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Pitoniak: A rich hoops rivalry nears end

According to StubHub, you can still get tickets to Saturday's final Big East basketball showdown between Syracuse and Georgetown in the Carrier Dome. If you aren't afraid of heights and don't mind being so far away from the action that the court looks about the size of a postage stamp, ducats are available for as little as $30.

But if you are into the Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee court-side celeb seats, you're going to have to dig way deep. Say like four thousand dollars deep.

College basketball history will be made as what was one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports becomes the latest victim of conference realignment.

A total of 35,012 tickets have been sold - a new on-campus NCAA basketball record - for this passion play between the eighth-ranked Orange and the 11th-ranked Hoyas.

And we have John Thompson to thank for this - the father, not the son; the former Georgetown coach, not the current one.

It was Big John who started the fire back on February 13, 1980 after the Hoyas snapped SU's 57-game home-court win streak and boldly proclaimed that "Manley Field House is officially closed."

Before that game, Georgetown was about as much of a basketball rival for Syracuse as Marathon Oil was. In those pre-Dome days, St. Bonaventure and St. John's were the teams the Orange despised. Georgetown was just another team on the schedule, a non-entity.

But the elder Thompson changed all that.

By having the audacity to snap that streak and rub salt in the Orange wounds immediately afterward, Thompson ignited a rivalry that over the next two decades became every bit as fierce as North Carolina-Duke, Yankees-Red Sox, Hatfields-McCoys.

But more than a rivalry was born that night. The Big East had just started and was a conference in name only. I would argue that the evolution of the hoops hatred between Syracuse and Georgetown greatly contributed to the Big East becoming truly big nationally.

Sadly, the Big East is about to become quite small after this season as SU and Pitt depart for the ACC and Rutgers heads to the Big Ten, continuing the mass exodus that saw West Virginia leave this year and will see Georgetown and the league's six other Catholic universities exit in the not-so-distant future.

In reality, the Orange-Hoya rivalry lost much of its luster after Big John stepped down in 1999. He was the villain in this passion play, and he loved being Public Enemy No. 1 in Syracuse. I've spoken to him on several occasions since. And he's told me that he absolutely loved coming to the Carrier Dome and waging those battles with his counterpart and friend, Jim Boeheim. He even loved being booed by the Syracuse fans, whom he came to admire for their rabidity.

It should be quite a spectacle Saturday. Much is on the line. John Thompson III has the current Hoyas playing as well as anybody in the country. They crushed DePaul Wednesday night to extend their winning streak to seven. Meanwhile, SU stretched its Dome-court win streak to 38 straight. The Hoyas and Orange, who have combined for 18 Big East regular-season and 12 conference tournament titles, are tied atop the league with Marquette.

And to add to the emotions, Syracuse will retire Carmelo Anthony's jersey at halftime 10 years after he led the Orange men to their only NCAA basketball title.

Melo surely has some Georgetown memories, too. Fond ones. His team beat the Hoyas three times that season, the first time that happened in this storied rivalry.
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