New York’s college basketball fans will have a chance to confirm that there really is no such thing as too much of a good thing. The coming week will bring two major conference tournaments to the same city at the same time, and not just any conference tournaments at that.
While the Big East, with defending national champion Villanova, plays for the 35th consecutive year at Madison Square Garden, the Atlantic Coast Conference, with defending national runner-up North Carolina and the cachet of having the granddaddy of postseason league playoffs, will make its first trip north to Barclays Center. Two champions will be crowned, one after the other, on Saturday as spectators might consider it a wintertime Subway Series.
“There are so many great basketball fans in New York . . . I think people are going to be able to see both,” said Boston College coach Jim Christian, who is from Bethpage. “I just think that with the quality of teams, the quality of players coming in to New York, the basketball people are going to love it. I think it’s going to be a great environment every night.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, another former Long Islander who won two Big East titles and now has his team in the ACC, said: “I’m used to Madison Square Garden. I’m not sure how it will be. The Big East was always pretty much a home crowd for Syracuse, Connecticut and, when St. John’s was good, certainly St. John’s. Georgetown and Villanova would bring their contingent of fans. For the ACC, I don’t know who will bring the most fans.”
The ACC, which has held a postseason tournament every year since 1954 and popularized the concept nationally, agreed four years ago to hold its event in Brooklyn in 2017 and 2018. That decision fit with Barclays Center’s initiative into college ball, when the arena hosted NCAA Tournament games last March.
“It’s a great venue and probably the most exciting city environment that you can be in. I think it brings even more attention to our conference and especially this year when it has been so balanced,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team was a mainstay at the Big East Tournament and is hoping to be an attention-grabber in the ACC event this year, added: “We’re looking forward to playing in Brooklyn. We played there this year already. It should be a great tournament, we’ve got a great league, we’re bringing great teams to New York.”
This will be deja vu for several ACC teams and coaches, who are Big East alumni. It also will be a homecoming for the entire league, considering the ACC flourished in decades past with New York recruits.
Pitino, recalling his years at St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay, said: “I can just tell you back then there was no Big East. And while St. John’s was popular in Queens, it was really North Carolina that was most popular. Everybody followed North Carolina.”
Meanwhile, the Garden, long considered the mecca for the college game, has expanded its own portfolio and will host the NCAA East Regional finals later this month and has attracted the Big Ten Tournament for next year. The Big Ten was so eager to play in New York that it agreed to hold its games a week earlier than usual, recognizing that the Big East has the later date.
That accommodation is a statement about the stature that the Big East still commands.
“There weren’t a lot of Big East games on TV when I was growing up, there was maybe one or two that was on, but I tell you there wasn’t one that I didn’t watch,” Christian said. “If you were a college basketball fan, that’s what you did. Maybe we’d go to a game at St. John’s but really we watched the Big East game of the week on Channel 9.”
These days, the audience is national and the Garden is still the tournament’s home.
“It’s a special time,” St. John’s legend-turned-coach Chris Mullin said. “I’ve obviously played in it, I’ve scouted it. It’s one of the best tournaments to come and see. It takes the electricity up another notch.”