With New York City hosting -- for the first time -- two major conference tournaments simulataneously, I wanted to get as much of the experience as I could. And document it. Here's how I spent Thursday and Friday, crisscrossing between Manhattan and Brooklyn -- and back again a few times.
BROOKLYN -- I've never been a "New York City is the best city in the world" type of guy. I find a lot about it unappealing, in fact. But other parts, at certain times: undying love. Those feelings are spurred by what happens this time of year. Something about taking a Metro-North train into Manhattan, the excitement of the conference tournaments getting dialed up a notch more each day. It's punctuated by all the actual (and sidewalk) alumni dotting Manhattan all over by donning the colors of their teams.
Come early-to-mid March in Manhattan, there's college spirit everywhere. It is fantastic and uplifting, a pro-sports town switches allegiances for a week-long intense love affair for the college game. For me and others, it makes for a great scene-setter and appetizer to the NCAA tournament. A microcosm to what the nation as a whole embraces, only it's seldom as intense or widespread as the Big East tournament. Many outside the northeast/Big East hate this sentiment, and those inside know it -- and have embraced being obnoxious and elite about the superiority of Big East basketball.
But now a lot of that's changing, not only for the Big East, but the fact that MSG has company. The Atlantic 10 landed a sweet deal when the new Barclays Center agreed to host its league championship. What a great thing for New York City. But can the A-10 sustain this long term? That absolutely remains to be seen. The afternoon session in Brooklyn is the first stop for me, and there's a biting wind on a 37-degree morning. My cab driver, Manmohan, cannot name me one college basketball team. But he loves Kobe. I explain to him conference championship week and the NCAA tournament as we drive across the Manhattan Bridge.
When you enter, Barclays Center still smells new, like soft plastic coating was removed 20 minutes before you walked in. Black dominates the interior, from the ceiling to rugs to chairs to walls. The place feels shiny yet rugged, new-age yet distinctively embracing of the old-school community that envelops the intentionally rusty exterior of the artistic-looking structure. It is a physical source of pride for Brooklynites already, the new province, right in the heart of the borough.
Charlotte and Richmond get first billing in the opening round of the tournament. And right away, there's something obvious: all the Brooklyn people who love basketball are not inside this palace. The game is sparsely attended, but that's natural; unlike the Big East, the A-10 has struggled for years to bring in bodies on the first two days. There are maybe 1,500 people in the lower bowl. It is so wide open that Immaculate Conception Elementary School from Queens has taken a field trip with 150 kids and put them within 10 rows behind the basket. The top section of the arena is curtained off for the tournament on account of not commanding enough ticket sales.
Charlotte-Richmond ends in controversy. Spiders coach Chris Mooney is tossed for only the second time in his career. The Charlotte win becomes the lead sports story for much of the day.
"It's a pretty devastating way to lose the game," Mooney said. "I can't take it back, but I wish I could."
I spend so much time talking and writing off that story, by the time I get out to see Butler-Dayton, that game's nearly over. (This is the great challenge/problem for all sports hacks at tournaments. It is deadline at its best/worst.) Brad Stevens' team goes on to win 73-67. Over the course of the first two days at the A-10 tournament, almost every coach and player will call the opportunity to play in Brooklyn humbling, awe-inspiring, a privilege. Charlotte's Alan Major said he made a point to toss on a coat, walk in the cold and soak in the city the night before his team's first game.
Stevens and his team don't share that view in such grand tones. They no doubt appreciate their chances for a bigger stage, but Butler is as businesslike as any program when it comes time to play in the postseason.
"We're treating it like any other tournament," Stevens said. "This is why you play in Maui. Everything you do in the non-conference is to prepare you for now."
The arena empties out, and I take the train over to the Garden for the nightcap. The subway stop is directly outside Barclays. It is perfect. In fact, when you take the steps or escalator up, the great visual effect of the basketball palace waiting for you only enhances eagerness and emphasis on the rebuilt portion of this city.
