(Published in Daily News, March 19, 1985)

Finally, they sat at the same table last weekend - the stubborn old president, the pragmatic young premier. It wasn't their choice, but they got down to business.

Breakthroughs, of a sort, were made. The old man agreed to give up Duke, but only as long as he could claim Syracuse; a fair exchange, since both weapons are experimental and tend to sputter under pressure. But the talks got no further. This weekend, hostilities begin.

Except for those who have been deceived into thinking Mikhail Gorbachov, not Dave Gavitt, runs the Big East, basketball fans are approaching a lucky moment. For once, a pointless but passionate sports argument is about to be settled.

The Atlantic Coast Conference? Or the Big East Conference?

Friday, Villanova of the latter meets Maryland of the former in the Southeast Regional semifinal. And there is a better than 50-50 chance that three regional finals over the weekend will match the superpowers - Villanova-North Carolina in Birmingham, Ala., Georgetown-Georgia Tech in Providence, R.I., and St. John's-North Carolina State in Denver. (In Houston, Boston College nudged Duke to reach the Midwest semifinals).

Six Big East teams and five ACC teams were permitted into this 64-team, 19-day trail of dribbles. After the first two rounds, four remain from each side. They jostle for air time on ESPN and the big networks, commit each other's every move to memory and videotape. There's gossip and fascination and quite a bit of envy involved. When they meet this weekend, as you know they will, it won't be quite like Tulsa-UTEP.

You can tell the Big East and the ACC share a special type of respectful hatred when you look at their schedules. You find Bucknells and Woffords and Marists galore, but no Clemsons, UConns, Pitts or Virginias. Last season, the twain met but twice, both times in tournaments (North Carolina beat St. John's in the Holiday Festival, Virginia was the beneficiary of Syracuse's annual chest-up number in the NCAAs). This year, the Big East got more than even, with St. John's clobbering State in the Festival, Providence (ugh) tripping Virginia in Hawaii, and BC whipping Wake Forest. The Maryland-Villanova game Jan. 27 was the ACC's last chance. Lefty Driesell declared, "I'm getting tired of the Big East." Standing up for the South, the turned-on Terps won, 77-74.

But in doing so, they gave Gavitt's league its most meaningful tribute. Tired of the Big East? The Big East is a six-year-old; the ACC has been building its tradition since 1954. Tired of what? Seton Hall? You don't hear anyone getting tired of the Midwestern Cities Conference.

"It's a great compliment," says Villanova's Rollie Massimino, "to even be included in an argument like that - to even be compared to the ACC. But, yes, I think the conferences are comparable.

"Some years one will have better players, some years the other will have. But both leagues are here to stay, especially ours. It's a fun thing to talk about. The kids? You bet, the kids think about it all the time. I hope Lefty knows that we'll be excited about this game."

This year, you could play point-counterpoint for hours.

Who in the ACC could touch Georgetown? Or St. John's?

Sure, but who in Division II couldn't beat Seton Hall? Or Providence? Who's the coach at UConn, anyway? Sergeant Preston?

No, Dom Perno is the name, and he beat Syracuse twice this year and took Villanova to overtime on the road. The imbalance argument is a bad rap.

Yeah, but all eight ACC teams went to postseason tournaments, and that's a fact.

Sorry, I don't think Wake Forest's loss at South Florida is much of a point in your favor. Besides, it's the players that count. And I'll take Patrick Ewing, Ed Pinckney, Chris Mullin, Rafael Addison and Pearl Washington and play anybody, including the Sixers.

Yeah, keep going. The third All-ACC team would kick the second All-Big East team by only 20 or so.

Oh, yeah? Pinckney would be the best center in the ACC by several furlongs.

But I'll take Mark Price, Kenn Smith, Tommy Amaker and even Spud Webb over good ol' Pearl, whom Jim Boeheim would probably trade to UNLV if he could. And players come and go. Let's talk about atmosphere. Ambiance. I understand they're going to use card girls and Don Dunphy at the next Georgetown game.

Aw, come on. That's called playing hard. Georgetown fills the Garden. And the Carrier Dome. People. Dollars. Does North Carolina still play in a shoe box?

Yeah, but they're moving. And tell Rollie the place they're moving out of is bigger than the place Villanova's moving into.

Ah, cut it out. We've got Billy Raftery and Len Berman on TV.

Yeah, and we've got Billy Packer.

Fine. I'll accept that as a concession speech.

The truth is, the Big East probably had a slight edge in players and teams this year, the ACC a bigger edge last year and next.

The Big East will only be an equal to the ACC when its cellar teams grow up, when every game becomes an adventure. In 1980, six ACC teams won 20 or more games. This year, ACC co-champion Georgia Tech got drilled by No. 6 Clemson, No. 7 Wake Forest and No. 8 Virginia. In the Big Half-East, Seton Hall won one conference game and Providence won two, both over Seton Hall.

"That will change," Massimino said. "I would not be surprised to see Seton Hall in the NCAA tournament in five years. The reason is they're surrounded by Eastern kids, good ones, ones that might want to stay home. They have a chance. Providence has a heck of a chance."

He might be right. Virginia had two winning ACC records in 27 years until Ralph Sampson came along. Clemson won four ACC games in its first four years, and has had only two coaches since 1931 to leave with winning records. You won't catch the Tigers ridiculing Providence; they're 7-32 in the ACC tournament.

Anyway, it will be tough to restrain Massimino from claiming the ACC title if he beats Maryland and North Carolina (which meets Auburn in the semifinal) this weekend. And it could - repeat, could - happen.

The biggest reason is the lack of a shot clock, which erases Villanova's biggest shortcoming, depth, and recovers its biggest strength, its delay game. The Wildcats are strange - they actually seem to like playing keepaway in the final minutes. Maybe that's the trick.

"That's because we win with it," Massimino said. "In 28 years of coaching, I've maybe lost five games when I've had the lead with the delay. We've always had good free throw shooters here, which is the important thing. And we run it a little different than most teams."

When everybody else tries to play freeze-it, invariably some confused forward is handing the ball off to some impatient guard, and three defenders are circling like sharks, and a referee spots walking. Villanova never does that. The ballhandler always is given one-third of the floor to play with. And the object is not to get fouled. Think it's easy to foul the guy with the ball in the final seconds? Not when a team moves it as crisply as the Wildcats.

"And Gary McLain enjoys it, too," Massimino said. "Everything is so directed toward Eddie in our program. This gives him some attention."

McLain, the kid who never looked quite right on a Big East floor, is in the Final 16 for the third time in four years. Washington, the prodigy who kept burying Villanova after Massimino said he didn't want him, is out for the second time in three years. And, maybe 12 years from now when Michigan's Gary Grant is playing in the NBA All-Star Game, Gary McLain can gather his kids together and talk about last Sunday. "I handled that guy," he'll say.

McLain's unsinkable spirit has persevered through a bunch of tough L's and a lot of Massimino-raised hell. Now it has been rewarded.

Massimino repeatedly has taunted these 'Cats with, "I"ll always remember this team. You've taken 10 years off my life."

Sunday, McLain caught his coach's eye and smiled.

"Now," he said, "maybe you'll remember us for something else."