Having a nuanced opinion on anything in sports is probably one of the more difficult things anyone can try to do in this sphere.
I’ve said it before and I’m not going to stray from that opinion, but the Big Ten Tournament should never be played at Madison Square Garden. A midwestern conference should never feel the need to abandon its fans and create a truncated schedule for an arena too far for at least 11 fanbases to even consider driving.
It should never happen, but after experiencing the event first hand and talking to the players actually competing on this stage, I can at least now say…I get it.
“All you want to do when you grow up is play at Madison Square Garden,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said. “Think about all the people that played here before and are currently playing here.”
It’s a sentiment that remains consistent with almost every player you talk to. For the fans, bringing this tournament to New York was a mockery. For the players, you created a moment. A moment that many won’t forget, no matter how extensive of a physical struggle it took to get there.
”It’s great,” Michigan guard Zavier Simpson said after Michigan’s first game of the tournament. “The atmosphere is great out there. Just glad to be able to play in an arena like this. Just happy we can get our first victory here. And hopefully we can continue. But as far as playing here, it’s an amazing feeling.”
“It’s incredible,” Michigan forward Duncan Robinson said. “Being an East Coast kid growing up, this is the mecca of it all. I feel very fortunate to be here, and specifically with this team.”
“Experience playing here is second to none,” Michigan guard Charles Matthews said. “This is every childhood dream, to be able to say that they played in the Garden.”
“We definitely love playing here,” Penn State guard Tony Carr said. “Madison Square Garden is a great gym. It’s every child’s dream to play here. And just for us to be playing a Big Ten Tournament for a great university like Penn State is great.”
“It’s always great to play in New York,” Penn State guard Shep Garner said. “I love playing here. Madison Square Garden is a great arena. A lot of history here. So it’s always good to get a win here.”
“It was great playing at home, especially for the seniors,” Rutgers guard Corey Sanders said. “They get to come, the parents get to come and stuff and see them play. We had a lot of people come from different places. Deshawn’s family came, my family came. Just to have people that support you like that, especially in the New York area, we’ve got a lot of alumni. Just to have the fans come out there and be behind us, just a great feeling, and it helps us get more amped up for the game and try to win.”
“We’re definitely excited we get to play here for a championship at the mecca of basketball,” Michigan State forward Miles Bridges said. “We had to get some first-game jitters out of the way. But I feel like once we got that out of the way we got comfortable and we got going.”
“It was an amazing experience, just being in such a legendary place and playing in front of all those fans, a lot of Spartan Nation out there that came and supported us,” Michigan State guard Cassius Winston said. “ It was great playing out there.”
“It has been great to cement a legacy here at MSG,” Purdue forward Vince Edwards said.
“Madison Square Garden is one of the best arenas in basketball, so it’s always great to be able to play here,” Purdue center Matt Haarms said. “We’ve had some really good crowds, so it has been really exciting and really fun to be playing here. It was really fun to see the Penn State fans go against the Purdue fans. It just gives us that much more energy.”
“You know, all-time greats have played in this gym,” Purdue guard Nojel Eastern said. “The focus just to be able to play on this court, it’s just amazing…it’s a blessing. You have to just come out and take in every bit”
“It’s funny because I was actually born in New York, so this was a dream come true really,” Indiana guard Al Durham said. “Most of my family is from here, so playing in the garden is something they dreamed of. It felt good to play here and get one under my belt.”
“I was looking around and I was like, where’s all this noise coming from?” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers said. “Then I looked up and saw decks on decks on decks. You had people all the way up there wearing their Maize shirts just yelling, so it was hype. I loved it. A lot of energy. You have no choice but to feed off it. You’re in a loud crowd and everyone’s cheering for you, you’re going to do nothing else but play your best.”
The theme is consistent throughout. Every player that was asked about their experience at the garden had the same light in their eyes as the last. Taking the time to appreciate that and also disliking the tournament’s location can be congruent thoughts. The two ideas aren’t in any way exclusive to each other and that is important.
It’s hard to argue that this Big Ten Tournament wasn’t special in some form or another. It was special for the players and it was even special for the coaches on the sidelines.
“I love Madison Square Garden,” Rutgers Head Coach Steve Pikiell said. “There’s no better place. There’s no better venue. So it’s great to be here in this venue. I’ve always loved it. Loved it as a player, Big East, and every time I come here and play, it’s just great…I don’t worry about what other people think. It’s a great venue here, maybe the best venue in the world. People love New York. It’s great to spread the great word of what a great league it is with great coaches to the biggest media market in the world. So this is great for the league. And I think a lot of people are learning how good and exciting basketball is played in this league and how many good, quality teams there are from 1 to 14. So I’m hoping they’re getting a great feel for that.”
“I played in some quarterfinal games here with West Virginia, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a quarterfinal game that was as loud as that game today,” Michigan Head Coach John Beilein said. “That was an exciting atmosphere to be in. And it’s really — I don’t think — we had to sacrifice a lot to put ourselves in this position to be in the Garden. I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll all say it was worth it. If you witness these games we’re having right now and how New York loves basketball, they love college basketball. Something that I mentioned several times, March in New York is just — I don’t know why it’s a really favorite time of mine…For us it was like a no-brainer, even though we knew that it was going to be a bit more difficult schedule.”
“I think everybody knows from a coaching standpoint this was a tough year the way everything was condensed,” Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said. “But as I said, once you got to Madison Square Garden, the thrill of playing in an arena like this was special…. So I guess for me I appreciate being in Madison Square Garden and for only the second time in this rivalry did we get to play each other in the Big Ten Tournament. We did not play good enough to win; they did. Credit goes to them. But the memory and the — of playing here I think will be important to our guys as they go through life.”
After laying out every statement made this weekend by players and coaches, it’s hard to not feel this odd level of confusion about how you feel. That’s okay. It’s the beauty of nuance. Things can be good and bad and now that we are beyond the event itself, there little need to dissect the negatives. The Big Ten took advantage of an opportunity that they most likely won’t have in the foreseeable future.
Players such as Al Durham and Mike Williams got to live out a life long dream and play in front of loads of family. Jordan Bohannon and Nojel Eastern got to play on the same court as NBA legends. Miles Bridges and Tony Carr got to play on a court and visualize what their future may hold in the NBA. Programs like Rutgers and Michigan got to take advantage of their huge New York based alumni and play off of a raucous crowd in one of the most famous arenas known to man.
And the product wasn’t terrible either.
10 of the 13 games of this tournament were decided by single digits, the best of the Big Ten emerged and displayed their NBA potential, as Tony Carr became the first point guard in Big Ten history to score 25 points in multiple tournament games, and the nearly impossible became possible as Rutgers became the first 14 seed to make the tournament quarterfinals.
This tournament was good and there is no denying it. With that said, this tournament could have been great and I’d still have the same takeaway.
Congrats, you gave players their moment. You gave coaches their moment. You even gave fans an interesting moment. Now get off your high horse and never do this again.