By René Reyes and Luke Coughlan/DFP Staff
Patrick Nero had a vision when he became America East Commissioner in 2005. He wanted to expand the conference’s fan base by showcasing its basketball programs in an effort to land future recruits.
Nero’s vision will come to fruition Thursday night, when Madison Square Garden plays host to its first-ever America East game, a matchup between the Boston University men’s basketball team and the University at Albany.
The BU-Albany game, slated for a 9:30 p.m. tip-off, will be the second part of a doubleheader at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” in New York City, following the conclusion of a 7 p.m. contest starring Big East Conference foes St. John’s University and the University of Connecticut.
The “Big Apple Battle,” as the event has been named, will feature the Terriers (12-13, 7-4 AE), who have a brief but exciting history at Madison Square Garden, and the Great Danes (12-14, 5-6 AE), who will be making their first appearance at MSG.
The Terriers are 1-2 at The Garden. Their win came from a thrilling NCAA tournament first-round victory over UConn, and their two losses have come by a total of six points to St. John’s and St. Joseph’s University in the 2006 St. John’s Aeropostale Holiday Classic.
“We have to do fun things like this that make it a great opportunity for fans to participate and for the type of student-athletes that we want to recruit,” Nero said. “Playing a game like this means so much. It impacts so much about how we want to grow our basketball.
“We have over a million alumni in the America East, and many of them are within a two- to three-hour drive of New York City. This makes a lot of sense for our fans and for our student-athletes.”
In late August 2010, St. John’s Athletic Director Chris Monasch received the Red Storm’s schedule for the 2010-11 campaign, which included eight home games at The Garden, and determined that Feb. 10 was an available date to schedule a doubleheader. In years past, Monasch has invited schools from the Metro Atlantic Conference and the Northeast Conference to be a part of the annual doubleheader.
“[St. John’s] plays a number of home games at Madison Square Garden,” Monasch said. “On many of the dates we play, we don’t have the opportunity to play a doubleheader because either the [New York] Knicks or the [New York] Rangers play, or just the timing of events before or after ours.
“There are always a number of dates each year that we do have a chance to play a doubleheader. We like to put our women’s team in on one or two of those dates. Beyond that, we try and get other games really for the purpose of allowing people to play at Madison Square Garden. Obviously, we want to try to hopefully generate additional revenue – that’s really the philosophy behind what we’re doing.”
This year, Monasch reached out to the America East. As a former AE Commissioner, Monasch had a genuine understanding of the hardships the conference faces and why it wants to advertise its basketball on a greater stage. He collaborated with Nero in a joint effort to award the conference with a game at MSG. Nero then spoke with America East athletic directors about what programs would be interested in the opportunity, and BU and Albany were the first two schools to express interest.
“It certainly made sense to have Albany or Stony Brook [University],” Monasch said. “Stony Brook’s the most local. Albany’s probably second closest. BU has a large alumni base and the hockey team has played here. When they told us that they thought this matchup could work, it was fine with us.”
“I think that, from what I can tell, the success that we’ve had down there with Red Hot Hockey was certainly a factor in the league’s decision to consider us to be one of the teams to go down there and host,” said BU Athletic Director Mike Lynch.
For Lynch, the opportunity for the Terriers to play at the Mecca of Basketball was one worth pursuing.
“This was a unique set of circumstances,” Lynch said. “We don’t get an opportunity to do something like this every year. I think it was a culmination of a couple of different things, in particular. One was from the league perspective, we, along with some of the other schools in the conference, have been pushing the conference to figure out a way to promote basketball in a bigger fashion.”
While the Terriers have relied on tournament hype to draw crowds in their past visits to MSG, this time around, they will be looking to draw fans for a good old-fashioned regular-season conference game.
“I think that, from the Garden’s perspective, this is an opportunity to get two games in the building in one night, which financially, is a great opportunity for them,” Lynch said. “In terms of the actual crowd itself, I don’t think any of us ever expected that we would have a sellout opportunity at Madison Square Garden. However, following the St. John’s and Connecticut game, I do think that there will be some fans that will decide to make it a night of college basketball and certainly for us, it’s an opportunity to deliver the BU brand into New York City again.
“We have about 40,000 alumni residing in New York, many of whom have not necessarily followed Terrier basketball in the past. From my perspective, even if they don’t come to the game, the fact that we have alerted them that our team is going to be in the area is going to be a step forward for the program.”
Although the game provides many opportunities for the promotion of the America East, it was also put together with one particular player in mind: BU senior forward John Holland, the conference’s leading scorer at 18.8 points per game. Holland hails from the Bronx, and for Lynch and BU coach Patrick Chambers, the chance to bring their star senior home to play before his home fans one last time before graduation was too good to ignore.
“I know a lot of coaches’ schools [of thought], and I think Patrick is probably in this school as well, like to bring their senior players where they can play one time in front of their home fans,” Lynch said. “And certainly for John, this is exactly one of the primary reasons that we are playing this game.”
Despite conceding a home game to play at MSG, Chambers felt that the tradeoff would result in a valuable experience for his squad.
“I think given an opportunity to give these kids a memory and to get them to Madison Square Garden, you can’t pass that up,” Chambers said. “And that’s why we sat down and said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ But don’t get me wrong. Would I rather have played at Case [Gymnasium] or at Agganis [Arena]? Sure. But to go to Manhattan and play in MSG after St. John’s and UConn, which has a huge tradition in itself in the Big East, it’s going to be great for our kids to watch and be a part of.”
As a three-year starter at Dowling College, Albany coach and Long Island, N.Y., native Will Brown was lucky enough to play two games at MSG. On Thursday, his players will take the famed Garden floor.
“They’re excited,” Brown said. “They’re thrilled. Our guys can’t wait to get down there. You just hope that they’re not too excited or too anxious where they don’t play well. They’re looking forward to playing at MSG. It’s called ‘The World’s [Most] Famous Arena’ for a reason. Schools in the America East don’t get this opportunity too often. When you do get the opportunity, you have to jump at it.”
Lynch also remarked that the game could be a spark for BU’s basketball recruiting in the long term.
“From a recruiting perspective, bringing BU into what everybody in college basketball would perceive to be one of the top three markets for high school players,” Lynch said. “New York City is certainly right there. This is obviously a great opportunity for us to showcase BU basketball in New York in an area which we think is going to pay dividends for us in the future.”
Nero hopes Thursday’s “Big Apple Battle” will be a stepping-stone to bigger and better things for the America East at Madison Square Garden.
“We look at this as the beginning,” Nero said. “This is the first year. It’s a trial run of seeing what works and what doesn’t work. We hope that by doing this for quite a few years in the future that all nine of our schools will get to participate. That would definitely be a goal. The first is always the one you’re going to learn the most from.
“There are so many things that we want to get from it this first year, but I would say the number one thing is we want to look at it as the beginning. This is something we want to grow and we want to become an annual event.”