I think, This works. It needs tweaking, but it works.
MANHATTAN -- The 3 train bumps its way from Atlantic Avenue up to 34th Street. Penn Station is, of course, a madhouse. The buzz in the air is instantly palpable. Brooklyn and Manhattan hum at separate but similar wavelengths. But, yes, there is a difference. And upon the walk up from Penn Station, taking the escalators through the main entrance of MSG, you hear it.
The pep bands.
Fantastic. Before the afternoon and evening sessions, while throngs of people wait to be let through, cheerleaders and clarinet players alike entertain the patrons, cycling through their 20-song catalog, 10 of which almost every college band plays -- and can play in its sleep. Villanova's crew is up, and the sounds from the brass and drums slam and ricochet off the walls of the covered concourse of MSG.
All fans watch, smile. Some dance. There are aging couples wearing faded hats and heavy scarves. There are single dudes still hanging on to their mid-20s even though their 30s have come along as delicately as the gray hair occupying the sides of their heads. It's a celebratory scene.
I've always appreciated MSG come Big East tournament time but never for the building. The Garden itself is subject to way too much hyperbole. The tournament and the crowds are what make the event. It's evident again, and stark, after having come from Barclays. That place is new. MSG is broken in. It has the grooves down. Now it's time for the rowdy night session.
Oh, and Bill Clinton decided to show up. Middle-aged women are in a frenzy in their seats near the floor, pointing to him and laughing in a positive way. It's Bill Clinton! The president is flanked by a hefty security detail, and later gets headlines by surprising Louisville with a locker room visit. But after the Cardinals steamroll Villanova, there is a secondary, more important story playing out. Cards guard Russ Smith plays one of the best games of his career just hours after finding out his high school coach, the legendary Jack Curran, had died.
"Russ had a heavy heart tonight," Rick Pitino said afterward. Smith is now playing out the rest of this season in Curran's honor.
It turns into a pretty emotional night for many inside the Garden. Curran was a massive New York City basketball figure.
Two hours after Louisville gets the right to play in the semifinals, Notre Dame joins them in the bracket by taking care of higher-seeded Marquette. At game's end, the Garden is still mostly filled. As fans leave for the cabs and bars, one thing can be heard coming from the escalator corridors.
"LET'S GO OR-ANGE!"
BROOKLYN -- The crowds are better for the Friday quarterfinals. Saint Louis (which is turning into the chic Final Four sleeper pick even before the NCAA tournament field is released) handles Charlotte 72-55 and Butler holds of La Salle 69-58. The Explorers haven't made the NCAAs in more than two decades. One more win would have probably sealed it. Instead: the worst kind of wait.
But forget about the games for a minute. I can't help but wonder: Why doesn't the A-10 do all it can to change its format? It appears it's going to have to if it wants to keep playing at the Barclays and showing relevance enough to afford the rent. Before the day is over, reports will have Butler leaving the conference to join the new Big East. Barclays this year, MSG the next.
There's undeniable unrest in the Atlantic 10. Xavier, which was one-and-done at this year's tournament, is also almost a guaranteed goner at this point. Charlotte's leaving. Temple's on its way to the other half of the fractured Big East, the side that doesn't have a name yet.
With attendance healthy but not thriving in the test-drive year, and with some uncertainty coming its way, it's probably time to be as proactive as possible with the postseason tournament. So, this: Why not hold the league finals on Friday night? Why not compete with Madison Square Garden that way? The Sunday morning championship game has no buzz year to year. The Saturday semis get lumped in with the big-boy conferences and can become afterthroughts. Get a jump start on the Big East and schedule Tuesday-Friday. Give it competition. The Atlantic 10 might soon need to throw everything it has and jockey its league slate if it wants to keep New York City an option.
A title game in Brooklyn scheduled for 8 p.m. on a Friday night. What's not to love?
