NEW YORK — Since 1983, the Big East tournament has been played at Madison Square Garden. It became an event more than a college basketball championship. For a few days, New York City cared about a sport it usually doesn’t.
From the days of Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington to the years dominated by Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles to the recent times of Peyton Siva, Kemba Walker and Gerry McNamara, the Big East tournament provided stars on the court and on the sideline.
Hall of Fame coaches like John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino helped keep the national spotlight on the Garden.
Drastic realignment over the summer has changed the look of the Big East. Basketball powers like Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh are gone. Creighton, Xavier and Butler joined seven basketball-only schools in the redesigned Big East.
This week we find out if that 10-team league can drum up the interest of the “old” Big East.
“I love the ambiance of it, the excitement of it, the stage it’s on,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “All that contributed to what it had been and it will continue. As a young coach, I thought of being with Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, those sorts of guys and say I’m with the best, and now I think of Jay Wright and John Thompson III. It’s OK to be respectful of what it has been and be thankful to people who have made this what it is.”
The tournament starts Wednesday night with first-round games between Seton Hall and Butler and Georgetown and DePaul.
The quarterfinals Thursday have top-seeded and third-ranked Villanova against the Seton Hall-Butler winner, St. John’s against Providence, second-seeded and 14th-ranked Creighton against the Georgetown-DePaul winner and Xavier facing Marquette.
The first tournament without those highly ranked schools that brought a lot of fervent fans along will be watched by many to see if lives up to the past.
“It’s important, but I don’t see any reason why it won’t deliver an outstanding tournament as the conference has for years,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin whose team plays its home games at Madison Square Garden. “At this time of year, New Yorkers want to celebrate college basketball and they do it through Big East basketball. Given the competitive nature of this league, the compelling story lines, outstanding talents and rich rivalries, I expect an outstanding conference tournament.”
At previous Big East tournaments, most of the teams in the conference already had at-large bids to the NCAA tournament sewn up and were playing for seeding. Not so this year.
Villanova (28-3) and Creighton (24-6) are no-doubters for the field of 68 with the Wildcats in serious contention for a No. 1 seed.
Xavier, Providence and St. John’s finished in a three-way tie for third and all had overall records of 20-11 and conference records of 10-8. In the latest RPI released by the NCAA, Xavier was at 48 with Providence at 53 and St. John’s at 57. All numbers that get you in the bubble discussion but don’t guarantee anything.
“Like everything else in its first year, it will be dissected because that’s what our industry does,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think for the conference tournament and the conference as a whole, give it a couple of years. The first year went great and the tournament will be outstanding. Everything came together so quickly. It will take some time. Let’s see how it goes and make some adjustments. We have the stability of Madison Square Garden, the schools that come to New York City and the alumni in the area.”
Creighton, featuring the nation’s leading scorer in two-time All-America Doug McDermott, will help fill the void of fans.
“We sold out our tickets and then some, around 2,300 tickets,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father. “Obviously they’re thrilled about the opportunity to play in the Big East tournament and having that support in that building will be a huge plus for us.”
Doug McDermott is ready for his first Big East season to wrap up in New York.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “As a little kid I grew up watching the Big East tournament. There were so many great games at Madison Square Garden — Kemba Walker, Syracuse vs. UConn battles. They’re no longer in the conference, but we can start up something special here.”
Just like the old days, there will be some early games that may not guarantee a spot in the NCAA field for the winner but spells doom for the loser. The St. John’s-Providence matchup is one of those.
“Opportunity is knocking at the door,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said, “and one of us will kick it down.”
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