Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Big East tournament mystique holds true at Madison Square Garden

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NEW YORK — When there are nearly 20,000 basketball fans crowded into Madison Square Garden at 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, it really means only one thing. The Big East Tournament is in town.

It's four days of college basketball involving 10 teams with legitimate hardwood pedigrees, and there's nothing quite like it.

Coming to the Big East Tournament has been on my bucket list for a while. My friend and colleague, the late Derek Gentile, used to make the New York City run every year. Unlike Derek and some of his friends from Adams, I get one day with the Big East.

"It's impactful, man," Villanova coach Jay Wright said during his post-game press conference after the top-seeded Wildcats knocked off Providence 73-62 in the first quarterfinal of Thursday. "It's impactful to me now. I've been here, we don't need to talk about how long. Still, when you walk on that floor, it's different."

It sure is different, walking out on the court at noon with a nearly full Garden surrounding. There are a lot of conferences; power conferences and mid-majors alike, who won't draw 19,534 to the arena for a noon tip-off. Of course, it was an ancient Big East rivalry game between the Wildcats and the Friars. These are two schools within easy driving distance of Manhattan. The Garden, however, was not quite as full when Xavier and Creighton took the court for the second game Friday. Omaha and Cincinnati are not easy drives.

It was the first time I saw Villanova in person since the Wildcats cut down the nets in Boston last March on their way to the Final Four, where they won the NCAA Division I championship.

Sure, Villanova is going to, as the talking heads say on TV, go dancing. Wright and the Wildcats will hear their names called Sunday night when CBS televises the selection show.

"I still get nervous coming out to games here, walking out on the court," Wright said to a gaggle of reporters standing outside the Villanova locker room.

The coach, who is one of the nation's best-dressed, emptied a sports drink, but otherwise did not look like he had been coaching. He barely broke a sweat.

"It's intimidating," Wright said. "It's a good thing. It's exciting, but it affects you."

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For teams like Villanova, playing in the Big East Tournament is a rite of passage, but not a be all and end all. Win, lose or draw on Thursday, Wright's team was going to the NCAA Tournament, and players recruited into Wright's program know that.

One member of the Villanova team was in playing in a brave new world.

Joe Cremo might be a familiar name to you if you have spent any time watching WRGB, WTEN or WNYT sports. Cremo was a standout at the University at Albany, before electing to spend a graduate transfer season at Villanova.

Cremo had played in mid-major tournaments, which are, for all involved, far more pressure packed. If you look at Albany's recent history, the Great Danes had won 20 or more games in three of the last four seasons, but did not even have an NIT bid to show for it.

"It's a little different," he said, "but at the same time, we're trying to focus on our next game. We don't want to take any steps back. We just want to keep going forward."

Cremo has played in some crazy finals in America East. Full houses for those Saturday morning championship games are the norm in that conference. There is, however, a big difference between playing in front of 3,500 screaming fans in Burlington, Vt., and playing in front of 19,000 screaming fans in the World's Most Famous Arena.

"This is cool," Cremo said to me, "but we're just trying to focus on what's between the lines."

Focusing between the lines is good advice for players, and for fans.

So if you don't have a team in this weekend's MIAA state championship basketball games, and if you can score a ticket, hop the train to New York City to catch some Big East basketball. You won't regret it.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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