My throat sore from cheering, my body sweating underneath candy stripe pants and jeans, I took one last look around Madison Square Garden, drinking in the atmosphere for a final moment before the staff rushed us out for an upcoming Rangers hockey game. And what I felt, despite the crushing OT loss to Georgetown, was satisfaction. This was satisfaction not only for the experience at Madison Square Garden, but for the city as a whole, because if you're going to judge MSG for its suitability for IU basketball, you have to include everything. Its like judging Assembly Hall and not including a trip to Nicks. The options for food and entertainment around MSG are endless, and if you thought Kirkwood Avenue had some good bars, wait until you get a look at New York City.
I'll be honest: I had never been to New York City and, pessimistic by nature, went into my first trip with low expectations. All I had ever heard about New York City was that it was filthy, the people were miserable and rude, and you could get an excellent bowl of soup if you didn't upset the proprietor. This was probably a byproduct of my being raised in a farming community, but I can't help it! I'm a Hoosier! So when I moved to near Springfield, Massachusetts, early in the year, I had to take any opportunity I could get to go and see Tom Crean's squad play. My best college buddy, Peter, lives in Boston, so we decided to take buses and meet in the city on Friday morning. We were there for 36 hours, so think of this as a guide and assessment of MSG for Indiana basketball and fans thinking of making a quick trip for a future game, and if these games are worth it for two programs playing many hundreds of miles away from each campus.
The only bad interaction I had the whole weekend was walking into MSG in candy stripes. A ticket scalper had seen my attire and asked "Indiana?" I said "Yes sir, the Hoosiers." "You suck ass, punk," he said with a scowl. Well, then. After exchanging pleasantries with the upstanding gentleman, I shifted right back into hype mode. This game had a big-fight feel. Two great programs, lots of great fans relishing perhaps their only chance to see their team play all season. Indiana's players warmed up at a fast and furious pace; you could tell they wanted this game on the national stage. It came down to the wire, but Indiana couldn't stave off Georgetown's second half rally.
At MSG, escalators take you all the way up to whatever level you're sitting at, and everything is clearly marked. Walking into the arena is an amazing view. Just check out the video I took. The entire lower bowl was filled so it didn't feel like the arena was half-empty. Two basketball-crazed fanbases are going to make loud noises no matter how many people show up. No one I talked to at the game cared about the attendance, or even noticed for that matter. It sounded like a packed house, and I have to give credit where credit is due. Even though IU brought more fans in, the Hoya supporters were much louder, anchored by a small student section under one of the baskets. During the second half, when Georgetown went on their run and the fans got loud, it seemed to rattle Indiana's young players (not Yogi, obviously). While the outcome wasn't what I wanted, the game was a great one with an atmosphere that every neutral site game should strive to have.
Now for the million dollar question: is it worth it for these schools to play at Madison Square Garden?
The answer is a three-part answer. For the players, it allows them to star on a national stage in an arena and atmosphere similar to what they could expect from an NCAA or Big Ten tournament game. The team also gets valuable experience against top quality opponents. Indiana has played at MSG four times in the past two seasons, going 1-3 against upper echelon KenPom teams. The players enjoy the games, so I doubt they have any objections to playing more games in MSG.
For the fans, it is a split crowd. For alumni like myself who live on the East Coast, it is a rare opportunity to see the Hoosiers in person. Indiana also has a large New York alumni base that contribute gobs of money to the university, and they do show up for the games. But for the majority of fans back in the Hoosier state, a game like the one versus Georgetown represents yet another high profile game that could be played as a home and home series in place of one of the seven cupcakes on IU's schedule. I, for one, would like to see this happen with Louisville, but secondary choices would go to Butler or Georgetown.
The third factor is benefit for the school itself. Jim Delany is hell-bent on establishing Big Ten roots in the New York market, so if Indiana can be a constant player and represent the Big Ten conference at Madison Square Garden, it would behoove them to go along with Delany's plans. All these games at MSG also increase recruiting exposure for Tom Crean and his staff, giving them an in to the loaded New York basketball market. Coach Crean had nothing but good things to say about the Madison Square Garden experience, saying, "We have guys who may never get to play in here again. It's a great thing. The east coast is obviously huge part for Indiana when it comes to alums. The New York Metropolitan area is second to Chicago area, when you remove the state of Indiana. We have the third largest alumni base in the country. It's an honor to be here and it gives a chance for our east coast kids to spend some time with the family."
So, is it worth it for Indiana basketball to play these key matchups off-campus in a city 800 miles away? The short answer is that there is no easy answer. People like myself, the team, and the conference higher-ups enjoy the experience and exposure, while those back in Indiana would point to the low attendance figures and distance away from both teams' campuses and fanbases as reasons to distance the team from playing at MSG and moving the games back where they belong: at the universities and playing in front of the students that vociferously support the teams. Both camps make legitimate points, but from my experience last Saturday, Madison Square Garden is a perfect venue for great games and I will definitely be back the next time the Hoosiers come to the city that never sleeps.