Simon Kaufman: Big Apple deserves Big Ten

Sunday, January 31, 2016 - 1:16pm

Madison Square Garden was kind to both the Michigan men's basketball and hockey teams this weekend.

Madison Square Garden was kind to both the Michigan men's basketball and hockey teams this weekend. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

NEW YORK — Frank Sinatra said if you can make it in New York, you could make it anywhere. In 2013, the Big Ten took note and decided it wanted to be a part of it: New York, New York.

So the conference, once called the Western Conference, started spreading the news — it was headed east. The Big Ten penned an eight-year partnership with the Pinstripe Bowl to have one of its schools play in the annual post-season game at Yankee Stadium. Next, it added two East Coast schools in Rutgers and Maryland. Then, it announced plans to host the men’s basketball Big Ten Tournament in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. and Madison Square Garden in New York in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

The deal with Madison Square Garden also included the arena being the home of the inaugural “Super Saturday,” a basketball-hockey double header between Michigan and Penn State, the first true test to see if the Big Ten could make it there.

An hour after the Michigan men’s basketball team edged Penn State on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, it looked like Sinatra was right — the Big Apple would be fruitful for the Big Ten. American Whiskey — a restaurant and bar just three blocks from the arena — played host to hoards of Wolverines fans celebrating the victory.

And why not celebrate?

Michigan, their Michigan, played just around the corner in The World’s Most Famous Arena, and thanks to a 20-point performance from Zak Irvin and a double-double from Derrick Walton Jr., they were winners for the afternoon. So they turned the Midtown bar into a sea of maize and blue — a scene you’d expect at Skeeps, but not at a bar just a few blocks from Times Square.

The schools took to the hardwood first, before the the floor came up and the ice came out.

Michigan started the day with a 7-0 run on the court and never gave the lead back, downing Penn State, 79-72. Then, at night, the Michigan hockey team used four third-period goals to roll past the Nittany Lions, 6-3.

One venue. Two Michigan wins.

The big winner, though? The Big Ten. In its first real taste of exclusively Big Ten action — Michigan played two non-conference games at MSG in 2012 — the five boroughs showed it could be a great spot for this Power Five conference.

“I think that they speak with their feet; they show up at games,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said on the Big Ten Network during a live show at a New York bar that attracted hundreds of fans on Friday. “So it’s a really nice marketing agreement with Madison Square Garden. We said we wanted to be part of this community. It’s a competitive community. It’s one of the great sports areas in the world. We’re just trying to become part of it and relevant.”

The conference looked awfully relevant Saturday. The push to move east has been a hit with fans and schools alike. A combined 27,387 fans filled the Garden for the day’s two games.

“The crowd was great,” said Michigan basketball coach John Beilein. “They were loud. You could really hear them today. Michigan travels well. Penn State traveled well today. We love having our fans from this area of the country come out and support. They really helped us come out and win this game today.”

Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson thinks the trip served a more practical purpose: preparing his team to potentially play in bigger venues in the postseason.

“I think it’s a good experience for our players and our team as a whole,” Berenson said after his team’s win. “Hopefully by the end of the year, you’re playing in a big venue like this, so I want our team to be used to it.”

Robert Rosenberg graduated from Michigan in 2000 and lives in New York now. He’s been back to Ann Arbor for football games since graduating, but hasn’t seen a basketball or hockey game in more than a decade. Saturday, he brought his 7-year-old son Danny — who says he’ll be playing soccer at Michigan in a few short years — to his first hockey game.

“This is amazing,” Rosenberg said. “Michigan has a huge New York population. … It’s great. They should do it more often.”

They should do it more often, and Saturday was proof. The New York crowd was just as excited to see pucks fly and basketballs go up as it is every New Year’s Eve to see the ball drop not too far away. The Garden is set to host “Super Saturday” through 2019. Next year, Wisconsin and Rutgers will play in basketball, and the Badgers will take on Ohio State in hockey.

With some 85,000 Big Ten alumni in Manhattan and 13,000 Michigan alumni in New York City, the conference can’t afford to fall asleep on The City That Never Sleeps.

After the final horn sounded in Michigan’s win on the ice over Penn State, Michigan alumni belted out The Victors and Nittany Lions fans sang their alma mater.

Perhaps they should steal a page from Sinatra, though, and sing a new tune.

If I can make it there — I’ll make it anywhere — It’s up to you — New York, New York. 

Kaufman can be reached at sjkauf@umich.edu or on Twitter @sjkauf. He can also be reached on Venmo at @Simon-Kaufman and would appreciate any contributions after a weekend that included a $16 New York bagel.