It seems apropos that the Big East Tournament starts today at Madison Square Garden, 40 years to the day of the "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. An unprecedented 11 Big East teams could possibly be headed to this year's NCAA tournament and there will surely be plenty of slug fests over the next five days on the Garden floor.
On March 8, 1971, on the same Garden floor Ali and Frazier, two undefeated heavyweights, faced each other in what many consider the greatest fight ever in the Garden or the modern era.
Just like the boxing match, which boasted two great fighters and touched on political and sociological opposites of the day, this year's Big East Tournament is loaded with talent and great back stories--if not as explosive as four decades ago.
If men's college basketball could ever be compared to boxing, it would be measured against the Big East. The next five days should provide plenty of slipping, sliding, jabs and hooks.
Winning the tournament, on the biggest stage of all, is an exhausting feat. The quarterfinals could actually pit eight top-25 teams pounding each other to a pulp, only to have to go another round in Friday's semis and another in the championship game on Saturday. It says something about the toughness of the conference and it's a worthy tribute to the Ali-Frazier masterpiece. The finalists in this smoker could be as spent as the two great pugilists were after their fifteen rounds.
Put this tournament in perspective. Today's first-round games feature three teams who could get an invitation to the Big Dance. A #9 seeded team like Connecticut or a #10 seed like Villanova is looking at playing five games in five days if they make the championship game. Then the NCAA tournament begins on Thursday. It's a killer route, with no cupcakes on the schedule. The Final Four must be the furthest thing from player's minds during and after battling through the Garden.
While 1971 had the pall of the Vietnam War dividing the nation, each fighter had his own demons. It was Ali's third fight, since his exile from boxing for his stance as a "conscientious objector," and, in some circles, Ali was a pariah. Frazier had to deal with Ali's popularity and showmanship. Frazier was never able to escape the cloud of Ali, even after winning the Ali-Frazier 1.
The tournament, while not as political, brings in it's own sub-plots, heroes and villains.
#1 seeded Pitt is playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA's. #4 Syracuse and #3 Louisville are two of the hottest teams in the conference and should make good runs. Can Villanova and Georgetown get over slumps and injuries to make a statement?
#5 St. John's--which faded a bit in the last week--is back on their home court. The senior-filled team is 8-1 at the Garden and steamrolled six top-25 teams during that streak. Their play during that run was the talk of college basketball and the Red Storm's return to prominence makes a tournament ticket an even hotter commodity this year. If they roll like they did in February, a basically home court Big East Tournament Championship could be theirs for the taking.
While the Big East is lacking a dominating force this year, there are still plenty of players worth watching. Marshon Brooks (Providence) leads the conference in scoring with 24.8 points a game. Kemba Walker (Connecticut), Ben Hansbrough (Notre Dame) and Dwight Hardy (St. John's) follow and can all light it up. Brooks holds the conference single-game scoring record with 52 points he dumped on Notre Dame earlier this year
The World's Most Famous Arena shined like never before forty years ago. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dustin Hoffman lit up the ringside. The big names this week will be Pitino, Boeheim, Calhoun and Lavin. Worthy names all, but none bigger than Ali-Frazier that one magical night.