Another season of college hoops set for the Garden

It’s easy to think Madison Square Garden is a building that only

comes to life these days when the New York Rangers take the

ice.

The New York Knicks haven’t been playing home – or road – games

because of the NBA lockout.

However, there will soon be the sound of basketballs bouncing

and sneakers squeaking in ”The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

As it has for every season since 1934, college basketball takes

its turn on the grand stage.

”This is the Mecca for college basketball. There’s something

magical when you walk in,” said Scott O’Neil, the president of

Madison Square Garden Sports. ”I don’t know if it’s the history of

the 77 years, or the slate of games we have. … There’s not a

place like this in the world.

”The Palestra is an amazing fieldhouse,” he said of

Philadelphia’s fabled building, ”but this is an arena, the best

basketball arena in the world.”

This season’s schedule gets under way Tuesday night with the

Champions Classic and that doubleheader will start with a chance at

college basketball history.

No. 6 Duke plays Michigan State in the opener and Blue Devils

coach Mike Krzyzewski – barring a huge upset in the first two games

– should be going for victory 903 which would move him past Bob

Knight, his college coach, and into the top spot on the Division I

wins list.

The second game that night has No. 2 Kentucky against No. 13

Kansas. Just another doubleheader New York fans have come to expect

at the Garden in recent years.

The roster of college teams gets off to an impressive start

every season because the Big East Conference plays its tournament

there every March. But Duke, Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Kansas

and Texas have become, if not yearly, regular visitors to New York

City.

”The Knicks and Rangers, their fans are fantastic, passionate

and that certainly runs through the base of New York,” O’Neil

said, ”but there’s something different when it’s your alma mater

and when you see the arena split with fans on each side. It’s

different.”

And it’s not just those high-profile national programs that get

a chance to go up and down the Garden court.

St. John’s plays a portion of its home schedule at Madison

Square Garden, something it has done for more than eight decades.

Other New York-area programs get their chance to play there as

well. This season Iona, Long Island University, St. Francis, N.Y.

and Siena will be part of doubleheaders with a St. John’s game.

”I just think it means a ton, it legitimizes a program like

ours when you get a chance to play in the Garden,” said LIU coach

Jim Ferry, whose Blackbirds are the preseason favorites in the

Northeast Conference. ”It’s a great opportunity for our school,

our kids, for me. I grew up here but never played there.”

Iona coach Tim Cluess got to see his brothers play for St.

John’s at the Garden and he took the court there himself when he

played for the Redmen.

”Everybody is thrilled. It is the epitome. I’m going to feel

like a kid again,” said Cluess, whose Gaels are the preseason

favorite in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. ”Just shooting

around on that court is an amazing feeling. These guys are going to

get something to keep with them for the rest of their lives.”

And it’s not just local players who are thrilled.

”It is the best gym in the world besides the Fieldhouse,”

Kansas’ Elijah Johnson said, referring to the Jayhawks’ on-campus

Allen Fieldhouse. ”Last year was my only experience there, and it

was a great experience. Growing up, I always thought that the

Garden was the best gym in the world and the Fieldhouse was second.

When I got here, I obviously had to rank the Fieldhouse over the

Garden. I love playing in the Garden, who doesn’t want to play

there?”

And the Garden, which will host 51 college games this season, is

on the way to a new look that will take three years in all. The

first offseason of the transformation finished with a revamped

lower bowl that has suites down near the court and the locker rooms

have been upgraded to where they are considered among the best in

sports. The fans can now walk on expanded concourses and choose

from concession stands and clubs bordering on elegant.

”This building is made up of memories and moments. This is the

one that rolls around through the souls of New York and the big

thing for this organization was how do you keep the magic of the

building but yet evolve into world-class and first-class

amenities,” O’Neil said. ”I think in the first phase we have

achieved that and we will next summer and the one after that.”

And it’s a safe bet both of those years will have another strong

college basketball schedule that will also feature local

programs.

”College basketball is a pretty important part of this

building,” said Joel Fisher, executive vice president of MSG

Sports. ”One of our goals with the transformation was to maintain

the atmosphere, the intensity, the intimacy we believe no other

arena in the world has.”