ACC, Big East dance to different tunes

Postseason tournaments offer study in country-city contrasts

March 10, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

New York -- Eric Hicks, Cincinnati's imposing senior forward, removed the "Scarface" T-shirt he had worn during warm-ups and attacked Syracuse in the first game of the 27th annual Big East Conference men's basketball tournament.

It was as big as first-round conference tournament games get, but at high noon Wednesday, there were perhaps 3,000 people at Madison Square Garden. It wasn't packed to capacity yesterday afternoon, either, when the Orange continued its magic with a quarterfinal upset of top-ranked Connecticut in overtime.

Some 500 miles to the south, the first quarterfinal at the 53rd annual Atlantic Coast Conference tournament today will send Miami up against top-seeded Duke. Empty seats figure to be scarce, displaying the greatest difference between the postseason get-togethers.

"A lot of our donors are on Broadway tonight," Jeff Hathaway, the Connecticut athletic director who worked at Maryland from 1982 to 1990, said on opening day at the Big East. "In Greensboro and Charlotte, people went to most of the games, because it was the thing to do. Here, fans can walk to a five-star restaurant.

"There's something special about New York, but the trade-off is, people come and go."

The two conferences most identified with college basketball completed a football-driven expansion over the past year, and the only thing familiar in their tournaments is the scenery. While one is just another event at the self-proclaimed "most famous arena in the world," the other is the only game in town.

The ACC tournament isn't the oldest in the nation, but it is the most storied. For the 21st time in 40 years, it is being held at its semi-permanent home, the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Big East didn't begin until the 1979-80 season, but it boasts the nation's longest-running tournament at the same site. It had tryout runs in Providence, R.I., Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., before it was deemed worthy of the Big Apple in 1983. This season the conference expanded to an unwieldy 16 teams, and only 12 got here.

St. John's, which plays its conference home games here, didn't make the cut. Neither did DePaul, meaning that New York and Chicago aren't represented. Including all would have meant a five-day tournament, which administrators rejected.

"Sixteen coaches voted to have all 16 teams," Syracuse's Jim Boeheim said. "The logic [against] was trying to come back from playing four games. That didn't seem to bother West Virginia last year. ... They don't listen to us. This is not our decision."

Home to the Knicks and Rangers, Madison Square Garden was off limits to Big East teams until Wednesday's four first-round games. That same day, ACC teams got to shoot around at the Greensboro Coliseum. It was host to the ACC women's tournament last week, and will be an NCAA tournament site next week.

Essentially, it's Southern hospitality vs. fuggedaboutit.

You cannot imagine Gary Williams, in his weakest moment, sitting on an interview podium with the cameras running and venting the profane tirade Boeheim unleashed after Gerry McNamara's game-winning three-pointer against Cincinnati.

It just wouldn't seem proper in the South.

Ninth-seeded Syracuse's desperate nature and quality play against Cincinnati and Connecticut is the best advertisement yet for Big East expansion. This season it added five teams from Conference USA, in part to counter an ACC raid that netted Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Counting titles won by Louisville in 1980 and 1986, the Big East's current members have won seven NCAA titles during the conference's existence. In that same span, the ACC has won eight, including an unprecedented three different champions in the past five seasons.

The ACC is different, in other regards.

"My wife made an interesting observation the first time we came to the Big East, after being ACC tournament people," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a Duke assistant from 1987 to 1995. "She said there are never any lines at the ladies room, because this is a guy's weekend here. ... And there's beer."

At the corner of 31st Street and 8th Avenue, a peek inside the street level of Charley O's Bar & Grill & Bar at 6 p.m. Wednesday found not a single female customer, just a hundred Jersey guys gearing up for Rutgers-Seton Hall.

Each Big East team received an allotment of 500 four-day ticket packages, with the option of purchasing more. Connecticut gobbled up 2,200 total, so it was a buyer's market when the Huskies failed to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2001.

In the ACC, where fans have become boosters of lesser basketball schools in order to score tournament tickets, the expansion schools will have to wait a few years to get a full allotment.

The Big East is a melting pot of flagship universities, private institutions and ones founded by an assortment of Catholic orders. Fans are randomly seated at Madison Square Garden, where the subdued lighting makes it hard to differentiate Connecticut's blue from Georgetown's.

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