In the years before COVID-19, basketball fans in the Northeast would point to the second week of March as a reason to flock to Madison Square Garden and be part of the electric sellout crowds to watch the Big East Tournament.
It remains just as exciting for coaches like Villanova’s Jay Wright, who annually calls it one of the best weeks of the season. Of course, the Wildcats have enjoyed their share of tournament success, an active streak of three straight championships from 2017 through 2019.
After the cancellation of the event last year, the Cats (16-5, 11-4 Big East) return to the World’s Most Famous Arena for Thursday’s quarterfinal contest against Georgetown (10-12, 7-9), which advanced Wednesday with a 68-49 first-round victory over Marquette. The Cats are the No. 1 seed after winning their seventh Big East regular-season championship in the last eight years.
With strictly friends and family of each team’s traveling party granted admission, only about 1,000 seats will be filled. But Wright says the lack of fans won’t affect how his team performs when the game tips off.
“Playing at MSG in front of sellout crowds in the spring, it’s magical and it’s something that I pinch myself every time we get a chance to do it,” he said Tuesday on a Zoom call with the media. “I do think being in the Garden, being in New York, and then playing against Georgetown or Marquette, I think there’s going to be plenty of motivation and excitement for our guys.
“It’s almost everybody’s first opportunity to play in this. Even though there’s not fans, there’s still something really special about being in Manhattan and playing in the Garden and having a Big East opponent. That means a lot. So I don’t think there’ll be any lack of motivation.”
Only two players on the active Villanova roster have participated in a Big East Tournament game. Then-sophomore Jermaine Samuels played a key role in the 2019 championship, averaging 12.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in three games and knocking down seven three-point baskets.
Cole Swider, a freshman that season, saw 15 minutes on the court in the 2019 quarterfinals, scoring five points, but he went scoreless in the other two games, playing five minutes in each. Brandon Slater did not receive any playing time his freshman year.
The tournament will be a new experience for almost everyone else.
“I’ve heard a lot about how it’s a lot of fun to play in,” sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl said. “It’s a really historic conference tournament. There’s a lot of great games and great players that have competed in it. But I think with the year going on, it might be a little different than past years.”
With point guards Collin Gillespie (torn left medial collateral ligament) and Justin Moore (sprained left ankle) sidelined, things indeed will be different for the Wildcats.
Sophomore Chris Arcidiacono is likely to get the start at the point. Either Swider or Slater will be the fifth starter, but Wright said each will play the same amount of minutes.
Wright said that seeing two of his starters on crutches is “definitely a different feeling, a weird vibe,” but he said his younger players are “fired up” about the chance to play.
“The young guys want the opportunity,” he said. “As a coach, you want to give it to them. You just don’t want to give it to them at the expense of a guy like Collin or Justin. But now you have to so it’s a positive, it’s a real positive. Let’s see what we can do. We’ve had a couple of good days of practice, let’s see if we can keep getting better.”
Gillespie, Robinson-Earl share award
Gillespie and Robinson-Earl are among three players who will share Big East player of the year honors. The conference said the two Wildcats tied with Seton Hall forward Sandro Mamukelashvili in the balloting conducted by league coaches, who were not permitted to vote for their own players.
Gillespie averaged 14.0 points and 4.6 assists this season. Robinson-Earl, who has recorded six double-doubles, scored 15.2 points and pulled down 8.4 rebounds per game. Mamukelashvili was second in the Big East in scoring at 17.8 points per game and averaged 7.3 rebounds.
St. John’s accounted for two of the conference awards, with Mike Anderson taking coach of the year honors and guard Posh Alexander being named freshman of the year. Seton Hall’s Ike Obiagu collected the Big East scholar-athlete award.