Tournament finally returns to Garden

The World's Most Famous Arena welcomes back the Big Dance

Originally Published: March 25, 2014
By Kieran Darcy | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The biggest event in college basketball is back where it belongs.

Just seven weeks after the New York metropolitan area hosted the Super Bowl for the first time, Manhattan welcomes home the NCAA tournament for the first time in 53 years.

Madison Square Garden -- which has hosted 71 games in 17 NCAA tournaments, but none since 1961 -- is the site of this year's East Regional. And in the eyes of many, it's about time.

"There's magic in this building," former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said Wednesday. "Madison Square Garden and [college] basketball is a great romance."

It's true, and the relationship with the NCAA tournament dates all the way back to 1943. The Garden has hosted the fourth-most tournament games in history, behind only University of Dayton Arena, Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., and the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. MSG has hosted the second-most championship games (seven).

[+] EnlargeMadison Square Garden
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsIt's been a long, long time since Madison Square Garden hosted the NCAA tournament. The drought ends Friday.

To this day, many of the top college hoops teams in the country come through MSG, whether it be in an early-season tournament or another one-off event. This season, it hosted 10 of the Top 25 teams in the final Associated Press poll.

But the marriage between The World's Most Famous Arena and the NCAA tournament has been consciously uncoupled for more than half a century. The Garden was the home of the NIT, which was once a competing tournament before dropping in prominence.

The NCAA bought both the preseason and postseason NIT in 2005, clearing the way for a potential return to the Garden. And now, just a few months after the completion of a three-year, $1 billion renovation, MSG will finally bring back the Big Dance to the Big Apple.

Calhoun was one of several college basketball legends who spoke at a news conference at the Garden on Wednesday, celebrating the NCAA tournament's return. Fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was also in attendance. "The Big O" played in five games at the Garden while at the University of Cincinnati, from 1957 to 1960, and the Bearcats went 5-0.

None of them were NCAA tournament games, but on Jan. 9, 1958, Robertson poured in 56 points in a 118-54 victory over Seton Hall, setting the college scoring record at the Garden -- which still stands today.

"The first time I went inside, it's real interesting; you pick up a ball, you start to play, you go out on the court and dribble, the ball never came back up!" Robertson said. "Some of them came back up and some of them didn't, so I realized that you had to dribble the ball a lot harder than I would have when I played in other gymnasiums."

"They had guide wires on the baskets," Robertson continued, chuckling. "And if you were playing well and a guy didn't like it, he shook the guide wires."

Of course, Robertson was referring to the previous incarnation of Madison Square Garden -- an entirely different structure 17 blocks north, between 49th and 50th Streets on Eighth Avenue.

All 71 previous NCAA tournament games were played in the old building, which closed in 1968. That means Friday night's East Regional semifinals will be the first NCAA tournament games in the current Garden.

The last three tournament games at MSG were three first-round games in 1961. In a tripleheader, Wake Forest defeated St. John's 97-74, St. Bonaventure beat Rhode Island 86-76 and Princeton topped George Washington 84-67.

Art Hyland, the Big East conference's longtime director of officiating, was the captain of that Princeton team and scored 16 points in the game against George Washington.

"I don't remember anything I did in that game, to be honest with you," Hyland said. "The things that I remember about the old Garden? No. 1, the smoke; the smoke was incredible. I used to go there to watch NIT games too, and we'd go there the whole day and watch, and you had to look through the cloud of smoke at the top of the arena, because in those days you could smoke."

"And then the infamous bank of telephones in the areas where the concession stands [were]," Hyland added. "And the telephones were normally filled just before game time." (Presumably by people placing bets.)

Calhoun never coached an NCAA tournament game at the Garden, but he was a part of numerous historic Big East tournament games in the building -- from the epic battle between Ray Allen and Allen Iverson in 1996 to the six-overtime game against Syracuse in 2009 to UConn's incredible five-wins-in-five-days run in 2011.

The Huskies will play in Friday night's first game against Iowa State, and Calhoun couldn't sound more excited.

"When they use the word the mecca of college basketball, this was it," he said. "This has been it, and it will be it. It's an incredible, incredible place."

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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