College Basketball Nation: Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK -- Wow, that was fun.

The NCAA tournament returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years on Friday night. The atmosphere was electric, and the teams did not disappoint. Michigan State staved off Virginia 61-59 in the nightcap. Here are five quick observations:

Crowd control: So much talk leading up to Friday night's doubleheader concerned the strong showing expected from Connecticut fans, and the Huskies had a definite home-court advantage in Game 1, but Virginia might have had an even bigger advantage in Game 2. The amount of orange in the building was Syracuse-esque here at MSG.

And the Virginia fans were loud, too! Can't blame them for being worked up, considering this was the team's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. Well done, Wahoos.

Old school: Around these parts, we used to be treated to some mighty good defensive battles during the heyday of the Big East. This game brought that era to mind.

Just like Wichita State-Kentucky featured shot-making worthy of the Final Four, as opposed to the round of 32, Michigan-State-Virginia belonged another round or two down the road.

Experience counts: Despite all that good defense, we saw some great shot-making down the stretch from both sides.

How about Virginia's Justin Anderson -- scoreless for 38 minutes -- draining a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining to tie the game at 51?

But the biggest shot of the game was Adreian Payne's trey 22 seconds later which broke the tie and gave the Spartans the lead for good. Don't forget Payne's two clutch free throws with 32.9 seconds left -- in a 1-and-1 situation, no less -- pushing a 56-54 lead to 58-54.

Payne is a senior, Michigan State's been to the Sweet 16 six times in the past seven seasons and the Spartans made more plays at the end when it counts. That's no coincidence.

MVP? All this talk about Michigan State's senior class potentially being the first under Tom Izzo to not reach a Final Four, and it's a junior trying to lead them there.

Branden Dawson scored 20 points just once in the first 35 games of the season, but Dawson had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Spartans' third-round win over Harvard and followed that up with a team-high 24 points and 10 boards against Virginia.

Can't wait: The lower seeds won each of the two games here Friday night, yet it felt like the favorite won both games.

Forget the Spartans' No. 4 seed and the Huskies' No. 7: Michigan State versus UConn? That's a battle of college basketball heavyweights.

In Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the Final Four at stake? It doesn't get much better than that.
In the fall of 2011, after Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intentions to leave the Big East and join the ACC, commissioner John Swofford held a conference call. On this call, the ACC commish revealed his league's interest in moving the ACC tournament from its traditional mid-southern location -- since 1954, the tournament has typically been played in North Carolina, in either Raleigh or Greensboro, with occasional stops in Maryland, D.C. and Georgia -- into the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

Purists blanched, and so did then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who appeared on Mike Francesca's popular WFAN sports talk show long enough to describe the unpleasant digestive reflexes Swofford's idea induced.
Tranghese: "You know, Gene DeFillippo of Boston College and John Swofford of the ACC -- I don't think it was their intent, but I found it highly objectionable and I found it disrespectful that on the day Dave Gavitt died they're talking about bringing southern-based teams to Madison Square Garden. Like we're going to go to the Clemson-NC State game. Trust me, Mike, I wanted to throw up when I heard that."

Francesca was equally annoyed.
"They're not bringing the ACC tournament to Madison Square Garden. That is never happening."

Of course, the world looks much different now. Tranghese's replacement, John Marinatto "resigned" and was replaced by former CBS executive Mike Aresco. The Big East's Catholic institutions split to form their own basketball league, and took the old Big East name with them; Aresco was forced to settle on the entirely generic "American Athletic Conference." The Big East as we knew it now looks much more like the old C-USA, and that's before Louisville jumps ship for the ACC in 2014. The Big East as we knew it is dead.

And oh by the way? As ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported Thursday, the ACC is still determined to get its conference tournament in the Garden:
Sources on Wednesday said the conference is "thoroughly investigating" playing its tournament at the Garden, with one source adamant that it eventually would be held in the World's Most Famous Arena, which would take it out of traditional ACC country for the first time.

