Another season of college hoops set for the Garden

BY foxsports • November 12, 2011

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.''

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