Friday night, Virginia meets Michigan State and UConn faces Iowa State in the East Regional semifinals.
It was 1961 when three first-round games were last played at the Garden, known as the “Mecca” of college basketball. Nobody knew then that it would be more than five decades before the sport’s grand stage would return.
The presence of the NIT, which started at the Garden, was a big reason the NCAA tournament never came back. The NIT has been played every year in the Garden since it started in 1938, one year ahead of the NCAA tournament.
The process of returning the NCAA tournament to the Garden started in August 2008 when the NCAA bought the NIT as part of a settlement of a legal fight between the two organizations, and plans started almost immediately for the Garden to be involved with both tournaments.
“We have a great relationship with the NCAA, especially since they bought the NIT,” Madison Square Garden executive vice president Joel Fisher said.
Madison Square Garden held a luncheon Wednesday to celebrate the return of the NCAA tournament.
On hand was Oscar Robertson, who set the Garden’s scoring record of 56 points in 1958. So were Floyd Lane and Ron Nadell, who played in CCNY’s double-championship team that won the NCAA and NIT titles in the Garden in 1950.
Jim Calhoun, who led Connecticut from a regional program to three national championships and who won seven Big East tournament titles at the Garden, was also there, and he summed up the day and the upcoming weekend.
“Madison Square Garden needs college basketball and college basketball needs Madison Square Garden,” Calhoun said. “There are just too many memories.”
The UConn Huskies beat Villanova 77-65 last Saturday, advancing them to the sweet 16.
Friday’s game between Connecticut and Iowa State will also be a faceoff between longtime friends and coaches, UConn’s Kevin Ollie and Iowa’s Fred Hoiberg, who have known each other since high school.
“It’s always tough playing against one of your great friends, but at the end of the day, we’re both competitors,” Ollie said. “Once we get on those lines, you pretty much dont have any friends. You want your university to come out on top.”
The NCAA tournament is back in the building that has hosted 71 games, including seven that decided the national championship.
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