NEW YORK – It was noon on a Thursday, just a humble quarterfinal round, yet Madison Square Garden was full and electric. This was Connecticut-Syracuse, Jim Calhoun-Jim Boeheim, old-school rivalry, new generation of players.
This was one game in one of the great events in college athletics, the Big East tournament, same as it ever was, only not for much longer.
Syracuse won 58-55 in a game that was hard-fought and emotional even though the NCAA tournament selection committee chairman already basically has announced the Orange's No. 1 seed in the tournament has been locked up.
That's the national deal. This is the neighborhood one. Or it used to be.
Syracuse is headed the ACC in 2013 (along with Pitt). West Virginia is gone for the Big 12 this fall. A slew of new schools are coming in, including two from Texas and one from Tennessee. And much of the lament here at MSG is that the Big East tournament never will be the same after next year. And it won't.
Syracuse won't be the same, either.
"Minus the money, it's a mistake," said Ron Naclerio, basketball coach at Cardozo High School in Queens, where current SU forward James Southerland played.
Naclerio quickly laughed because, well, he knows you never can take the money out of the equation.
Still, when you have something that not only isn't broken but couldn't be working much better – the 'Cuse is 31-1 – why fix it?
"I think it'll be like Boston College [which left for the ACC in 2005], only on a different scale," Naclerio said. "Deep, deep inside, Boston College has to admit that leaving the Big East was a mistake. They've never been the same."
Syracuse likes to proclaim itself "New York's College Team," and that includes NYC, where it can play a half-dozen times a season. It has served as a powerful recruiting tool for East Coast kids reared on this tournament and this building. It has energized its large metropolitan alumni base. It has allowed a private school in the somewhat remote central part of the state to be the definition of East Coast elite, always center stage under the bright lights.
It has worked in every single way, including all these incredible games against their old rivals.
"It's the best tournament in the country," said Orange guard Scoop Jardine, a senior from Philadelphia. "Of course I'm going to say that because I play for Syracuse, but I really believe that. It's New York City. It's Madison Square Garden. It's the Mecca of basketball. It's a great atmosphere.
"That was one of the main reasons I went to Syracuse, to play in the Big East tournament. I do feel bad for [future Orange players who won't get the chance to experience it]."
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Syracuse has a ton to offer a player – quality education, tradition, a huge fan base and the unique atmosphere of the Carrier Dome. And, as coach Jim Boeheim notes, the ACC has a pretty good tournament itself (most often held in Greensboro, N.C.). It's not the same as this, though, in part because of the old New York real estate maxim: location, location, location. Greensboro is Greensboro. Midtown Manhattan is Midtown Manhattan.
"Kids in New York look at Syracuse as a great place to go because they're always coming home," Naclerio said. "They play St. John's. They play Rutgers. They are here for a week for the Big East. Now they are never going to come home.
"New York City kids don't know about going to Greensboro Arena."
Boeheim, as you'd expect, isn't worried. First he notes that the new Big East isn't what the old one was – particularly the nine-team incarnation that most memories stem from. He said if anything, the move to the ACC has helped recruiting.
"It's spread out recruiting a little bit," he said. "And with the Big East going to Texas, to Houston, I don't think that's helped. Kids would rather go to North Carolina and Duke. The schools in the ACC are on the East Coast.
"Now, if I had the old Big East, I would rather be there. But we don't have that."
With that, Boeheim did one of his famous shoulder shrugs, and, yes, what can you do? There still are bitter feelings here about the school leaving because, no offense to Pitt or West Virginia, nothing will alter the feel of the league like losing such a signature program.
And this is more than just recruiting. There's having a sense of place and purpose, having familiar rivals and longstanding traditions. Syracuse and UConn had played so many classics through the years.
It undoubtedly is a good thing for the university to play in these kinds of games right in the middle of New York.
Syracuse's move was in response to fear that the Big East would disintegrate, as football has forced realignment nationally. It's basketball that will be most altered, though.
The decisions have been made. The future is coming. Who knows if Boeheim even will be coaching by the time the Orange move South. Maybe things will be good in the ACC.
It won't be the same, though.
This much is true: Boeheim has one of his best teams ever. He has his program roaring as well as ever. He just went through another magical, memorable afternoon against an old opponent. It was a full house in the middle of a bright, sunny day.
This was college sports perfection for a near-perfect team. There's no way you walk away from that and not feel like something significant is going to be lost.
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