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Another Garden party for Villanova, Big East | Bob Ford

Bob Ford, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 3:17 PM

Villanova warming up before playing St. John’s in Madison Square Garden in the 2017 Big East tournament.

There was that night at the Big East tournament when Jim Boeheim threw the chair as he left his press conference, sort of the way Keith Moon would kick over the drum kit to punctuate the end of the show.

Boeheim was convinced he had been fooled again by the referees who ejected a Georgetown player from the conference championship game against Syracuse, but then decided to let him keep playing anyway. You can understand how a coach might object to that.

It was 1984, the second year in which the tournament was played in Madison Square Garden, and I remember thinking, as Boeheim tossed the folding chair and stomped away, “Man, that guy’s never going to last behaving like that.”

The tournament will resume Wednesday evening in the Garden for the 36th consecutive year, making it the longest-running venue for any conference. For his part, Boeheim is still around, too, although his school abandoned the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference five years ago.

Longevity is difficult to predict, obviously, particularly in a collegiate athletics landscape so dominated by football that conference affiliations and loyalty are all negotiable. It’s just business, and no wonder that only five schools remain in the Big East from the nine that took part when the tournament began its Garden run in 1983.

Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut and Pittsburgh are gone, presumably to pastures they considered greener for their purposes. (Pitt basketball did have the distinction of finishing 0-18 in ACC play this season, the only Division I school to fail to win a league game. Some nasty clumps of stuff in that pasture.)

Through wild expansion and its own dalliance with football, to the inevitable contraction and rebirth as a basketball-centric conference, the Big East has endured, and nothing has been as enduring as its annual March occupation of Madison Square Garden. It is still a city game, after all, and nothing quite combines the glamour and grit of big-time basketball like the stage provided by that spotlit court in midtown Manhattan.

“That’s always been one of the greatest assets of the Big East,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We own it. It’s natural and authentic to the Big East.”

Other conferences have noticed that New York isn’t a bad place to get attention, of course. The ACC tournament is taking place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the Big Ten Conference took the unusual step of condensing the league schedule so it could have the Garden last week for its championship.

Commissioner Jim Delany of the Big Ten said that won’t be tried again, and his tournament will return to a “regular week.” He also hinted the conference would bid against the Big East for occupancy of the Garden the week before the NCAA tournament when the current contract expires after 2026. That won’t placate Big Ten fans this season if their teams fall flat in the NCAA tournament after close to a two-week layoff, but it does emphasize what the Big East has done over the years to accentuate the lure of New York and Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve learned to appreciate other [conferences] coming in. It brings more basketball excitement to New York City,” Wright said. “When the ACC or Big Ten comes in, good for them. It might not be natural for them, but they enjoy it. It’s our home. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s who we are. When you help basketball in New York at this time of year, you’re helping the Big East.”

Nothing is forever, and when that contract does expire after the Big East holds its 44th consecutive tournament in Madison Square Garden, there might be a reason to move it around, perhaps out of necessity if the league is outbid for those dates. It’s likely there would have been a groundswell to spread it around previously if either St. John’s or Seton Hall, the two New York-area programs, had been a conference powerhouse. But that hasn’t been the case, and those schools have won just six of the 35 MSG-based tournaments, including one each in the last 24 years.

This particular tournament is even more wide open than usual. Beyond Xavier and Villanova, which finished first and second with 15-3 and 14-4 conference records, respectively, there is a tangle of schools, all of which can be dangerous. The schools with the worst records, St. John’s and DePaul, still won four league games each, with St. John’s knocking off Villanova and DePaul mixing in a win over Providence, which is in the top half of the bracket.

“More than any year … I don’t think any of us would feel we got a good draw or be happy to get one team or another,” Wright said. “We’ve been beaten by a number of these teams and been in close games. The players understand and respect the abilities of each team and how difficult the games are going to be. More than in other years, we’re not going to have to address it.”

If that is an uncomfortable feeling, at least the surroundings will be familiar. The players and coaches have come and gone over the decades like folding chairs that served their time and were tossed aside. The schools have changed partners and changed them again. Through it all, though, the league and the arena have remained hand in hand. Remarkable things have taken place there in 36 years, but staying together this long might be the most remarkable of all.

Bob Ford, STAFF COLUMNIST

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