"We'll be playing there," a source said. "It's just a matter of getting all the legal ramifications worked out."

After all, who is going to stop them? The new Catholic 7-infused Big East has a deal with the building through 2026, but MSG can get out of the deal if the league doesn't meet "certain benchmarks." The ACC is locked in to Greensboro through 2015, but is free to explore its options after that.

Does that mean the ACC should move its tournament to Madison Square Garden? Not exactly. As Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, a proponent of the move, has said, it's going to be "difficult to overcome the tournament's Tobacco Road roots." That's a pretty fair appraisal. Even with Pitt and Syracuse and Notre Dame, unlike the AAC, the ACC still feels like the ACC. It has expanded outward, but its roots are still firmly affixed to the Triangle.

Even so, you can see the appeal. For years, the Big East tournament was the pre-eminent non-NCAA March college hoops event. That had to do with the quality of the league, sure, but it also had to do with the special atmosphere in the Garden, which Dana O'Neil and Conor Nevins captured so brilliantly in this spring's oral history of the tournament. The ACC tournament has never come close to that sort of cachet, atmosphere or coverage, and it's not hard to figure out why Swofford & Co. would be interested in filling what they must see as a rather large hole where the old Big East used to be.

In any case, Francesca's "that is never happening" prediction is looking less and less viable every day. The Big East had a milkshake, but Swofford's straw stretched across the room. You know how that one ends.
1. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday that he was in full support of the rules committee decision to have one finished, flat surface on the court instead of temporary decals or logos. “I just wish they would get rid of them," Krzyzewski said. “You could put them alongside the court. Where else is this in the middle of a court or playing field? There isn’t a logo in between the second baseman and shortstop. You’re not side-stepping over Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The main thing is that it was dangerous." Krzyzewski also chimed in on the plethora of transfers who have graduated and are seeking waivers to play elsewhere while attending grad school. A number of these players have been shopping around this spring. “It makes rising seniors free agents," Krzyzewski said. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing."

2. The NCAA dropped the ball on the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament, in 2013. The NCAA could have been at Madison Square Garden had it planned for the event long ago. But the Garden didn’t hear from the NCAA until too late, after dates had to be booked with the NHL (Rangers) and NBA (Knicks). The old MSG housed the NIT and the NCAA tournament in the 1940s. The NCAA should have gone old-school, putting the first and second rounds or the regional finals at historic spots for the sport. Instead, it settled on the Staples Center (Los Angeles), Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis), Cowboys Stadium (Arlington, Texas) and now the Verizon Center (Washington, D.C.). I know the NCAA has to deal with pro-style arenas, but there are college venues with historic significance in the sport that have decent size and capacity that the NCAA could have planned for well in advance (MSG, Rupp, Phog Allen, Huntsman Center). If it meant a tougher ticket for 2013, then so be it.

3. Murray State went for the sure thing and decided to play in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic over being in a Kansas State NIT Season Tip-Off pod that wouldn’t guarantee a trip to New York for the semifinals. The Racers complete the eight-team field in the Charleston tourney, scheduled for Nov. 15-18, with Baylor, Boston College, Charleston, Colorado, Dayton, St. John’s and Auburn. Baylor is the favorite in this tournament but Murray State should be seeded second or at the least third in this field.
1. The National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors met with NCAA president Mark Emmert on Thursday in Indianapolis and, according to at least one source in the room, there is support to close up a few transfer loopholes. The coaches and Emmert discussed making any player who wants to transfer sit out a year, even if he or she has graduated and is seeking a waiver to play immediately at a school that has a graduate program that isn’t available at the current school. The discussion also turned to the waiver that allows a player to play immediately if a relative is ill. That, too, could be closed. The consensus among the coaches is that if anyone transfers, he should sit out a year, even if that means a sixth year in college. The coaches also wanted some sort of universal language on transfer restrictions, maybe even an NCAA rule that forbids transferring within a league. Conferences and schools create their own policies on restricting transfers. According to the NCAA spokesperson, Emmert is going to put together a process to review and make recommendations that includes coaches' input.

