Published on: 7th January, 2015
by Scott Mandel
New York — Watching the St. John’s University men’s basketball team tonight, playing Villanova at Madison Square Garden in a nationally-televised contest between two teams ranked in the top 25 conjured many images, not the least of which was the possible return of kinetic excitement this building used to be known for when basketball was played here by really good teams.
In a year in which the New York Knicks, the other roundball tenants of the Garden, have opted to tank their season, we may very well be looking at a confluence of events here in New York that has the potential to bring Big East college basketball all the way back to its glory days of the 1980s.
The first part of this “perfect storm” is playing itself out on the basketball court, where the Big East has once again moved into the top of the elite of college basketball’s power conferences. Despite the recent defections of football-dominated schools like Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, Miami, and West Virginia, the remaining “basketball” schools that comprise the Big East have shocked the college world with its dominance in the early stages of this season against non-conference, highly-ranked foes, leading to a current RPI ranking placing it second among all conferences.
Tonight, at Madison Square Garden, on the very evening following legendary St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca’s 90th birthday party on Monday, the Big East took a trip back to the future.
Instead of legendary names from three decades ago like Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, and Mark Jackson of the Redmen (now the Red Storm) and Rollie Massimino, John Pinone, Ed Pinckney, and Rory Sparrow of Villanova, the names were Steve Lavin, Chris Obekpa, D’Angelo Harrison, and Jay Wright, Daniel Ochefu, and Darrun Hilliard.
But the dynamics strangely felt the same as those of the mid-1980s contests when an entire nation of basketball fans found Big East basketball games so compelling. The ferocious competitiveness of tonight’s contest, the noise of the Garden crowd, the recent successes of the Big East against all comers, and a national television audience brought back a similar mojo, a juice this city, this conference and this building used to have in droves but has missed out on for a generation.
Here, we had two original member-schools of Dave Gavitt’s little idea in the late 1970s. Creating a conference of eastern colleges whose biggest sport was men’s basketball.
The Johnnies and the ‘Cats, getting together in a battle that reminded anyone old enough to recall the days when Carnesecca and Massimino stormed their respective sidelines, barking at each other while barking instructions at their own players.
Tonight, it was the eighth-ranked Villanova team who won the game against the upstart Johnnies, who had made its way back into the top-25 rankings in the nation thanks to an 11-2 start.
But, who won tonight was not nearly as important as who may ultimately derive the benefits of a revived arena and a once and future great basketball conference as the college season moves inexorably towards March Madness.
If you are old enough to remember the 1980s, or old enough to have read about it or, talked about it with your old man, strap on your seatbelt. You may find yourself taking a ride in a DeLorean automobile (google it), back to the (basketball) future.