NEW YORK (AP) – When the Big Ten announced it would start playing its men’s basketball tournament on the East Coast, the venue that made headlines was clear: Madison Square Garden.
From the start of the NIT in the late 1930s, to Knicks championships in the ’70s and the birth of the Big East Tournament in the ’80s, the Garden has as much history as it does nicknames.
“It’s been great. It’s always a dream come true as a little boy growing up wanting to play at Madison Square Garden, just exciting,” Michigan’s Jaaron Simmons said. “We had a great crowd. It got kind of loud in there.”
The first Big Ten Tournament played in New York ends Sunday with Michigan facing Purdue.
The location was ideal for two sets of Big Ten fans. The many alumni that live in the New York Metropolitan area and those in Big Ten country, who could see their favorite team play in the World’s Most Famous Arena as an excuse to become a tourist in the Big Apple.
That’s what Michigan State alum and Lansing, Michigan, resident Bill Burmeister did with his wife, Sherry, their son, Ben and his wife, Jenny.
Finding an apartment on Airbnb across the Hudson river in Jersey City, New Jersey, their trip prior to No. 2 Michigan State’s quarterfinal game Friday included a Broadway show and a bus tour of Manhattan. Before watching the Spartans play Michigan in Saturday’s semifinals, they planned to see the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan.
“We aren’t doing total basketball the whole time, which is kind of nice doing that, to get a little of each,” Sherry said. “But I would say that Indianapolis it seemed to be the event. Where here, this is one of 9,000 things going on.”
The Big Ten did manage to generate a buzz in the Mecca of Basketball, which some traditional Midwestern Big Ten fans were skeptical about.
“I thought it was better than expected,” said former Duke star Grant Hill, who called the semifinals on CBS. “Quarterfinal games, a lot of teams playing, I thought it was good energy. There’s always great energy in this building. I think there’s really knowledgeable fans.
“My hometown of (Washington) D.C. where it was last year, it didn’t feel like there was the same energy in the building or as good a turnout. Was it standing room only sold out the whole day? I don’t know, but I think for the most part, the games that I watched, it was a good crowd.”
The semifinals were a sellout, 19,812. Many cleared out after Michigan beat Michigan State in Game One. Then even more in the second half of the second game as No. 8 Purdue began drubbing Penn State. But the place was packed and loud for the Wolverines and Spartans, with Michigan fans especially making their presence heard.
Having Rutgers make an unexpected three-day appearance from Wednesday to Friday gave the tournament a home team that helped keep MSG rocking.
Playing a conference tournament at the same venue the Big East has called home since 1983 meant moving it up a week. Sunday’s winner will have at least a week and half off, while a team such as No. 13 Ohio State, eliminated in the quarterfinals on Friday, could have two weeks until it plays another game if the selection committee has them on the Friday/Sunday split of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“We had to sacrifice a lot to put ourselves in this position to be in the Garden,” Michigan coach John Beilein, who coached West Virginia here in the Big East Tournament, said after the second round. “I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll all say it was worth it. If you witness these games we’re having right now and how New York loves basketball, they love college basketball. Something that I mentioned several times, March in New York is just – I don’t know why it’s a really favorite time of mine.”
It remains to be seen whether the extra week to rest and recover is a good thing or if it will throw teams off.
“As an individual player and a team, it’s about rhythm and you are accustomed to the rhythm of the season and obviously a tournament like this or an NCAA Tournament where you play every day or every other day, that’s what you want to maintain a sense of rhythm,” Hill said, adding, “Sort of uncharted waters for all these coaches and these teams. How are they going to come out of this, stay sharp, but also get their rest for the opening round? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, but we’ll see.”