NEW YORK — As the crowds in the darkened stands at Madison Square Garden simultaneously celebrated and mourned the Big East tournament early Wednesday afternoon — “I’m going to miss the old Big East,” Providence Coach Ed Cooley said in a lament that will be repeated all week — it was easy to forget that after Saturday’s championship game, there are still three more weeks of college basketball. Despite the memories that the Garden has helped form over the past three decades, and will help shape in the next three days, so many teams here have so much more ahead.
Start, then, with Georgetown. In 1980, the Hoyas won the first Big East tournament, back when they staged it in Providence, R.I., back when no one knew what lay ahead for the conference or its members. As the top seed in this season’s tournament, they could well bookend that accomplishment this week before the conference breaks apart. But the team that boasts both the conference’s player of the year in forward Otto Porter Jr. and the coach of the year in John Thompson III has developed a cohesion and a confidence that, whatever happens over the next three days, they’re contenders to be around much later in the month in the NCAA tournament.
“I think this team could go deep into the tournament,” Porter said before the team departed for New York.
Most prognosticators have some consensus on whom the four No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament would be if the field were selected before the weekend — Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana and Louisville. That would be a Louisville team that Georgetown already beat, that is the No. 2 seed here, and one the Hoyas could surpass by beating the Cardinals in the championship game.
“We have looked at it,” freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said of such talk. “Do we pay it any mind? No.”
That is how Thompson, entering his ninth Big East tournament with the Hoyas, wants his team to think. It is, this year, perhaps an easier task, because there will never be another Big East tournament like the one that’s about to play out, and wouldn’t it be cool to win it?
“I think within every conference, everybody would say their conference is tough,” guard Markel Starks said. “But of course I’m gonna be biased because I’m part of the Big East. This is a very important time of the year. Everybody’s playing their best basketball. But at the same time you also have to recognize that we’re the number one seed. So everybody’s gunning for that number one spot. Everybody’s looking to chop our heads off.”
That starts with Cincinnati, which Georgetown beat 62-55 a month ago. A win against the Bearcats would be another step toward solidifying the Hoyas’ resume, another step toward a No. 1 seed next week.
Yet Thompson isn’t convinced there is a correlation between how a team plays in New York and how it plays the rest of the month. Matchups, he believes, matter more in the NCAA tournament.
“Once you get to the NCAA tournament, everybody is good,” Thompson said. “That’s what I always tell our guys. Forget seeds. Everyone who’s in that tournament is there for a reason.”
Since Thompson’s best team made a run to the Final Four in 2007, the Hoyas haven’t escaped the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and their play in the Big East tournament has hardly been prescient. That Final Four team also was Georgetown’s last team to win the Big East tournament, and its accomplishments were scarcely based on abstract issues like momentum. They won because they were good.
The following year, with Jeff Green gone but Roy Hibbert back, the Hoyas reached the final of the Big East tournament and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs — yet were upset by Stephen Curry and Davidson in the second round. In 2010, the Hoyas made a memorable run to the Big East championship game before losing to West Virginia, earning a No. 3 seed. Yet they followed that up with their biggest recent NCAA disappointment, a first-round loss to 14th-seeded Ohio.
Yet even Wednesday, before the top four seeds appeared here, there seemed a reluctance to look forward to what might happen in the NCAA tournament. Jim Boeheim, who has coached Syracuse in every Big East tournament, said he thought about all the games he has contested at the Garden, 76 in this tournament alone. Next year, the Orange will depart for the ACC, the conference will splinter, and the Big East tournament will only involve some of the Big East.
“Now that it’s here, your whole life has been spent in this league, and the last 31 years coming to this building,” Boeheim said after Syracuse beat Seton Hall. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot of memories, a lot of time. It’s just been such an amazing place.”
It promises to be that over the next three days, too. But regardless of who makes the best memories this week, several teams here will live to play another day — with other memories to be made in the weeks that follow.