Big East tournament goes Gonzo

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel will follow Seton Hall as it tries to put together a run in the Big East tournament. Return for Wetzel’s reports on the Pirates’ progres

NEW YORK – The Big East decided to make March a little madder this year by inviting all 16 of its teams to the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden.

Never before has this been attempted by any league. Previously the Big East invited just its top 12 finishers, the same formula the once 16-team WAC employed during the 1990s.

By providing byes for top teams, going 16 strong means the bottom half of the conference has to win five games in five days to capture the championship.

It’s a gonzo challenge. So who better to follow all access this week as he attempts to run the gauntlet than Coach Gonzo himself, Seton Hall’s always full-throttle, occasionally unhinged Bobby Gonzalez?

“Five game in five days,” Gonzalez said Monday to no one in particular as the team bus crept through midtown traffic. “You know how people always say, ‘We’re taking it one game at a time?’ We actually mean it.”

It gets even crazier. Consider Seton Hall. It’s a nice, tough 16-14 team that owns a few victories over ranked teams. It enters this event as the 11th seed.

Tuesday the Pirates play 9-21 South Florida, a game they’re favored to win. If they get by USF – and higher seeds hold in the rest of the tournament – their week would go like this:

Wednesday: Syracuse (No. 18 in the AP poll)

Thursday: Connecticut (No. 3)

Friday: Pittsburgh (No. 2)

Saturday: Louisville (No. 5)

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the degree of fatigue. Syracuse has a first-round bye, so it will be rested for Wednesday’s game. UConn has a double bye, so it will be even more rested for Thursday’s game.

Seton Hall has seven players; most of them are young.

Thus, Gonzo kept reminding his team about the importance of sleep. He set an 11 p.m. in-room curfew and thanked the basketball heavens that they’re playing at 9 p.m., not noon.

“I’ve got guys that don’t go to bed until 2 a.m. – city kids,” he laughed, shaking his head. “If we played at noon, we’d be done. They wouldn’t be awake.”

Teams have captured a conference tournament by winning four games in four days. It’s happened twice in the Big East alone. Just last year Georgia entered the SEC tournament with a losing record and clipped the nets after four victories (including two on one day thanks to a tornado that tore the roof off the Georgia Dome.)

Natural disasters aside, the SEC a year ago bore no resemblance to the Big East this season. This is the nation’s best conference with a brutal top – Louisville, Pitt and UConn are all positioning for No. 1 seeds in the NCAAs.

The challenge of winning the Big East tournament in this fashion would be greater than winning the NCAA tournament. In the NCAAs you’d have more time to play what will be, if not weaker competition, then at least a slate of games featuring fewer top-five opponents.

Gonzalez is known for being a little nuts but even he isn’t bothering to entertain the notion that this is possible. He said he’d like to win one game, maybe two; roll the dice and have some fun. Forget the NCAA tournament; Seton Hall is on the NIT bubble. He’s hoping to impress that committee.

Anything’s possible though. Look at Gonzalez, who was once an assistant at the now closed Tolentine High School in the Bronx. He eventually hooked on as an assistant for Pete Gillen at Xavier, Providence and Virginia where he found a knack connecting with New York kids.

Monday his wife, Tracy, started a debate on which one of his former recruits had the most unique name. The finalists were both South Bronx natives – Majestic Mapp, who he signed at Virginia, and God Shammgod, who followed him to Providence.

“Majestic actually had a brother named Scientific Mapp,” Gonzo said. “As for Shammgod, they used to joke I was the person who brought God to Providence.”

There’s just nothing like calling a recruit and asking “is God there?” Of course, people used to call God Shammgod’s dad, “God the Father.”

Gonzo is known as a breakneck recruiter. He certainly speaks the part. He talks in torrents; an endless barrage of nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, proclamations and exclamations. He’s been known to be in the middle of leaving a voicemail, get a call on the other line, put the voicemail on hold, then return 30 seconds later and finish the original message in midstream.

One of Gonzo’s old cronies, Ken “Jersey Red” Ford, declared that while he does occasionally rest, “he sleeps with one eye open.”

Or as Gillen once cracked, “he makes caffeine nervous.”

Recruits tend to find the entire thing entertaining; rival coaches, not so much. Gonzo isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, let alone talk about ruffling feathers. As the head coach at Manhattan he won a lot of games, including two in the NCAA tournament.

He then showed up in the Big East and discovered the challenge of making a contender out of Seton Hall, an old-league program in this new-league reality. It was tough enough at a small Catholic school without an on-campus facility when the Big East had just nine teams.

He’s put together a tough young team that plays hard. No one ever said he couldn’t coach. He believes the program will break out next season when some talent that’s sitting out becomes eligible as his young stars Eugene Harvey, Jeremy Hazell and Robert Mitchell continue to develop.

Until then, he’s best known in the league for all sorts of – depending on your point of view – semi-comical antics, wild quotes and officiating feuds. Consider that one reason he’d love to coach against Syracuse on Wednesday is he was suspended for their regular-season game for berating referees the year before.

He shrugs. The postseason is a new season, isn’t it?

“Whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter, whatever happens tomorrow doesn’t matter,” he tells his team during a film session, reminding them not to take USF lightly. He could’ve been talking about himself.

In fairness, this season has been, by his standards, calm. He’s 45 now, the father with Tracy of a 14-month old daughter. He said he’s learning when to take his foot off the pedal. The program appears headed in the right direction.

Monday night, he took the team over to Il Vagabondo, the legendary East Side Italian restaurant with a 100-year-old Bocce court inside of it. It’s an old-school place and he wanted his players to experience it.

“If they could, they’d just get McDonald’s or T.G.I.F.,” he said. “They need to realize there’s life on the other side of 96th Street. That’s what going to college, going to Seton Hall is about, getting out of your comfort zone.”

The players devoured authentic Italian cuisine that no Big Mac could approach.

Il Vagabondo has been a Seton Hall haunt for decades – a picture of P.J. Carlesimo hangs on the wall. P.J. took his 1989 Final Four team here during the Big East tourney that year and Gonzo is all about channeling the program’s history. Seton Hall is staying the same hotel, the East Side Marriott, too.

Along for dinner Gonzo brought Howard Garfinkel, the 78-year-old retired Five-Star Basketball kingpin and a longtime confidant. They shared recruiting stories, gossip and plenty of jokes. Finally talk turned to the impossible task at hand.

“Garf, what do you think, five games in five days?” Gonzo said, laughing.

“Never heard of such a thing,” Garf said. “It’s never happened before.”

Gonzo called down the table, to the team priest, Father John Denhany. He asked what time mass was scheduled for on Tuesday morning, the first of potentially five game-day services.

“Ten-thirty,” Denhany said.

“Thanks, Father,” Gonzo said. “Can I get a couple extra Hail Marys?”

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 10, 2009