In many ways, the dramatic rise of the Big East Conference paralleled college basketball's explosion during the 1980s: more television exposure, not to mention more revenue, led to nearly unmatched success.
By the middle of the decade, the Big East had become the standard against which other conferences measured their progress. In 1985, three teams from the then-6-year-old conference reached the Final Four in Lexington, Ky.
"You had great marquee players like [Patrick] Ewing and [Chris] Mullin, you had a lot of coaching personalities and you had some great teams," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who was in the conference at Boston College from 1982 to 1986. "You even had some fights -- not that it was good, but it brought attention."
It was the made-for-television basketball league, the multimillion-dollar brainchild of former Providence basketball coach and athletic director Dave Gavitt. No baby steps here: The Big East was a household word nearly from inception.
But, now, as the Big East begins its 14th season, attention has shifted. To the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Duke is trying to become the first team in 20 years to win three straight NCAA titles. To the Big Ten, where Michigan and Indiana will try to end the Blue Devils' stranglehold on the hardware. To the Southeastern Conference, where Rick Pitino has revived scandal-ridden Kentucky. To the Big Eight, where Kansas' Roy Williams wants to bring college basketball's biggest prize back to the land of Oz.
And, amid the hoopla of college hoops, there are signs that the sport's once pre-eminent conference is starting to slip. Only one Big East team has reached the Final Four since 1987 -- Seton Hall in 1989 -- and none has won an NCAA title since Villanova beat Georgetown at Rupp Arena seven years ago.
With the 1992-93 season beginning its four-month journey toward the Superdome in New Orleans, site of this year's Final Four, the Big East is being dissed big-time around the country. The Big Least, some called it last season, when only one team reached the Sweet Sixteen. The Big Beast, no more.
"The Big East's biggest problem is that, in the mid-'80s, we set such a high standard of success," said Mike Tranghese, who has been with the league since it began and became commissioner when Gavitt left for the Boston Celtics two years ago. "If we don't get two teams into the Final Four, we've had a down year."
Most affiliated with the conference don't acknowledge any serious problems, but they at least will say that the Big East is going through its first significant transition period.
Two of its most successful coaches, Lou Carnesecca of St. John's and Rollie Massimino of Villanova, are gone. (Carnesecca retired, and Massimino replaced Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV.) One of its most successful teams, Syracuse, recently became the first Big East member put on NCAA probation.
In its defense, the Big East is stronger from top to bottom than at any other time. But there are underlying problems that could cause the 10-team conference to lose ground to the ACC and Big Ten among the elite, while enabling up-and-comers such as the Atlantic 10 and Great Midwest to close the gap.
"Fourteen years ago, we were begging to be scrutinized," said Tranghese. "Now that we're being scrutinized, some people are getting nervous."
Why has the Big East not been the dominant player it was a few years ago? Coaches and administrators inside and outside the league cite several factors:
* Style of play: The pound-it-inside offenses and the no-autopsy, no-foul defenses have made most league games brutal for participants and spectators alike. Though the league has abandoned its six-foul rule, the fact that Seton Hall and Georgetown are the reigning powers should not make it aesthetically pleasing.
"If you can watch a Big East game in the 60s or an ACC game in the 80s, which is the average fan going to watch?" said one ACC coach. "More importantly, if you're a player, do you want to play for a team that walks the ball up the floor, or one that plays 94 feet?"
* Television saturation: It used to be that the Big East was on the tube more than any other conference except the ACC. No more. Atlantic 10 member Massachusetts, for example, will be on national television five times this year, with 12 other games on regionally.
"Back in the early '80s, television was a great boost for the Big East," said UMass coach John Calipari, a former assistant at Pitt. "TV was, and is, a deciding factor for a lot of kids when they're choosing a school. Now, everyone is on television."
* Lack of great point guards: Since Sherman Douglas left Syracuse a couple of years ago, the Big East has been without any top lead guards. Nobody this season is in the class of Duke's Bobby Hurley, Adonis Jordan of Kansas or Allan Houston of Tennessee. The top guard in the conference is Terry Dehere, a shooter.
But even coaches outside the conference are hesitant to speak about its apparent demise, pointing to two of the country's best freshmen, Othella Harrington of Georgetown and John Wallace of Syracuse, who could become as talked about as any other first-year players in the nation.
"I don't think it's so much that the Big East is slipping; I think the other people are getting better," said George Washington coach Mike Jarvis, who has brought the Colonials back to respectability and, with Yinka Dare, a 7-foot-2 Nigerian, now is trying to bring the program to prominence in the shadow of Georgetown.
Said Calipari: "I think there's great balance. But if the Big East really wants somebody, they're still going to get him."
P. J. Carlesimo, whose 10 years at Seton Hall rank him third in longevity among the conference's coaches, said a lot of the Big East-bashing is the result of an inordinate amount of attention the conference has received.
"We've accomplished more in 13 years than just about anyone else," said Carlesimo, who has watched the Pirates go from doormats to become one of the Big East's prime-time teams. "I think there's a lot of jealousy and trying to be critical because of one down year. But the truth is, if we made a foul shot in 1990 [against Michigan] and Syracuse made a couple of foul shots in 1987 [against Indiana], we'd have four champions in 13 years and nobody would be talking about this."