most bitter of all pills to swallow for the Huskies.
UConn and Syracuse have been joined at the hip in basketball circles since that 1990 game and that yearly rivalry comes to an end for good. Syracuse joins the ACC while the Huskies stick with the remnants of the Big East. It’s an almost unfathomable turn of events for the two programs.
The Orange’s entrance into the ACC secures the future with a lucrative television contract awaiting. The Orange are set to receive about more than $15 million annually from the ACC as part of its television deal with ESPN.
UConn? It’s been left behind with Cincinnati and South Florida in the conference merry-go round and will receive much less in the next television deal. Reports suggest UConn can look forward to about $2 million a year in TV money and will no longer be in the top college basketball conference in the country.
That meant little on Wednesday, when Syracuse and the Huskies played in front of a vocal crowd of 13,000 plus at the XL Center in Hartford.
The Orange and Huskies played an old-fashioned Big East game that was heavy on drama, physical play and energy.
If this was the last game to be played, UConn and Syracuse went out in style.
**For more, read John’s game story here.