As a big time hoops fan, catching a basketball game at MSG had been on the bucket list for a while, especially since moving to NYC. Last night, I finally had a chance to catch not one but two great games and it was absolutely ELECTRIC.
I love college hoops. Well, I love all hoops, but aside from a Celtics playoff game, there is nothing more exciting to me than big-time college basketball. December 5th was the Jimmy V Classic at “The Garden”. This event is unbelievable, and for an outstanding cause which I would suggest everybody consider donating to here; http://jimmyv.convio.net/site/PageNavigator/2017Vweek_jimmyv.html
If you were born yesterday and are not sure who Jim Valvano is, take a second and watch this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNuCS5ZtPJg
Now again consider donating to his cause, which has raised over $200 million for cancer research since his death.
As for the basketball arena, there was a lot of hype surrounding my first visit to MSG. Everyone claims it to be the greatest place on earth to catch a game, but I for one could never imagine a better place than the actual Garden on Causeway St. From the moment I walked in, you could understand why that stigma surrounds it. You could sense the history and feel the place buzzing with energy. Like I said, it was Electric.
The best part, was getting two games for the price of one. Actually, it was definitely for the price of two, but back to back games were a treat. The first game was a heavy-weight battle, between two small universities that have become two of the biggest basketball powerhouses in the country; #4 Villanova and #12 Gonzaga. The only thing more polished than the gym itself, was the suit on Jay Wright which looks even better in person than on TV. Two years removed from a national title, Nova is still one of the best teams in the country and that was on full display last night. If there was one major takeaway from either game, it is that this Nova team is going to be extremely tough to beat. They are fast, tough, well-coached, and can shoot the lights out. On this night, they were led by 6’6 Junior Mikal Bridges who went for 28, including a highlight reel slam that sent the crowd into a frenzy. He got some serious help from fellow Jr. Phil Booth who put in 20, and star PG Jalen Brunson who chipped in 12-5-5. I was also impressed by the play of Donte DiVincenzo, who had 9 points in just 13 minutes of action to go along with his outstanding name.
Nova was undefeated and had blown every opponent out coming into this game, but Mark Few and Gonzaga figured to be there first true test of the year. In a hostile environment that sounded like a home-game for the Wildcats, the Zags turned out to be no match. The big advantage the Bulldogs had at the start, was their size and rebounding ability, led by 6”11 Jacob Larsen, 6”10 Killian Tillie, and 6”9 Jonathan Williams. They hit the offensive glass early, and jumped out to a fast start and an early lead. But, the brilliance of Jay Wright had Nova put on a full-court press and they ran Gonzaga out of the gym. The Zags turned the ball over 19 times, and could not keep up with Nova’s quickness. The other glaring difference between these two teams was the 3 point shooting. Led by Bridges who was 5 of 9 from deep, the Cats shot 48% to just 27% for Gonzaga. No one wearing white had an answer for Mikal Bridges, who did whatever he wanted to do on the court all night. He hit those 5 threes, got to the line 9 times, and controlled the game on both ends. Gonzaga could not contain him, and it is hard to imagine any team in the country being able to do so when he brings it like that. In the end, Nova earned an 88-72 W moving to 9-0 while Gonzaga falls to 7-2 on the year. Despite the blowout loss, Gonzaga is a good basketball team that will once again have no issues in conference play. If things go according to plan, this team will be a top 3 seed come March and very capable of making a deep tourney run.
On the other side, I expect Nova to be right on the top line come selection Sunday and be a favorite to get to the Final Four. They too should roll through conference play, and this will be a good looking win on a neutral floor. It was an entertaining basketball game between two teams that are in for great seasons.
One game would have been plenty, but having the end of game 1 mark only the halfway point of the evening was what I would call; Elite. The second matchup involved teams not nearly as talented as the first two, but two programs that made the atmosphere in the Garden something really special; Syracuse vs Uconn. These teams have a long history of great games, especially in this arena which hosted the 6 OT thriller a few years back. They are also two local programs, with massive fan bases that both made their presence felt on Tuesday night. With each trading bucket, one side of the arena erupted with the other half going silent. It was loud, and people on both sides were fired up for the nightcap.
The fans in Orange had much more to cheer about throughout the night. While their team isn’t as dominant as years passed, they showed flashes of why they may be able to scare some people in the ACC. Anytime you have a player like Tyus Battle, you have a shot to win. The sophomore guard is silky smooth, athletic, and was the only NBA player on the court in Game #2. He played the entire ballgame, put in 22 points and grabbed 5 steals. He took over a stretch in the second half that allowed Syracuse to open up a comfortable double-digit lead. Fellow sophomore Matt Moyer was also big for Cuse, scoring 18 and grabbing 8 boards. Rebounding was a problem for Connecticut as they allowed too many offensive boards, which led to easy points for Syracuse. Normally a good rebounding team, the Huskies were dominated 37-26 on the glass, and that proved to be a huge factor in the game.
As always, the Syracuse zone was a big factor as well, and Uconn struggled with it all night. Their turn-over on the first possession was indicative of how the rest of the night would go, as Kevin Ollie could not find a consistent way to beat the patented 2-3. They turned it over 16 other times too, and didn’t make enough open looks to keep themselves in it. One guy for Uconn that can get his own bucket consistently is Boston native Jaylen Adams. The Jr. guard scored 22 and led a late second half surge, with help from Christian Vital (17 points) but their valiant comeback effort fell short. The Husky run did however get the crowd going. Jim Boeheim said it best after the game, when he mentioned that no two College teams are going to put as many people in the Garden as Uconn and Syracuse, and the place was bumping until the final buzzer.
I think UConn is going to find themselves on the bubble later this year. Kevin Ollie has not been able to put together a high level team since UConn was left for dead to play in the American Athletic Conference. You know that has to hurt them in recruiting while former Big East rival Syracuse is still able to pitch going against Duke and UNC every year in the ACC. I think Sryacuse has a chance to get a 5-7 seed and maybe win a game or two in March.
When the buzzer did sound, it was the end of an incredible night of hoops at the place where most say is the #1 place to watch basketball in the world. I loved every second of it, but one thing I did notice was a lack of championship banners hanging from the rafters. There wasn’t much up there aside from a Billy Joel flag commemorating his sell-outs, and there definitely weren’t 17 NBA championship banners hanging high like there are in one arena I know well.