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Unified basketball schools continue to plot future

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Unified basketball schools continue to plot future

VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Villanova's Big East banner that hangs in the rafters already has a white patch stitched over West Virginia.

The Wildcats can now start putting Xs over most of the rest of the conference schools, as well.

The Big East - a proud league built on basketball moments like the 1985 Wildcats stunning conference rival Georgetown in the national championship game - will soon become extinct, even if the name lives on in some unrecognizable form.

On Saturday, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence all decided to officially separate from the conference many of them helped to build, so they can construct a league focused on basketball in this ever-changing landscape of college athletics.

The breakaway from the Big East was only the first step. It will be weeks and months of uncertainty, and possibly lawsuits, before the final structure over this transition period falls into place.

The seven schools must decide who will join them in the new hoops-heavy conference, when they want to depart, where they'll play a conference tournament, and whether they will attempt to keep the Big East name. Plus, the league will need a commissioner.

There is no true timetable for any of those decisions. Like so many of these reshaped conferences that stretch from coast to coast, this new league won't be confined to eastern teams. Xavier, Butler, Dayton, Creighton, and Gonzaga, way out in Spokane, Wash., also don't play major college football and would be natural fits to align with these Catholic schools. The league also will consider non-denominational schools, as well.

``They don't necessarily have to be Catholic, but it could happen,'' Patrick Lyons, Seton Hall's athletic director, said. ``We're not restricting it. We also have to consider our football-playing Big East partners and what they plan to do. But we're extremely excited about being able to shape our future.''

The seven departing schools have won three men's basketball national championships with 18 Final Four appearances. Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence helped form the Big East, which started playing basketball in 1979. Villanova joined in 1980, and Marquette and DePaul in 2005. The Big East began playing football in 1991.

``I just like the fact that our schools are being proactive and moving in a direction that I think will be just great,'' DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. ``I've always said DePaul will be fine because we'll be in a terrific basketball league and nothing's transpired in the last week or so that's changed my mind.''

For most of the schools, leaving is bittersweet, but it is a move necessitated by earlier defections like Syracuse (ACC), Pittsburgh (ACC) and West Virginia (Big 12), and the heavy emphasis on the cash-cow football programs.

``I think the tipping point in the mind of all seven of us was the most recent departure of Louisville and Rutgers,'' said Villanova's president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue. ``There was a concern on all of our parts about where the conference was heading and where basketball was playing a part in the conference.''

Big East bylaws require departing members give the conference 27 months' notice, but the league has negotiated early departures with Orange, Panthers and Mountaineers over the past year. Those schools all had to pay exit fees. Big East rules do allow schools to leave as a group without being obligated to pay exit fees.

The seven schools could play one more year in the Big East or figure out a way to get started on their league a season early. No one wants to deal with the uncertainty and nastiness that can lead from a split for any more time than necessary.

The breakup, however, is almost guaranteed to get messy. The Big East name, after all, will be up for grabs in negotiations.

``The association has served us well, for sure,'' Villanova Athletic Director Vince Nicastro said. ``It's been part of the fabric of our programs. But we're looking forward.''

Villanova coach Jay Wright, a native of the area, and raised on the Big East, said the time was right for a change.

``All of us basketball schools (are now) able to get together and say, `OK, where are we going to go? How are we going to do this?''' he said. ``Not sit back and say, `Let's wait and see what the football schools decide, then let's see where we're going to go.'''

The latest hit to the Big East leaves Connecticut, also a founding member, Cincinnati, Temple and South Florida - the four current members with FBS football programs - as the only schools currently in the Big East that are scheduled to be there beyond the 2013-14 school year.

The Big East is still lined up to have a 12-team football conference next season with six new members, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only. Rutgers and Louisville, which both announced intentions to leave the Big East last month for the Big Ten and the ACC, respectively, are scheduled to compete in the conference next year.

Notre Dame, which is moving to the ACC, also is expected to continue competing in the Big East next season in all sports but football and hockey. Those two sports also won't compete in the ACC when the Fighting Irish land there.

Also joining the Big East next season are Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU for all sports.

Villanova had toyed for years with moving its football program up from the FCS level. Obviously, those plans are finished.

``I'm pleased we didn't make that decision,'' Donohue said.

School officials haven't said much publicly because there are still so many pieces that need to come together. Will it be a 10 or 12-team league? What will the television deal look like? Will a conference tournament live on at Madison Square Garden?

``The commercial enterprise around this is going to be really important to us,'' Nicastro said. ``Make no mistake about that, we're in that game. We're going to be in the television business in a big way.''

