From March 6 through March 14, 30 conference tournaments will be played in Division I basketball. Twenty eight of the 30 will fall into one of two categories:
1) A small conference playing a tournament on either a college campus or in a quarter-filled arena in a mid-sized city with teams playing their hearts out for the chance to appear in the NCAA tournament.
2) A “power conference” playing a tournament in a half-filled NBA arena with teams who don’t want to give too much away before the NCAA tournament.
The two exceptions are the ACC and Big East tournaments. I don’t know much about the ACC tournament other than it has a lot of tradition and many swear that it’s the greatest conference tournament in the land.
I’m not here to say that the ACC tournament is better or worse than the Big East tournament, but having grown up around “the Beast” my whole life, I can tell you that every college basketball fan owes it to themselves to make a trip to the Garden during the first week in March.
There is no conference tournament quite like the Big East Tournament. Those who have been to it know exactly what I am talking about. For those who haven’t, allow me to explain exactly what you’re missing…
A Truly Neutral Court
The first Big East Tournament was held in 1980 at the Providence Civic Center. The next two seasons it was played in Syracuse and Hartford before it finally came to New York City in 1983. It has been played at The World’s Most Famous Arena ever since.
How it took the Big East until year four to move the tournament to New York is beyond me. No other city is built to host any other tournament the way New York is equipped to handle the Big East.
Of the 16 Big East schools, nine of them (St. John’s, Seton Hall, Rutgers, UConn, Providence, Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Notre Dame) have enormous alumni bases in New York City.
Of the seven schools that don’t have huge NYC alumni bases, Marquette and Louisville have great traveling fan bases while Pitt and West Virginia have some combination of a traveling fan base and NYC-based alumni to represent the schools well at the tournament.
That’s a whopping 13 of 16 schools well represented in the stands at this tournament. While Syracuse, UConn, and St. John’s probably have more pull than the rest of the field, just about every school has enough of a fan base to shout back.
With the fans of so many schools at the tournament, Madison Square Garden becomes as neutral a court as you will see during Championship Week.
An Educated Crowd
New York has always had the well justified reputation of a pro sports town. But ever since the Knicks and St. John’s have become national punch lines, the best basketball town on the East Coast has embraced Big East hoops.
Big East hoops is not just for the alumni of the schools anymore. Just about every Big East game can be seen on either ESPN or one of the local New York sports channels.
Aside from the fact that it’s New York and it’s my home, the Big East basketball coverage might be my favorite thing about living here. By the time the teams come to the tournament, the locals are familiar with all of the teams.
The local promotion of Big East basketball has caused a huge spike in attendance at the Big East tournament this decade. When I was in high school (1999-2003), my friends and I had very few problems finding tickets to any game we wanted. That’s no longer the case; just about every session has sold out since 2004 making it one of the most attended conference tournaments in the land.
Elite Teams Playing Legendary Games
Its been well documented just how good the Big East has been in basketball since the expansion to 16 teams back in 2005. When these teams come to New York with NCAA tournament bids and seeding on the line, they bring out the absolute best in each other.
Side Note: I’m amazed when sports writers, notably Tony Kornheiser, complain about the size of the Big East and try to argue that it was better when it was smaller. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that a lot of really good teams going head to head every night was a bad thing.
While the Big East tournament doesn’t have the same history as the ACC tournament, it’s certainly had its share of legendary games. No Big East fan can forget Ray Allen’s shot to beat Georgetown, or the three year war between Pitt and UConn in the finals from 2002 through 2004.
Last year’s six overtime epic between Syracuse and UConn not only went down in Big East tournament lure, it will forever be known as one of the great college basketball games of all time.
The six overtime game immediately became the most famous in a slew of famous Big East tournament games. While there’s no way that game will ever be topped, it has certainly whetted the appetite for basketball fans hoping that this year’s tournament will produce another legendary game.
The Saturday Night Finale
This is the most underrated part of what makes the Big East tournament so great. Every other major conference holds their title game during the day, usually a few hours before the brackets are released on Selection Sunday.
But as we have established, the Big East Tournament isn’t like others. Having a big game during the day in the city that never sleeps just seems like a bad way to make traffic even worse than it already is. It wouldn’t be right to hold the final at any time other than Saturday night.
The lead up to the Big East title game starts at the Midtown bars that afternoon as fans of the teams that lost in the semifinals drown their sorrows while scrambling to find buyers for their tickets to the title game.
After the murmurs of “you need tickets” subside, the local watering holes turn into impromptu pep-rallies for fans of the two teams participating in the title game as fans work themselves into a fever pitch over overpriced pints.
After the fans take in two hours of exhilarating basketball, the night is far from over. Fans of the losing team will immediately exit, usually going somewhere quiet to drown their sorrows.
Fans of the victors will usually move down to the court to watch their team cut down the nets. If you ever wanted to stand on the most famous court in the world, this is probably your chance, as the security guards will allow fans onto parts of the court as long as they don’t interfere with the team and the festivities.
After reviling in victory it's time for a night out in New York City, as if the night wasn’t exciting enough.
Then again any conference tournament is merely exciting enough; this is the Big East.
For posts like this with snarkier jokes, check out the The First Church of Fitzgerald.