Dec. 29, 2013
By John Celestand
(Note: John Celestand was a standout guard at Villanova from 1996-99. He earned All-BIG EAST honors as a senior.)
Any basketball purist can tell you what most coaches spew during an interview about non-conference early season games. I call it a hyperbole, an untruth which has been passed down through generations of basketball coaches, players and competitors. This is repeated in all the competitive basketball conferences across our great nation. It is the lie of all basketball lies. Not simply a little white lie, but a gigantic fable that is told time and time again. "We prepare for all games the same. Every game on our schedule is equally important." I say to you the reader, that this is an untruth, a feeble attempt to lure you into basketball coach speak. Conference games are special. Their energy is unmatched. Especially in this conference we still call "The BIG EAST."
Behind closed doors as a coach and player one already knows this as fact. But for some reason, maybe in some early 1970's coaching manual about how to answer tough questions you will find this "All games are the same" nonsense highlighted by some politically correct coach not trying to stir the pot. But it only takes a true basketball fan a few minutes in any BIG EAST arena for a conference game to understand that indeed the stakes change.
Don't tell me that having a school like Delaware come to the Pavilion to play against Villanova in early December is the same as when St. John's will come walking into the arena for one of the oldest rivalries in the BIG EAST Conference. Don't tell me that when Georgetown played Wright State or Lipscomb this year that the Hoyas had the same mindset as they will when Marquette comes marching into Washington D.C.'s Verizon Center on Martin Luther's King Jr.'s birthday.
When opposing conference teams walk into those venues, things are just dramatically different. Although a road game in the BIG EAST is just that, a road game, there is still somewhat of a familiarity for coaches, managers and upperclassmen. I used to get so excited walking into the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse. You knew their fans would be there early during the warmups, courtside always rooting on their Orange, looking for autographs, slightly heckling opposing team's players to try and mentally rattle you right before it was time to perform.
It's a little different when St. John's sees the Georgetown Hoyas and John Thompson III come strolling into the recently renovated Madison Square Garden, still the World's Most Famous Arena. This hallowed ground may have had some renovating done, but the arena floor is still the same, the ghosts and souls of BIG EAST past players and tournaments can't be erased. The Mark Jacksons, Sleepy Floyds, Patrick Ewings, Chris Mullins, Ron Artests, Greg Monroes and Felipe Lopezes can still have almost an eerie energy in the Garden.
Don't tell me that just because the Marquette Golden Eagles will be visiting Creighton's CenturyLink Arena for the first time on New Year's Eve as BIG EAST rivals, that this is just another game. Don't you dare tell me that First Team All-American Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays don't want to prove to America that they can play and compete at any level in the country. You better not try and tell me that head coach Buzz Williams and the Marquette Golden Eagles won't be trying to make a statement to Creighton fans by letting them know that playing in the BIG EAST Conference, whether you like it or not, is a different level.
Xavier has been going head-to-head with local rival the University of Cincinnati for years and years. Don't tell me that Xavier didn't looked longingly at Cincinnati's BIG EAST affiliation. Now, it is Xavier that is the BIG EAST member. The Musketeers will have something to prove as they step up to the plate to take on BIG EAST Conference members who come to visit a raucous Cintas Center.
Are you going to tell me that the new BIG EAST Conference member Butler Bulldogs don't understand the magnitude of this moment? Is there no greater time to prove that they are here on the national scene to stay than to battle BIG EAST level talent on a nightly basis? Hinkle Fieldhouse will be rocking on New Year's Eve when coach Jay Wright and the nationally ranked Villanova Wildcats step out of that locker room. You can best believe that this will be a conference rivalry immediately.
In no way shape or form are these early non-conference games the same as going head-to-head with conference foes. I don't care if it's the Maui Invitational, The Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, or the Preseason NIT Tip-Off, it doesn't compare. In those pre-season classics, do those teams usually represent the premier teams in the country? But of course. Do those tournaments match extreme talent vs. extreme talent? Undoubtedly so. But there is a familiarity that does not exist. An extreme respect bordering on dislike that comes from year after year of battling, scratching, clawing and trying to survive. Don't you dare think for a second that Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul are going to watch these new kids on the block come in and proceed to try to walk all over them.
One thing I learned through being a player in the BIG EAST Conference is that execution is a must. You hear coaches say it all the time and it can become almost like a cliché. In conference games execution is of the utmost importance. Conference foes are more familiar with your style of play. Many times they know your offense, your plays and tendencies almost as much as they know their own. The team that can execute regardless of how privy their opponents are to their strategy is usually the team that comes out on top.
To this day anytime I hear the word "Circle" I get a little upset. This was the play that the UConn Huskies used to run and still run to this day almost 19 years later. First it was Ray Allen, then Richard Hamilton, then Caron Butler, then Rudy Gay, all the way to Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Said player would run off of two screens across the baseline, circle around the foul line to then again run off of another two baseline screens. It was literally impossible not to get hung up on one screen or lost at some point. Failure to communicate with a teammate meant some great future NBA player from UConn was getting a wide open look at the basket. At Villanova, where I attended, we always knew it was coming. We watched film on it every year. We knew every single nuance of the play. It didn't matter. UConn was the master of executing because they knew that a conference foe would have this scouted. Every cut was hard, every screen was crisp, every pass made at the precise moment. No matter what type of plan we had configured to stop them, their execution was always better. In the words of the boxing great Mike Tyson, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
And that's just one example.
So as we all prepare to get ready for a new BIG EAST Conference, hear me and hear me well. Every game is not the same. If you have ever believed that, you've been hoodwinked, bamboozled. Intensity changes in conference play. Home crowds come alive. Student sections become another defender. Home teams have a little extra pep in their step. Coaches want to outsmart each other. Old blood will still boil while new blood will be tested. But in the end, everyone will bleed BIG EAST.