Madison Square Garden Passes Up ACC Tournament: Huge Mistake?Posted by Chris Johnson on September 26th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Over the past three years, conference realignment has precipitated a shift of thriving programs away from the Big East into the ACC. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, three valuable pieces of the Big East’s hoops power hierarchy, saw weakness in the Big East’s deteriorating leadership and declining status in the BCS power structure. They sought greater stability and a more lucrative TV payout in their new conference. The Big East was fracturing, so it was not at all surprising that these programs wanted out. It is hard to fault their move. But like so many of the realignment-related movements of late, their league hop had detrimental consequences on the Big East’s basketball league. For years Syracuse and Pittsburgh have contended for conference titles, played fierce rivalry games and did their part to help make the Big East one of the nation’s most compelling hoops leagues. Notre Dame is, by all accounts, a football school, but had itself risen among the league’s hoops upper-tier under head coach Mike Brey. When these programs announced their departures, it wasn’t just a blow to the league’s membership, but to the Big East brand itself, the very essence of which rested upon such fierce hardwood drama. This was a familiar wave of movement; it wasn’t long ago that the ACC poached Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami, another football-motivated move that impacted its basketball competition at the expense of the Big East. These six defections over the last decade (Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh), along with West Virginia’s jump to the Big 12, has conspired to reconstitute the Big East into an amorphous heap of disparate programs, a depleted league robbed of much of its hoops equity.
The realignment-powered decline of Big East basketball is nothing new. It is a topic I (along with many other college hoops scribes around the web) have visited before in this space. This latest bit of news counts as a rare positive step for the revamped league, and it was brought to light Tuesday by ESPN.com’s Brett McMurphy. The ACC may have stolen the Big East’s basketball talent, but it can’t take its legendary conference tournament venue! Take that, conference realignment! Madison Square Garden, according to McMurphy, did not submit a bid for hosting rights to the 2016-21 ACC Tournaments. The newly-unveiled Barclays Center, home of the re-branded Brooklyn Nets, also passed up the soon-to-be hoops super-conference’s league tourney. The Big East’s current deal with MSG runs out in 2016, but an extension is in the works to keep the league’s tournament at the historic New York City arena through 2026, according to the New York Post.
This is great news for the Big East, which gets to keep its watered-down league in the same premier arena that’s housed its conference tournament for nearly three decades. The Big East Tournament has traditionally offered the very best early-March hoops intrigue, featuring some of the nation’s best teams, many of which are either battling for NCAA Tournament seeding purposes or fighting to stay afloat on the bubble cut line. It is (for me at least) hands down the sport’s most intriguing gauntlet of intra-conference competition. There are few greater college hoops experiences than the back-to-back Friday night Big East Tournament semifinal slate. It’s 80 minutes of riveting on-court competition, and the building that stages it – which, almost universally, is recognized as the “World’s Most Famous Arena” – magnifies the appeal. But it’s hard to come away thinking MSG made the better long-term basketball decision. The Big East’s pairing with the arena has vaulted the league tournament to unprecedented levels. When you think Big East Tournament, you think Madison Square Garden, and vice versa. But the timeless force driving that successful partnership was the Big East’s perennial national dominance, its top-to-bottom competitive depth that produced upwards of five NCAA Tournament bids on a yearly basis. Once realignment commitments kick in, it’s hard to argue the ACC won’t be the overall better hoops league.
The Big East has added Memphis and Temple, among other less heralded programs, to fill its departed membership. Provided Villanova, St. John’s, Georgetown and Cincinnati resist any realignment-related temptations, the basketball side of the league will remain viable, but it won’t come close to the halcyon days of Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse or Dejuan Blair’s Pittsburgh. Meanwhile the ACC, bolstered by its new Big East migrants, will feature the best concentration of elite programs in the sport, with Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse all battling for regular season and (more pertinent to this discussion) tournament championships. That type of blueblood talent seems a perfect match for the big stage of Madison Square Garden. But perhaps the East Coast tie-ins with St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova, plus the traditional connection to the Big East brand – even after a score of valuable departures – overrides the on-court master class of basketball powerhouses promised by the ACC in the coming years. Or maybe MSG truly believes the revamped Big East stands to benefit from its new cross-country additions. It’s tough to pinpoint the arena leadership’s logic. But in resisting ACC Tournament basketball in favor of the reshuffled Big East, MSG cost itself the chance to showcase the most appealing brand of hoops the sport has to offer. That’s a huge risk.