Nicastro said the seven schools have only worked together in making the move but are starting to look outside for new leadership. The next step is simply getting organized in the transition plan.

About the only part of the defection the seven schools know for sure is that they're all unified as they journey onward.

``Right now, we're focused on moving forward together,'' Lyons said. ``All other decisions still have to be made, but we're going to stick together.''

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Follow Dan Gelston at www.twitter.com/APGelston

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Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game against Michael Jordan, Wizards

Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game against Michael Jordan, Wizards

As the basketball world mourns the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, memories of his career and the highlights that made us fall in love with him are surfacing. One of the most well-told narratives of Bryant’s 20-year career was his pursuit of Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. 

Bryant idolized Jordan and was relentless in his pursuit of at least matching Jordan’s six championships. He competed like Jordan, scored like Jordan, berated teammates and opponents alike like Jordan and came up one title short of his idol’s total.

On one night, however, Bryant did get the best of His Airness -- in their last of eight head-to-head matchups. 

On March 28, 2003, a Friday night in Los Angeles, Bryant put on a show, scoring 55 points in what would stand as his highest scoring total ever against the Washington Wizards.

The Lakers defeated the Wizards, 108-94. Jordan, who had just turned 40 that February and was less than a month from ending his legendary career, finished with a team-high 23 points in over 40 minutes.

Bryant was in a different zone, though, dropping 42 points in the first half alone. Through the first two quarters, he made 14 of 19 shots from the field, including 8 of 11 three-point attempts. While he cooled off in the second half, shooting just 1-for-10, he added to his point total by knocking down 10 free throws. The performance stands as the ninth-highest scoring total of Bryant’s career, and his three-point shooting that night -- 9-of-13 -- is the biggest reason the Wizards are the only team he shot over 40 percent from three against in his career.

Going into that game, Bryant was already a three-time NBA champion at 24 years old and seemed to have gained Jordan’s respect as a player. But Jordan may have inadvertendly fueled Bryant's performance that night. Ex-Wizard Gilbert Arenas told a story on "The No Chill Podcast" of MJ telling Bryant he could never fill his shoes after the Wizards defeated the Lakers earlier in the season. Arenas claims Bryant didn't talk to his teammates for two weeks leading up to the rematch. He internalized the jab from Jordan and turned it into the 55-point game he put up against the Wizards.

After learning of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Jordan released a statement through his spokeswoman saying Bryant was like a little brother to him.

“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing. Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe -- he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply -- and took pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball. Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to to Vanessa, the Lakers organization and basketball fans around the world.”


Jordan and Bryant exchanged some fun and memorable banter in not only that game but in several of their meetings towards the latter part of Jordan’s career. Just a month earlier, the two went head-to-head in the 2003 All-Star Game. Each started and clocked 36 minutes in the double-overtime game, Bryant scoring 22 points for the winning Western Conference, while Jordan scored 20 for the East.

Bryant actually finished his career with a 5-3 record head-to-head against Jordan -- four of those matchups coming against the Wizards. Jordan averaged 24.5 points in those games and Bryant averaged 22.8 points. Whether Bryant actually surpassed Jordan or other legends as the greatest basketball player is debatable, but most agree that Bryant’s style and how he approached the game was as close to Jordan as any other player.

There was no better example than this March night in 2003.

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Rui Hachimura says, 'Kobe was a hero for me'

Rui Hachimura says, 'Kobe was a hero for me'

Kobe Bryant's popularity stretched far beyond the United States. He was a global icon and especially loved in Asia. 

Following the NBA star's shocking death on Sunday, the entire sports world grieved and shared fond memories of Bryant all over social media. 

Rui Hachimura grew up in Japan idolizing Bryant, so he took to Twitter a day after the accident to share his thoughts on his hero.  

"I was very shocked to hear of this incident," Hachimura said. "I really can't believe it. I can't speak. Kobe is also a hero to me, and I've seen [him] a lot since I was little. I have met him only once.

"Three years ago, during [the] Final 4, [Bryant gave] a special pair of shoes as a surprise to the team," he said. "Not only that, he talked about what Mamba Mentality is and what people should be before basketball players. 

"He was more than just a basketball player," he said. "It is really sad that this accident was like this. I wish good luck to his family and those who have been involved in this accident. Thanks, Kobe."

After Michael Jordan retired, Bryant became the most popular player in Japan. Along with Hachimura, he inspired players like Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe to play the game of basketball in the first place. 

Similar to what made Bryant so popular in the United States, Japan loved him for his tireless work ethic and killer instinct on the court. That's what earned him 15 All-NBA selections and five NBA titles, and along with his efforts off the court post-retirement, earned him the love and respect of so many people around the world. 

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