2. North Texas athletic director Rick Villarreal said Thursday night that he has a policy that he doesn’t release players who have signed with North Texas or leave the program during their career. Conversely, he won’t allow his coaches, even new ones like men’s basketball coach Tony Benford, to cut a player based on ability. He said the only way a player will be released is if there is an academic or behavior issue. This is relevant because signee John Odoh may want to follow former coach Johnny Jones to LSU. Villarreal said Odoh hasn’t asked for a release yet. If he does, don’t expect a release -- or at least not one to LSU. Villarreal was adamant that Odoh was recruited by Jones with Mean Green funds. Players may leave, but without a release, meaning they would then have to pay their own scholarships.

3. Incoming NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski said that 2013 East Regional sites were discussed Thursday in Indianapolis, and that a decision is due in two weeks. Syracuse and Brooklyn, N.Y., appear to be the favorites. The initial four candidates also included New York City (Madison Square Garden) and Newark, N.J. MSG is booked. Newark hasn’t been eliminated yet.
1. The NIT contract with Madison Square Garden is up this year. The NIT Season Tip-Off could live with being in Indianapolis (where the NCAA is headquartered) if it couldn’t be at MSG. But the postseason NIT really should be at the Final Four site if it can’t be in New York. The perfect scenario to save the event, if an MSG deal falls through, would be to play the games at the Final Four in an adjacent college building (next year at Georgia Tech) on the Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Final Four. You can clear out the fans when most arrive by Friday morning.

2. Murray State coach Steve Prohm said he is desperately seeking a tournament for next season and is attempting to get into the Charleston Classic. He said he’s willing to open up against a high-major on the road or in the first week, but needs a home-and-home series with the home game being next year. This is the price a school like Murray pays for having an outstanding season and returning an all-American candidate in Isaiah Canaan.

3. Xavier coach Chris Mack won’t say anything more about Mark Lyons. But the Musketeers did need to move on from this crew. They excelled to get to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta. But the time was now to sever the relationships from last season’s team. Xavier is too proud, too strong a program to be tainted by that one incident; having a fresh start with the main combatants gone allows for a new era.
Steve Lavin has gotten off to a pretty decent recruiting start at St. John's. He's not exactly reeling in Kentucky-level talent just yet, but he is making local headway, and that's objective No. 1 for any coach looking to lift the Red Storm out of its recent doldrums.

Recruiting is all about leveraging your advantages, and Lavin has two systemically built in. (To say nothing of his high profile and winning personality, which sounds sarcastic but isn't; Lavin seems like one of the true good guys in college hoops.) Those advantages are location (New York City) and location (Madison Square Garden). There isn't much to improve on the former -- fewer sirens, I guess? -- but Lavin is looking to make the latter even more enticing to prospective players.

How? By lobbying for St. John's the use the Knicks locker room. From the New York Post:
St. John's has used an auxiliary locker room in the past. Lavin chatted up Joel Fisher, the Garden's executive VP for Sports Properties at halftime of [Sunday's] U.S. national team tuneup against France. "I want the players to know that this is a special building in college basketball history," said Lavin. "We want to take playing here to the next level."

Lavin said he would like to put down a red St. John's carpet, install players nameplates above the lockers and use lush chairs. Fisher was excited about the idea and doesn't see a scheduling conflict with the Knicks.

It's a small thing in the big scheme. "Lush" chairs and a red carpet aren't going to build a quality hoops program by themselves. But if you consider it part of the overall plan -- making St. John's basketball seem like a New York fixture instead of an also-ran lucky enough to share one of the world's most famous arenas -- then this is a pretty good way to sell it.

It also helps that New York prospects will want to hang out in the Knicks locker room. That's just cool.