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November 29, 2005

SCS.comThe lights go down. The arena goes dark, while a light beam begins to go around the building, leaving a spotlight on the team that is being introduced. And then the announcer comes on, "Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Madison Square Garden for..." If you don't get a little chill up your spine during that period, I have no idea what is wrong with you.

It may not be the "Mecca of College Basketball" as it is commonly referred to, but I can't find a better neutral court in all of college basketball than Madison Square Garden. What other arena has the variety of teams and games that MSG has? The Garden is the host for both the Preseason and Postseason NIT; the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic; the Holiday Festival; the Jimmy V Classic; the Big East Tournament; as well as several of St. John's marquee games.

Located in the heart of Manhattan, Madison Square Garden has long been known as the place to see a basketball game. However, in the past couple of years, St. John's has fallen on somewhat hard times, and the NIT has lost of a lot of its luster with the emergence of the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, some people have forgotten that it does not get any better than MSG. It has the perfect location (NYC) and has a much-underrated aspect within the arena. If you ever get a chance to see a game at MSG, think about the lighting of the building for a second. The actual fan sections are interestingly dark, while the court is lit up like a Christmas tree. That forces people to focus on the game at hand, not at the various people in the crowd. To me, that is just one of many "little" things that make the Garden.

There is just a different type of energy when one enters Madison Square Garden. It feels like basketball should be played, especially in the winter. Adding to that energy is the one-of-a-kind fan support that spectators show their team. There is no Cameron Crazies-like style of cheering and jeering. Simply put, there is no place for individual areas of student sections. However, aside from behind each basket, the majority of the fans that attend games are fathers and their kids; groups of people just wanting to see a game; and, of course, basketball legends. It is not uncommon to see Chris Mullin and Lou Carnesecca in his red sweater sitting right next to a dad and his two boys. It is part of the family environment that makes Madison Square Garden so special.

At this season's Preseason NIT, I had a chance to look through the Memphis media guide. In each player's bio, there was a section about their favorite road or neutral arena to play in. Several players put Madison Square Garden down. Considering the Tigers were 1-4 in the past two seasons in NYC, it was interesting that many players enjoyed MSG the most of any of road or neutral court. The experience of playing there is usually enough to win a player over, as evidenced by the media guide tidbit. That is one of the main reasons many people think that St. John's is not far from making a return to glory. One of the recruiting tools they can use is the fact that they play in Madison Square Garden. You would be surprised how much weight that holds. Moreover, Drexel is another team that could use that as a recruiting tool after their appearance in the Preseason NIT semi-finals. Games at MSG mean national exposure, which no recruit will turn down.

Upwards of 35 teams will get a chance to play in Madison Square Garden this season, and most will cherish the opportunity to take in the Mecca of college basketball. It may not be best home-court advantage for St. John's due to the fact that is not really the typical college arena (probably because it's not a college arena), but there is not a neutral court in college basketball that compares. The United Center in the Big Ten? When is the last time an in-season tournament was played there? It is an attraction to play in Madison Square Garden. No matter what tournament or who the opponent is, clubs want to play in NYC at MSG.

Madison Square Garden used to be the home for college basketball. From the late 1930's through the 1940's, NYC was the hub of big-time college hoops. In 1938, the MBWA of NY organized the NIT to determine the national championship team at the end of each season. The NCAA created its own tourney the next year. However, the NIT was the premium tourney until 1951, when the infamous New York City-area point-shaving scandal occurred. That killed Madison Square Garden. NYC college basketball fell on hard times. The fans of NYC lost interest, and it was never the way it used to be. All the history and tradition of it factors into the experience that teams expect when they play there. Madison Square Garden is not the same place it used to be, but the lure of playing there is still around. There is just something special about Madison Square Garden.

Duke. Connecticut. Boston College. Villanova. Georgetown. Louisville. Syracuse. Pittsburgh. Memphis. Those nationally-ranked programs have all played at Madison Square Garden in the past year or will play there this season. And many of them have done it by choice. There is a certain allure about playing in Madison Square Garden. And most schools can't avoid it. You can take your Alamodome and you can take your RCA Dome. I'll always go with Madison Square Garden, the best neutral court in all of college basketball.

Game of the Week: Oklahoma at Villanova

The inaugural Game of the Week got off to a rough start this past weekend. LSU at West Virginia definitely did not disappoint in terms of the quality of the contest. However, my prediction was off. I had West Virginia winning by six; LSU won by three in overtime. It was an excellent game. I underestimated the impact that the LSU frontcourt would have, and Darrell Mitchell stepped up more than I thought he would on the perimeter. West Virginia was not on fire from behind the arc, leaving them vulnerable. Hopefully, my prediction will be correct this week.

The best game of the week, on paper, is going to be Oklahoma at Villanova. Both were preseason top ten teams, although they have not received much recognition nationally since the season began. However, they are both currently ranked in the top five nationally. Villanova is 2-0, blowing out Stony Brook and Lehigh. They are averaging 81 ppg, and are only allowing 41 ppg, albeit against much-lesser competition. Oklahoma, like the Wildcats, has not played anyone of note. The Sooners are 3-0, with dominant wins against Samford, Binghamton, and Belmont. They are putting up 79 points per game, while giving up about 53. This will be the first test for both teams.

Villanova has used a four-guard starting lineup, after the potential season-ending injury to All-Conference forward Curtis Sumpter. Randy Foye and Allan Ray are one of the best wing scoring tandems in the country, both going for over 20 points per game. Foye is the de facto power forward on this team, at 6-4. Ray is shooting 46% from long-range. Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry are a two-headed monster at the point. Nardi has been able to play more off the ball this season with Lowry taking the ball-handling duties. Lowry is an excellent all-around player who is very quick. He is second on the team in rebounding and first in assists. All four perimeter players average double figures. Up front, Will Sheridan and Jason Frasor are the main post players. They provide good defense and rebounding, but not much scoring. If they can take some of the pressure off the guards, the Wildcats are going to be dominant.

Oklahoma is a deep and balanced team that can beat you both from the perimeter and down low. Their post tandem may be the best in the country. Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout are both potent options on the block that are also very good shot blockers and rebounders. Gray started slow, but had 15 points and 14 boards last game against Belmont. The burly Bookout is the perfect complement to the athletic Gray. Taylor Griffin and Longar Longar have provided solid depth. In the backcourt, JC transfers Michael Neal and Nate Carter have had major impacts. Neal is the team's leading scorer and has given them a consistent three-point shooter, while Carter is another solid scorer and rebounder. Terrell Everett may be the most underrated player in the country. He is a very good scorer and one of the best distributors in the conference. He had 17 points, 9 assists, 4 boards, and 4 steals against Belmont. David Godbold is another double-figure scorer.

This will be an excellent game for several reasons. First of all, it will be an opportunity to see if Villanova's four-guard offense can hold up to a low-post oriented team. In addition, we will get to see if Oklahoma's perimeter can hang with the best backcourt in the nation. Oklahoma has a decent guard group, led by Everett and Neal, that will be able to hold their own against Nova's crew of guards. On the inside, Foye is going to have his hands full trying to defend Gray on the interior. However, on the other hand, Gray is going to have to go out and guard Foye on the perimeter. The match-ups are going to interesting and fun to watch. The difference will be Oklahoma's overall balance. They can beat Villanova from the outside and the inside, which is something the Wildcats can't match. If Everett is able to hold Ray in check, the Sooners are going to come out of Philly with a huge non-conference road win. If only Villanova had Sumpter.

Prediction: Oklahoma 75, Villanova 72

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