Sports

Imagine If Holy Cross Played in the Big East

Jack Milko ‘20
Staff Writer

Every week for The Spire, I have had the pleasure of writing a weekly update on both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. The men play host to Lafayette this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Hart Center while the women will travel to Easton, Penn., to take on the Leopards of Lafayette College. Instead of providing an in depth update this week, as I did just last week, I decided to go in a different direction; imagine if Holy Cross had accepted an invitation to join the Big East Conference.

Before 1979, dozens of colleges in the northeast played as independents, which meant that they had no conference alignment and scheduled games against any opponent without any higher jurisdiction providing any structure. For instance, a team like Syracuse, who has always had a well-established program, would play against Georgetown on a Friday night; then, four days later, the Orange would host a Division II or Division III program just to fill the schedule up. The same applied to Holy Cross. Holy Cross would have games against Boston College, Providence, and Northeastern, but then also played the likes of WPI, Clark, and Assumption. Schools such as Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and UCLA did not have this problem as these “blue bloods” all had homes in their own respective conferences. 

Former Providence head coach Dave Gavitt, whose teams played Holy Cross frequently, spearheaded an effort to create a conference of Northeastern schools. Gavitt, along with Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, John Thompson at Georgetown, and Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s invited Boston College, Connecticut, Holy Cross, Rutgers, and Seton Hall to form a new conference in 1979. Holy Cross, to this point, had a very storied basketball history. George Kaftan, Bob Cousy, Joe Mullaney, Earle Markey, Togo Palazzi, and Tommy Heinsohn were all responsible for college basketball’s “Purple Reign”: when little Holy Cross won the 1947 National Championship and the 1954 NIT. Of course, Cousy and Heinsohn went on to have tremendous success with the Boston Celtics, both members in the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Just before the Big East invited Holy Cross in 1979, Holy Cross actually defeated Providence twice during the Crusaders’ 1977 season. Holy Cross also made the NCAA Tournament that year; the Crusaders led top-ranked Michigan at halftime of their first game, but the Wolverines came back and ousted Holy Cross from the Big Dance. Needless to say, by the time 1979 rolled around, Holy Cross was quite relevant across the northeast basketball landscape. 

As we all know, Holy Cross declined the invitation to join the Big East, citing the College’s commitment to academic excellence. The administration prioritized academics over athletics, and who could blame them? Holy Cross is one of the best Catholic liberal arts colleges in the world. At the time, conferences were not as they are today; they could have offered distractions and potentially disparaged the College’s academic reputation. Thus, I write this piece not to criticize the decision, but to rather ask what if.

In structuring the Big East, Gavitt wanted each of the schools to play in a larger venue in a metropolitan city. Providence played in the Providence Civic Center – known today as the Dunkin’ Donuts Center – which still holds a crowd of over 12,000. Seton Hall, located in Newark, New Jersey, played in the Meadowlands Arena. Today they play in the Prudential Center in downtown Newark. Syracuse still plays in the Carrier Dome in downtown Syracuse. Although Boston College hosted games on campus, BC could have easily played some games in the Boston Garden. Georgetown has always played in the same arena as D.C.’s professional basketball team. At the time of the Big East’s inception, the Hoyas started off playing at the old Capitol Centre and now play at the Capitol One Arena. St. John’s has always played its marquee games at Madison Square Garden. The only exception to this prerequisite was Connecticut. However, UConn is a state school with public funding, a larger student body, and a large endowment. The university also built a new arena in 1990, which became the largest on-campus facility in New England. Hence, all of these schools had access to a large metropolitan area, large sums of money, and larger arenas. 

This now leaves us with Holy Cross, who could have hosted games at the Worcester Centrum. Now the DCU Center, the Crusaders still host some games there on occasion. The last such instance took place when Holy Cross hosted Rhode Island on Dec. 8, 2018. If they did end up joining the Big East, Holy Cross surely would have had to play more than half of its games at the DCU Center. Additionally, being in the second largest city in New England, I am certain that the Crusaders would sell out almost every game.

With all of this now in mind, we can only rely on our imagination. The 2019-2020 Crusaders, sitting with a 7-5 record in the Big East, and a 17-7 overall record, play host to No. 10 Seton Hall on Saturday. The game at the DCU Center is sold out, with over 12,000 tickets sold. A large majority of the student body of 3,100 plans on going to the game, a 6 p.m. tip-off. And oh, by the way, College GameDay will be in Worcester, too. It is a huge game as the Crusaders sit firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A win over the Pirates would probably put Holy Cross in the Big Dance as an at-large team. After all, in the non-conference, Holy Cross defeated former Big East rivals Syracuse and UConn. Unfortunately for the Crusaders, those two basketball powerhouses are not having the seasons that they should have. Thus, those victories do not carry as much weight as they should have. 

Following the game against Seton Hall, Holy Cross travels down to Philadelphia to take on the No. 15 Villanova Wildcats. After their stop in the City of Brotherly Love, the Crusaders remain on the road to travel to Omaha, taking on fellow Jesuit school and No. 23-ranked Creighton. A tough three games are in front of Holy Cross; however, just one victory will pay huge dividends for its NCAA Tournament chances. If Holy Cross makes the Big Dance, this would be the third time in the last six years. The Crusaders won the Big East Tournament back in 2015, when Malcom Miller hit a 12-foot buzzer beater over Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono to secure Holy Cross’s first Big East title since 1992. Hopefully, the Crusaders can earn an at-large bid to the 2020 NCAA Tournament, along with four or five other Big East Teams.

How does that sound? Crazy? Probably. But it’s less of a long shot than you would think, and it’s fascinating to think about where this program – and this College – would be, had the Crusaders accepted that offer to join the Big East over 40 years ago.

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