MANHATTAN -- Syracuse orange is everywhere. It's approaching a smothering level. The same chant that serenaded the exit from the Garden on Thursday night is going again. And I'm not even at the Garden yet. The subway ride from Brooklyn takes about 25 minutes, and half my car is going to Syracuse-Georgetown. Upon getting to Penn Station, the Orange only multiplies. It must be outnumbering Georgetown, Louisville and Notre Dame colors five-to-one combined.
This is why people lament the Big East breaking up. On the escalator ride, a man tells me the conference would've stayed together had Syracuse not left. Cuse is the glue. There are many who agree with this.
Outside the Garden, as the sun falls, recent graduates are desperately searching for tickets. They're available but extremely expensive by way of scalpers. No single ticket is going for less than $200. Some pairs are near $800. People from upstate New York, Massachusetts and midwestern Pennsylvania tell me they made the impulse drive overnight, sans tickets, with the hopes of landing something.
The guy from upstate New York is here with his lady, and they've been stalking MSG for more than two hours without any luck in negotiating. There are 20 minutes left before tip, and they have no tickets. Barely any hope, too.
As the game gets set to begin -- and I don't want to oversell this, but I do want to be honest in depicting the scene -- it's among the most revved crowds that I've ever seen for a college basketball game. Pregame hype and in-game experience make this a special occasion. Syracuse-Georgetown. And it feels like a Syracuse home game. This is the temporary end to a rivalry.
Throughout the course of the unflattering, physical affair, the anxious drone never stops. Derrick Coleman sits near the Syracues bench and lives and dies with each possession. Celebrities are everywhere. Former players from both sides have made the trip. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has prime seats behind the Syracuse bench. Georgetown makes its run. And as the game approaches overtime, VCU coach Shaka Smart sits in the press room following his team's win over St. Joseph's and watches the game on the TV mounted to the wall. He jokingly remarks how he'd rather watch the end of this rivalry than sit and take questions from the media.
That's a cool scene.
I won't go rosy-prose on the game. But in terms of historic importance, hard to believe how the final Big East tilt between Hoyas and Orange won't be seen down the road as among the top 20 noteworthy games in Big East tournament history.
Afterward, there's a somber attitude on both sides. No one from Syracuse or Georgetown really knows how to react anymore. So much has been said. What's left to say -- or do? It's now a state of limbo.
I'd love to stay for the Irish wake, but there's one more game to get to. Back to the 4 train. The subways are already again filling up with orange. On my train, a family of four that lives near Wall Street is celebrating. The wife/mom is a Syracuse grad. The kids are adorned in Orange gear. A few stops, then off to head home.
"We'll back tomorrow night," the father says. "Hopefully just one more."
BROOKLYN -- With one rivalry coming to a close on one island, another plays out its final chapter on the other. Temple and UMass, which in the 1990s built up one of the best clashes in college basketball, trade leads. I'm there in time for most of the second half. The building is alive, the best I've seen it since the start. That's because what Syracuse-Georgetown is to the Big East, these two are to the Atlantic 10.
But it's still not filled. Not even at 80 percent. This was supposed to be the best year in the history of the Atlantic 10. Alas, it was not. (But we'll see what prosperity waits for the league on Selection Sunday and thereafter.)
UMass goes on to win. Both coaches speak to a rivalry finished but unfulfilled. The Atlantic 10's going to need some of that spirit, that respect-and-hate combo, to thrive. Because the notion of New York getting two tournaments is a great one. For fans to have the option to spend the afternoon in one building and then take the train to the other for the night session: it's a hoop lover's dream.
It was a lot of hustle and work, but the 48 hours between the two spots and the five trips combined were an exhausting joy. Some controversy, a classic, a Clinton and a whole lot of character. Two conferences, one city, a shared love. With college hoops set to have conference sea changes coming again, let this be the new legacy for March basketball in New York City.
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