SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — Back in the Big East Conference’s formative years, when Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s, Villanova and their brethren were just getting to develop enmity toward one another, men’s basketball games were still played in rickety band boxes with warped floors, frothy fans and a regular exchange of sharp elbows.
It was called atmosphere.
In short order, the nascent conference became the center of the college basketball universe in the early 1980s, with Pearl Washington, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin becoming household names from Brooklyn to Berkeley thanks to another upstart entity, ESPN.
It wasn’t long before the games demanded a bigger stage. So instead of playing in places like McDonough Gym, Manley Fieldhouse, Alumni Hall and the Cat House, the schools rented out N.B.A. arenas — or in Syracuse’s case audaciously built the cavernous Carrier Dome — and planted their postseason tournament flag at Madison Square Garden.
The Big East may be far from those dizzying heights — a basketball-centric league is destined to get short shrift in today’s football-financed world. But necessity (and the coronavirus pandemic) allowed it to tap into those roots on Monday night when Seton Hall’s men’s team welcomed St. John’s to its long-ago on-campus home with 1,316 fans shoehorning into Walsh Gymnasium.
It was a throwback on the court, too, with St. John’s routing Seton Hall, 84-63, the teams reprising their Big East original-seven roles as conference powerhouse and patsy.
The Johnnies’ victory came two days after Seton Hall had knocked them off at a sparsely populated Garden, which provided quite the contrast to the trip across the Hudson, where the cozy gym was filled with only students, faculty, friends and family.
“It felt like everybody was on top of you,” said St. John’s Aaron Wheeler, a springy, 6-foot-9 graduate transfer from Purdue, whose father, William, was a high school teammate of the former St. John’s star Mark Jackson before starring himself at Manhattan College.
“It wasn’t too many people in there but it was still very loud,” added Aaron Wheeler, who contributed 17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in a rare start. “I thought it was a great environment overall.”
The game itself carried many old school Big East hallmarks — beginning with St. John’s (11-7, 3-4 Big East) harassing, full-court defense that rendered Seton Hall (12-6, 3-5), which was missing its best ballhandler, guard Bryce Aiken (concussion), flummoxed on offense.
The Johnnies blocked 11 shots and even when they didn’t get the ball, they left an impression — as when Seton Hall’s Kadary Richmond, who missed all eight of his shots on a miserable night, was clobbered by three defenders on a drive to the basket.
There were a few moments when Seton Hall served notice that it was a two-way street. Ike Obiagu rose up to stuff the hulking Joel Soriano’s dunk attempt. And just before halftime, Tyrese Samuel set a crunching screen that laid out St. John’s fireplug of a point guard, Posh Alexander, giving the crowd a taste of what it really, really wanted.
There had been a great deal of anticipation for the game on Seton Hall’s quaint campus, where close to half the school’s 6,000 undergraduates live.
The game was originally scheduled for Dec. 20 at the Pirates’ regular home, Prudential Center in downtown Newark, but a coronavirus outbreak in Seton Hall’s program had forced it to be postponed. And when the Prudential Center was unavailable Monday night because of a Korean pop concert, the Pirates instead moved the game onto their campus.
“I couldn’t miss this for the world,” said Andrew Travis, a freshman studying diplomacy who arrived three hours before tipoff to be first in line with his friends, J.J. Misiewicz and Jerry Ford, ensuring they’d get a midcourt seat.
The pandemic had sent some teams back into on-campus gyms last season when coronavirus restrictions prohibited them from playing in front of fans. Earlier this season, Texas played before only students in its first men’s basketball game at the 3,234-seat Gregory Gym since 1977. Similarly, Seton Hall pitched Monday’s game as a reward to the students — the Blue Beard Army — who provide robust support at the Prudential Center.
The Walsh Gymnasium at which the students arrived Monday is hardly the one that Bill Raftery, the college basketball commentator and a former Seton Hall coach, remembers — dim with poor lighting and a dark floor, warped near midcourt after a flood, that resembled a poor man’s parquet.
It is now gleaming after a series of renovations with blue-and-white chairs replacing most of the bleachers, a bleached wood floor with a Pirate logo in the center, and team offices replacing most of the seating behind one basket, making the building built in 1939 a clean, contemporary home for Seton Hall’s women’s basketball and volleyball teams, and where the men’s basketball team occasionally plays a nonconference game.
Still, a stage remains at one end of the court, the same one graced in the mid-1970s by Bruce Springsteen for a pair of concerts after he released “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”
Don Bunch, the Rochester Royals and the Harlem Globetrotters have played on the court, which also hosted the first Big East Conference game, Boston College’s win over Seton Hall on Dec. 11, 1979.
Raftery was on the sidelines then.
He described the old gyms in the Big East as intimate and intense, where coaches knew they had a home-court advantage. Lou Carnesecca, the St. John’s coach, would remark that every year he visited Seton Hall, the same window would be broken in the visitor’s locker room. Rollie Massimino, the Villanova coach, used to have two priests sit behind the bench at Nevin Fieldhouse, the 2,200-seat on-campus gym known as the Cat House.
“I said, ‘Fathers, I hope you’re praying for both teams,’” said Raftery, who broadcast Monday night’s game. “They said, ‘We are. We’re praying for one to win and one to lose.’”
Once, a referee had warned Raftery that he was about to call a technical foul on the overzealous Pirate mascot. So Raftery turned to his assistant, Hoddy Mahon, telling him to calm the mascot down. As Mahon began to scold the mascot, he told Mahon: “Dad, it’s me.”
The crowd’s behavior Monday was in bounds but boisterous.
It was loud enough at one point that St. John’s Coach Mike Anderson had to step onto the court to scream at guard Stef Smith, who couldn’t hear Anderson calling for a timeout. “During starting lineups, just hearing the energy in the arena, I felt so, so good, I got goose bumps,” said Jamir Harris, a Seton Hall senior guard.
The crowd seemed ready to carry Seton Hall all the way back in the second half, when it sliced a 21-point deficit to 8 with 13 minutes remaining. But Montez Mathis, who played a superb two-way game, knocked in a rare 3-pointer to thwart the momentum. And a few minutes later, Tareq Coburn banked in a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock, pushing St. John’s lead to 22 points.
Around then, three students above the Seton Hall bench, wearing Speedos, swim caps and goggles, had seen enough. They pulled on their pants, put on their shirts and bundled up to head for the exit, perhaps finding a silver lining on the way: it wouldn’t take them long to get back to the dorms.