As Georgetown commemorates its 100th year of men’s basketball, the Big East is celebrating an anniversary of its own. This week’s conference championship tournament is the 25th to be held at Madison Square Garden, a location that has taken on a special significance for one of the most storied leagues in college basketball.

“All of us in the northeast look at adison Square Garden as the Mecca in New York City,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said Monday on the Big East conference call. “Going back to the ’50s in the days of the NIT, you’re in New York to prove yourself. All the media’s there, the kids love playing there, the fans love going there and when you’re in the city for that week, you just feel like you’re a part of hoops heaven.”

Founded in 1979, the Big East held its first conference tournament at the Providence Civic Center in March 1980. Seven teams – Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut, Boston College, St. John’s, Syracuse and Providence – made the trip, with the Hoyas ultimately emerging victorious. Along the way, they defeated the Pirates, Red Storm, known as the Redmen at the time, and Orange, known as the Orangemen at the time, for the first Big East postseason title. The next two league championships were held in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., respectively, before the 1983 tournament moved to the Garden.

St. John’s, seeded third and led by one of the league’s all-time greats in Chris Mullin, captured the first of its three Big East championships that season, defeating Boston College by eight points. Interestingly, only one tournament game that year was decided by fewer than six points, but over the next 23 years, the Garden played host to countless thrillers, always with an automatic bid to the Big Dance on the line.

Georgetown has certainly played in its fair share of tournament nail-bitters.

In 1984, the Hoyas went into overtime and required a 27-point, 16-board performance from Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85) to defeat Syracuse in the finals. They also had a ichael Graham technical foul overturned and left Orange Head Coach Jim Boeheim whining in the post-game press conference. “The best team did not win tonight,” he said.

Eight years later, Syracuse exacted some revenge on Georgetown, beating the Hoyas on a David Johnson jump shot with four seconds remaining. The Orange had led by as many as 11 points down the stretch, only to find themselves in a tie with 24 seconds left.

In 1996, an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown team opposed Connecticut in one of the most memorable Big East tournament games of all time, but came out on the wrong side of a 75-74 decision. The Hoyas led 74-63 with 4:46 left and appeared poised to win their seventh league title. Georgetown went into a prevent scheme, but only prevented itself from scoring. Ray Allen completed the Huskies’ comeback with 13 seconds left as he beat the shot clock with an off-balance heave and scored the game’s final bucket. The Hoyas missed twice on the other end, and Connecticut proved the victor.

Syracuse and Georgetown faced off in yet another classic in 2000, with the ninth-seeded Hoyas shocking the first-seeded Orange, 76-72. Lee Scruggs turned in one of the best performances of his career with 20 points and Georgetown shot 27-of-31 from the line in the shocker.

For most Big East fans, thrilling wins in the league tournament rank among a school’s all-time great victories, while crushing defeats in March at the Garden are some of the most difficult memories to stomach.

Though teams come to the tournament in vastly different positions, the ultimate goal is the same.

Some teams, like last year’s Syracuse squad, arrive in the Big Apple on the bubble and in need of a few wins to cement their spots in the Big Dance. After finishing the conference slate 7-9 and in 9th place, the Orange seemed to be on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in. Cue Gerry McNamara and his tournament heroics.

McNamara won Syracuse’s first round game on a three-pointer with half a second left and then tied the Orange’s quarterfinals matchup with top-seeded Connecticut on a trey with 5.5 ticks to go. Against Georgetown in the semifinals, cNamara drilled a three with one minute left to bring Syracuse within one and then assisted on the game-winning basket half a minute later. In the finals, McNamara scored 14 points as the Orange shocked everyone and won its fourth game in as many days.

“If we didn’t win [the tournament] then we wouldn’t have been in the NCAA last year,” Head Coach Jim Boeheim said. “It was obviously very important to us. It’s an opportunity to work and to play well and get your team playing well.”

This year, West Virginia (21-8, 9-7) likely finds itself in need of at least one win to get in, while DePaul (18-12, 9-7) needs to make at least the finals to put its name into contention.

“The best thing you have to do right now, every team – I don’t care who you are – whether you’re on the bubble or you think you’re locked, you gotta win,” West Virginia Head Coach John Beilein said on Monday. “I think that’s very important for us, that we just focus on winning and not thinking about whether we’re in or not in.”

For others, the Big East tournament presents an opportunity for a highly ranked team to prepare itself for a deep run in the next tournament.

“I believe that winning begets winning,” said Connecticut Head Coach Jim Calhoun, who has won the league tournament six times and the NCAA tournament twice. “If you win that Big East championship, you have a better chance of winning the NCAA tournament.”

This year, however, Calhoun’s Huskies (17-13, 6-10) will only make March Madness with an automatic bid. They are playing in New York for pride.

“It would be hopefully a chance for us to, quite frankly, salvage some of the season,” he said. “We’ll do everything possible to win every single year. The kids want to play basketball.”

Because everyone has some motivation to win, coaches all agree: The level of competition in the Big East tournament is of a different sort and is second to none.

“The competition is unbelievable – every game is a different battle,” Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino said. “The variety of the styles of play makes it extremely interesting as well as challenging.”

“At this point in the year, scouting kinda goes out the window,” Brey explained. “It’s more physical freshness, mental state of mind, confidence – those are the edges you’re looking for now.”

The coaches agree about another thing as well: Playing at the world’s most famous arena makes the tournament that much more special.

“It’s such a great environment,” Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III said. “And as someone who grew up as a kid there, watching the games and being a part of the Big East growing up, just the opportunity [is special].

“You get chills, almost, walking into the building. The Garden as everyone knows, because of longevity.is in many ways synonymous with Big East basketball.”

“I’ve never run into a game in New York yet the players weren’t motivated for,” said Boeheim, who has coached Syracuse since the league’s inception. “I think they all are excited to go to New York.”

Tradition isn’t all the league championship has to offer. Its central location is ideal for fans.

“You love the NCAA tournament but you could get bracketed in Minneapolis, which is a nice place, but it doesn’t have the basketball tradition, and your fans can’t get there,” Wright said.

The team to beat in 2007 is No. 9 Georgetown, which won the regular season title with a 13-3 record and is seeded first. Still, that doesn’t mean the Hoyas are complacent. Even a team that has its spot in the NCAA tournament all wrapped up has one last statement to make.

“We’re ranked No.1,” Georgetown junior forward and league player of the year Jeff Green said. “We feel like we are one of the best teams in the Big East, but we’ve just got to go out and prove it.”

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