March Sadness

Connecticut is banned from the NCAA tournament - and the Big East tournament - in 2013. In many ways, being locked out of Madison Square Garden next March, might hurt UConn's players the most.

NEW YORK – Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, the Big East's preseason player of the year, stood before the crowd on media day last week and talked about how much the conference means to him.

Behind Siva, through the ninth floor windows of the New York Athletic Club, the splendor of the city's skyline and majesty of Central Park sparkled in the sunshine of a brilliant autumnal day. Siva led Louisville to the Final Four in New Orleans last season, but he was reminiscing about winning the Big East championship in Madison Square Garden.

The Big East has a special bond with the Big Apple.

"The Big East is special to me," Siva said. "You really don't get the full effect of the Big East tournament unless you play in it or coach in it."

Across the room, at a corner table, the Connecticut delegation of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Tyler Olander and coach Kevin Ollie listened to Siva's words and absorbed them in their own unique way. In 2011, Napier and Olander shared that remarkable experience of winning the Big East tournament, with Kemba Walker triggering an amazing five-game run that set the stage for a run to the Final Four – and then the national championship.

It's a memory that never fades.

"Every time I come to New York now, I have that everlasting memory of winning a Big East championship and that run we were on that started in New York," Olander said. "We had lost the last regular season game that season and then we got here and went on that incredible run. Every time I come to New York, I think about those memories.

"Winning it is one thing. Winning it the way we did is just a step above. There are lifetime memories and some images you can never forget. It's New York City. It's Madison Square Garden. It's basketball and the Big East Conference. It really doesn't get much better."

And for the 2012-13 Huskies, it doesn't get much worse than realizing they won't be part of the 2013 Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. For one season UConn has been banned from the place where so many of the program's great moments have taken place.

Big East presidents agreed on a new conference policy in March that led to UConn's disqualification in 2013.

"Our presidents conceptually agreed that any team in any sport that is ineligible for postseason NCAA competition that they would not compete in the conference tournament or championship," associate commissioner John Paquette said at that time.

The bylaw was officially adopted in May. And since UConn is banned from the 2013 NCAA tournament for poor Academic Progress Rate results from 2008-10, the double whammy is in place.

UConn's season ends March 9 with a regular season game against Providence at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. That's the cold, hard fact.

Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun often said that there was nothing better than winning "in your own neighborhood." Now UConn isn't even invited to the block party. The Huskies will be back in New York Dec. 4 to play North Carolina State in the Jimmy V Classic, but there will be no family reunion with the Big East in March. The conference will move on with a 14-team tournament.

"I'd be lying to you if I say in March I'm not going to be dejected," said Ollie, who played in the Big East tournament as a point guard for Calhoun. "But life goes on. It's the situation we're in. We've got to continue to play the right way. We've got to continue to do what we have to do academically because we don't want another group of UConn basketball players to be in this predicament.

"I hurt for them. I feel for them. But they've got to deal with it because that's what life is all about. That's what we're trying to teach them."

But it can be difficult to teach lessons through penalties the players don't understand.

"We definitely don't like the whole idea of not being in the Big East or the postseason, especially since none of us were on that team in 2009," said Boatright, a sophomore. "But it is what it is. We've got a chip on our shoulder. We've got a lot to prove and a lot to play for this year. Nobody expects us to do good things this year and we're just looking forward to the season.

"For me it was [harder to understand the Big East decision]. I didn't understand why we couldn't play in the Big East tournament. All the teams we're going to play in the regular season are going to be in the tournament. But I have no say-so over that. I'm just a player."

One obvious concern from a conference standpoint is the status of the automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. The winner of the Big East tournament is the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA field.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who said he didn't want to comment on the fairness of the new bylaw, isn't buying that reason.

"This league has had seven or eight or nine teams [go to the NCAA in recent years] anyway," Boheim said. "I don't think anybody has ever won the tournament in this league that wouldn't have gone to the [NCAA] tournament."

In 1992-93, Boeheim's program was penalized by the NCAA, including a postseason ban for that season. But Syracuse was allowed to compete in the Big East tournament. It was reported that the sanctions stemmed from boosters giving players cash, free housing, meals, legal advice and other benefits.

"[The conference philosophy] has changed because when we couldn't go [to the postseason], we played in the [Big East] tournament," Boeheim said. "Obviously whoever had the philosophy changed their philosophy. Pulled a Mitt Romney. They flip-flopped. Although, the other guy [President Obama] flip-flops too, so I should say they did a political move . . . a candidate's move."

Most Big East coaches didn't want to comment on the UConn situation.

"I felt the Big East should have an open mind about letting them play and I think they really did," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "But I understand how they had to stay consistent with what was going on with the postseason."

Senior guard Vincent Council of Providence, one of UConn's top rivals, expressed his sympathy to the Huskies who will miss a lifetime opportunity this season.

"I was surprised," Council said of the decision to ban UConn. "Being a competitor, you want everyone to play and you want that challenge of being at the Garden. That hurts not being able to play in the Garden. It's such a great atmosphere. I feel for UConn."

That must be nice for the Huskies to hear. But, as Ollie said, there's nothing the coaches and players can do now but deal with the situation.

"I didn't think we were going to be out of the Big East [tournament]; I thought it was just the postseason," said Napier, a junior like Olander. "But they've got rules and we've got to abide by them. It's going to be tough watching everybody else playing while we are just sitting on a couch.

"But it's just going to make everybody work harder. We don't have a lot of games, so we've got to make sure we take advantage of every one. It's going to be tough but I'm really not worried about it. I'm not one to dwell on the past. We just want to move on as a team, take advantage of this year and make the best of it."


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