This year was the year of the Big East Conference.
Multiple Big East schools took over the AP Top 25 Poll for a majority of the season. DePaul and Butler had two of the longest undefeated streaks in the country. Villanova, Creighton and Seton Hall were tied as regular season champions. Marquette’s Markus Howard received national attention for his performances.
Every Big East men’s basketball game was an intense matchup that could go either way. The Big East Tournament at the famous Madison Square Garden was expected to be one of the craziest conference tournaments. But we will never know the outcome.
Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, was starting to spread rapidly across the United States, especially in New York City, where the tournament was being held.
Before the first two games on Wednesday night, Val Ackerman, Commissioner of the Big East, announced that the Big East Tournament would proceed as planned. She had been in contact with city officials, and the New York State Department of Health said large gatherings should not be cancelled yet.
The games went on as planned, starting with St. John’s defeating Georgetown and finishing with DePaul defeating Xavier for their first win at the Big East Tournament since 2014.
St. John’s Forward Marcellus Earlington had 10 straight points during a 23-0 run in the second half, finishing the game with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
“After the first game. I thought everything came together for us as a team,” Earlington said. “We defended, hit shots and finished. I thought it was the start of something special, and I truly believed that we were going to go on a run and show a few teams.”
That first night was the start of the madness, or for many, the sadness.
The Big East announced that fan access would be restricted for the remainder of the tournament, following what many other conference’s were doing around the country.
While Butler’s Bryce Nze and Marquette’s Tommy Gardiner expected that fans would not be allowed to the Big East because of COVID-19, Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili and his team were surprised by the news, especially because their school was just a half hour from the tournament.
“We wanted to go out there and play in front of our family members and friends and just showcase our talents to the world,” Mamukelashvili said.
While the team was upset at first, they were just happy to still be playing despite the NBA postponing their season and other conference tournaments cancelling completely.
“We were so motivated, fans or no fans,” Mamukelashvili said. “We still wanted to go out there and play our game. We knew it would be on television and people could watch us, so we were still humbled and hungry, and we just wanted to go there and get the W.”
The morning of the quarterfinals, the Big Ten, SEC, AAC all canceled their men’s basketball tournaments, just minutes before the St. John’s VS top seeded Creighton tip off.
The ball was tipped, and in front of an empty crowd, St. John’s took on Creighton, which turned out to be the last college basketball game of the 2020 season.
“The game without fans felt like a scrimmage,” Earlington said. “But I try to block everything out and hoop so it didn’t mean much to me. I never thought the tournament would end. At worst I thought there would be no fans.”
St. John’s led by three at the half of a back-and-forth game. The Butler and Providence teams were told not to leave the hotel for their game, which was up next.
At the half, there was no music or promotions, but instead a message from the Big East stating that this game would not be finished and the rest of the tournament would be cancelled.
“We were ready to hear a motivating speech from our coach at halftime and go back out there and play our hearts out,” Earlington said. “But instead he came in and told us that we wouldn’t be finishing the game.”
To the five other Big East teams, Earlington was lucky to even see the court. Butler, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette and Villanova did not even enter Madison Square Garden during this trip. Nze, Gardiner and Mamukelashvili were each upset by the news.
“I never thought that would happen,” Nze said. “Just 24 hours before nobody even thought about that so it was shocking to all of us.”
“We were on our way to the walk through around noon on the day of the game.” Gardiner said. “We were supposed to play later that night, but on the way to shoot around, Coach told us that the tournament had been canceled.”
“Everybody was predicting the biggest season of our whole history,” Mamukelashvili said. “We know the Big East is one of the best conferences, but we really wanted to win it because we split the regular championship with two other great teams. We just wanted to get our championship. We didn’t want to split with nobody, and there was our chance to go out and showcase what we got, and they took that away from us.”
Nze, Gardiner and Mamukelashvili each hoped that the NCAA Tournament would go on as planned despite the conference tournament cancelations. However, when that was called off, each player was disappointed in the way it had to end, especially for the seniors on the team.
“I had went on a walk and came back to the hotel to find one of my senior teammates crying because he just found out that his career in college was over.” Nze said.
While the Big East Tournament only consisted of 2.5 games, it was definitely as crazy and history-making as people had hoped, but for reasons that nobody had expected.