By Jim Weber
It sacrilegious to even think about another conference replacing the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Held at MSG since 1983, the memories are endless: Georgetown’s Michael Graham swinging at Syracuse’s Andre Hawkins, Patrick Ewing’s back-to-back MVPs, Walter Berry’s swat of Pearl Washington, Ray Allen vs. Allen Iverson, Taliek Brown’s 35-footer, Gerry McNamara’s heroics, the six-overtime game and, most recently, UConn’s five games in five days tour.
Between these moments, the location and the massive coverage of the event by ESPN, the Big East Tournament blows every other conference tourney out of the water – even the ACC Tournament that has the most tradition and dates back to 1954.
But the idea off the ACC holding its own conference tournament at MSG was first floated by commissioner John Swofford last September. It was seen as spitting in the face of the Big East, which the ACC already raided for Virginia Tech, Miami (FL) and Boston College nearly a decade ago and has now pillaged for Pitt and Syracuse. While he’s only discussed adding Madison Square Garden to a rotation of hosts, there’s no way MSG would be want to be inconvenienced like that, making this an all-in proposition by the ACC.
While the Big East Tournament getting locked out of MSG might seem preposterous to some, we’ve seen time and time again in conference realignment that nothing is sacred. And I fully expect MSG to ditch the Big East for the ACC as soon as contractually possible.
Let’s look at this from the side of Madison Square Garden and the ACC to see why this is destined to happen.
Madison Square Garden
With Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East for the ACC as early as the 2013-14 season and West Virginia bolting to the Big 12 for the upcoming football season, the Big East is going to be a shell of its former self. And if you hold the two new conferences side by side, there’s no comparison in terms of blue-blood programs, television draw and historical significance.
The Big East will still have some top basketball programs in Connecticut, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville and the addition of Memphis, but it will also have Houston, SMU and UCF along with current cellar-dwellers DePaul, Rutgers and Providence. Woof! Connecticut and Georgetown are both squarely a cut below Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse in terms of national appeal and Louisville and Marquette are both geographically far away from the Big Apple, which makes it hard for fans to attend the event.
Meanwhile, the ACC will firmly re-establish itself as the premier basketball conference in the country by adding Syracuse and Pitt to the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, NC State and Virginia.
You don’t think MSG Chairman James Dolan and President and CEO Hank Ratner are drooling over the possibility of Duke vs. Maryland and Syracuse vs. North Carolina match-ups in the ACC semifinals once the Big East’s contract with the Garden expires in 2016? Between the passion of the fanbases, the number of alums from each in the tri-state area and the setting, a semifinal like that would have the feel of a Final Four rather than a conference tournament.
You can guarantee that Syracuse and Pitt would rather continue playing in Madison Square Garden instead of Greensboro, NC, Charlotte or Atlanta, so let’s get that out of the way. My guess is that Mike Krzyzewski would sign on as well, as he routinely plays games in the New York City area for exposure and recruiting purposes like his record-setting 903rd victory in November.
That’s three power schools on board.
I’d also guess that Maryland and Boston College would prefer to stay up North instead of making the trek South and always playing the conference tournament in the backyard of Duke and UNC.
You can probably count out North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest from supporting the move since all three are used to staying in-state for the ACC tourney and getting plenty of fan support.
That leaves the X-Factors as Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), Georgia Tech and Clemson.
While they are all geographically closer to North Carolina than New York, I think it’s safe to assume three of those schools would trade Greensboro or Charlotte for Madison Square Garden in a heartbeat.
It’s the undisputed Mecca of basketball located in the Big Apple. That makes for happy players, coaches and fans. It’s also the Mecca of college basketball recruiting, which makes for even happier coaches and their athletic directors.
As for Swofford? The addition of Syracuse and Pitt plus a move to MSG would also firmly place the ACC back atop college basketball and give the conference plenty of leverage in negotiating a blockbuster contract with ESPN. Let’s be honest: The ACC’s prestige in basketball has dropped and has been lapped by the Big East in recent years.
So it would be perfectly fitting for the ACC to replace the Big East at MSG as a sign of regaining its status as the country’s best basketball conference, relegating the new Big East to a symbolically second-tier location like the upcoming Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
So enjoy the next several Big East Tournaments while you can because, come 2016, I fully expect Madison Square Garden to kick the Big East to the curb in a New York minute.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.
Swofford photo via Sam Sharpe/US Presswire.