By Lenn Robbins
Not one coach, player, ball boy – no one who lives March in the emotional blender that is college basketball in the spring – could have foreseen a postseason that ended as if a heavy, black, Broadway curtain fell in the middle of a Broadway show.
It was this week a year ago that the games succumbed to a mysterious virus; the week that Rutgers walked off the court at halftime of the Big Ten Tournament, secure in the belief it was headed to its first NCAA Tournament since 1991, and never walked back on.
It was this week the lights went out in The Garden at halftime of the St. John’s-Creighton Big East Conference Tournament quarterfinal game and never came back on.
It was this week that no one wants to remember and no one will ever forget.
“It’s one of those rare moments that took place,” said St. John’s coach Mike Anderson. “For the rest of my life, I’ll remember it. It was like everything went on pause.”
Now we’ve hit play. Today we have new memories, memories that are a little more precious, a little more poignant. Rutgers (15-10) beat Indiana (12-15), 61-50, Thursday evening in a Big Ten first-round game. Barring a positive COVID test, the Scarlet Knights finally will dance.
And The Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena, might have been lacking fans but it wasn’t lacking drama and tradition. Georgetown upsets No.1 seed Villanova, 72-71, in Thursday’s first quarterfinal round game. For those who remember the days when the Big East was far and away the best basketball conference ever, it was Villanova that upset Georgetown, 66-64, in the 1985 NCAA Championship game.
Then Seton Hall edged St, John’s, 77-69, in overtime in a throwback Big East rock fight in which 18 players saw the court and the teams combined for 23 turnovers and 21 assists. The Johnnies (16-11) could snag an NIT berth. The Pirates (14-12) are walking barefoot on the bubble, but still walking.
Neither game was pretty but it was a beautiful revival of a day in college basketball.
“Man, I walked into this building, I got on that elevator and I haven’t felt that good in years,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. “The energy, seeing the same security guards that were here two years ago when we made a run, it’s hard to explain.
“It’s very emotional for the fact that I love this tournament, I love this league. We’ve had some great games in this building and to be back was just an absolutely energizing feeling.”
That’s what’s happening from The Garden to Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, where it seemed the entire Horizon League tournament was decided by a total of three points, to Orleans Arena in Paradise, Nev., where No.1 Gonzaga actually trailed by 12 at halftime of the West Coast Conference Tournament before rallying to beat BYU, 88-78.
And that Big Dance that begins next week? It might not have Duke (13-11), which yesterday had to painfully withdraw from the ACC Tournament after a positive COVID test. Kentucky (9-16) won’t be anyone’s Final Four pick after being ousted from the SEC Tournament, 74-73, by Mississippi State. But former Kentucky and Louisville coach Rick Pitino might be back in the tournament with Iona.
Isn’t this what March Madness is supposed to be?
Let’s not get ahead. Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall – what is this,1985, when the league sent those first three teams to the Final Four? That was the Old Guard Bracket this year’s tournament. The other half of the bracket Creighton, Butler, DePaul and UConn welcomes the Midwest and that program from the Constitution State that is proving you can come home again.
A Georgetown-UConn final would be a just reward. So would Seton Hall-UConn. Where’s the flux capacitor? And Creighton, which is proving offense can win in a league that has never officially outlawed the use of handcuffs on defense, blew out Butler, 87-56. They’d be fun to watch on Saturday.
Forget Saturday. Friday night in The Garden has become a New York City, “must” event. Bill Clinton used to make a yearly pilgrimage. So did Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. There won’t be any fans of course but the huge freight elevator will lurch to the fifth floor and disgorge an entire team. The lights will be on and the tournament that features universities based in urban settings will help us take one more jab step away from COVID and a world without masks.
“It was an unbelievable feeling just coming on the court for the first time and realizing that the Big East Tournament is happening,” said Seton Hall star Sandro Mamukelashvili.
It sure it.