NEW YORK -- Along with $10 bottles of Bud Light and $7.25 buckets of popcorn, Madison Square Garden sells nostalgia. It boldly bills itself as the World's Most Famous Arena given those who have played on its floor, a litany of boldfaced names from Muhammad Ali to Hulk Hogan to Frank Sinatra. Walk around the concourse of the refurbished arena and you'll find nods to history everywhere, even a framed panel dedicated to Marilyn Monroe when she cooed "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy during a Democratic fundraiser at the Garden on May 19, 1962.
Of course in today's college athletics, where coaches and teams switches conferences as often as teenagers take selfies, nostalgia plays a distant second fiddle to football dollars. Under this backdrop, a pair of old Big East college basketball rivals met for the 88th time on Sunday afternoon. Once upon a time, Syracuse-St. John's would have been the hottest sports ticket in town, but the Garden was about 75-80 percent filled to capacity for the noon tip, with swaths of empty seats in each level. No doubt the weather -- 36 degrees -- and early start had something to do with it, but the programs are no longer conference foes, and the red-hot heat of the rivalry has diminished. Asked by SNY-TV if he was going to show up to the game, Knicks star and former Syracuse hoopster Carmelo Anthony summed it up perfectly: "If I wake up."
Had he made it, he would have witnessed a terrific game between his alma mater -- the No. 2-ranked team in the nation -- and a St. John's team loaded with potential. Syracuse (10-0) held on for a 68-63 victory thanks to a pair of baseline jumpers in the final minutes by senior forward C.J. Fair, and some terrible offensive possessions by St. John's (6-3). The final 10 minutes of the game featured four lead changes and the game had seven ties.
The tightness of the game made you long for the days when these two teams played regularly as part of the "old" Big East conference. This was the first game between the two programs since Syracuse left the Big East and joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in July. Both programs, of course, were original members of the Big East when seven East Coast schools, mostly private, Catholic universities in urban areas, founded the conference in 1979. It became a basketball power in the 1980s, with Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, St. John's Chris Mullin and Syracuse's Pearl Washington, among many others, gifted players becoming household names in Hoop Land. As a conference, Big East teams made 18 Final Four appearances in basketball and won seven NCAA championships, including three by UConn, and Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Louisville winning one title apiece. The lack of football stability -- and the chase for money -- ultimately doomed the enterprise. Syracuse left to join the ACC, which now houses former Big East teams Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. The new-look Big East includes basketball schools Xavier, Butler and Creighton and the seven basketball schools (the Catholic Seven) who broke away from the old conference to start a new conference with an old name.
At least there were some familiar old-school Big East touches on Sunday. After the public address announcer announced each of the Syracuse starters, a hearty group of St. John's students yelled out "sucks." Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, as always, looked as if he had swallowed spoiled milk on the sidelines. Lou Carnesecca, who coached St. John's during the Big East heyday, was in attendance. The tightness of the second half saw St. John's and Syracuse fans dueling between "Let's go, Orange" and "Let's go, Johnnies."
Calling the game courtside for Fox Sports 1 was Bill Raftery, an old Big East hand who coached Seton Hall from 1970 to 1981 before becoming one of the signature voices in the conference. "I have some nostalgia because half of my material is gone," Raftery said. "Half of my comic relief was abusing Boeheim. But I think Jimmy still has a little bit of a soft spot in his heart for the Big East. He wasn't big on leaving, although he has embraced it quickly. Nothing but good will happen for Syracuse in that league (the ACC), so that made it easier."
The current rivalry, if you can still call it that, remains one-sided. The series, which began on Feb. 8, 1912, is 51-37 in Syracuse's favor, including nine straight wins for the Orange. (No, Boeheim was not the coach at the time.) The last St. John's victory came on Jan. 21, 2007, so no wonder Boeheim spoke after the game about how much he likes playing in New York City.
"We have a lot of Syracuse fans here that live in this area, and I am sure we will continue playing them," Boeheim said of St. John's. "We like coming here. We've played a lot of games in Madison Square Garden. ... I thought both groups of fans were into it. I thought it was a great game at the Garden. That's why we signed up to play it. We knew they had a lot of guys back and would be a good team."
Syracuse led 39-27 at the break as St. John's struggled to score against the Orange 2-3 zone, shooting just 32.1 percent (10-of-29). But a St. John's run in the second half evened the game at 53 with 9:17 left after freshman guard Rysheed Jordan hit three free throws following a foul beyond the arc by Orange sophomore forward Jerami Grant. In crunch time, Syracuse went to Fair, who leads the team in scoring at 18.1 points per game. The senior forward finished with 21 points, including a huge jumper with 1:41 left to give Syracuse a 66-61 lead. Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, a future pro who plays with a calmness of someone far older, led the Orange with 21 points. Ennis was 10-of-10 from the line and finished with five assists and just two turnovers. He played a game-high 39 minutes and his layup with 4:11 gave Syracuse a 62-60 lead they would never relinquish. After the game, Boeheim declared that Ennis "is playing better than anybody than I have ever had, and I have a few pretty good freshman point guards."
"The big picture is, for 24-and-a-half minutes, Syracuse dominated this game," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin. "For 15-and-a-half minutes, St. John's dominated the game. It's a game of runs. They had their first-half run. We had our second-half run. Then they closed in the last four minutes."
Raftery predicted prior to the game that the crowd would be good. "I would be disappointed if there was not in excess of 12 or 13,000," Raftery said. The game ended up drawing 16,357, at least officially.
Syracuse has one more game on its Big East nostalgia tour -- a home game against Villanova on Dec. 28 -- before it begins ACC play against Miami on Jan. 4. St. John's opens its Big East schedule on Dec. 31 against Xavier. The teams will play again next year as St. John's will visit the Carrier Dome during the 2014-15 season on a date to be determined, and Syracuse is also scheduled to play at the Garden next year in a tournament.
Despite being in different conferences, the two programs do compete in the court of public opinion. Both programs have marketed themselves as New York's college basketball team. Lavin was asked after the game how he saw it.
"You have two programs with great history and tradition and it has been a great rivalry, but it has been dominated by Syracuse of late," Lavin said. "The reality is they have won a number of games both since I've been here and long before I was here. So if I was a Syracuse fan, I understand the mindset ...There are so many alumni that live here that even though the school is not in the city and the home court is not in the city, that somehow they associate Syracuse with the city. But the reality is St. John's is in the city, our home court is in the city and we've always been in the city. We are New York City's team."
Once upon a time that might have made a nice back-page headline. But those days are over.