You can count on three things every late-November: turkey on the Thanksgiving table, an NFL blowout involving Detroit or Green Bay, and the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. College basketball fans had this year’s tournament circled on their calendar due to the presence of a pair of the best teams in the country. Duke entered its semifinal game last Wednesday against Alabama on a 26-game winning streak in regular-season tournament games, as well as a 14-2 record in its last 16 games at the Garden. The Blue Devils have won four NIT Season Tip-Off titles since 1985 (the most of any program), and their 10-PT win over the Crimson Tide landed them a spot in the NIT title game on Friday night. Most experts thought their opponent in the final would be Arizona, as all the Wildcats had to do was remain unbeaten by taking care of business against Drexel in their Wednesday night semifinal…but that is where things started to get interesting. Jon Teitel spent his weekend at the Garden hoping to see his alma mater begin the season 7-0 under Coach Sean Miller.
I took the train up to the Big Apple from DC on Wednesday morning, and after exiting Penn Station I had my first sports-related sighting of the holiday weekend: NFL on FOX host James Brown getting into a town car on a street corner. After ditching my suitcase at a friend’s apartment I picked up my press pass and walked into the Garden for a pregame meal. ESPN sideline reporter Andy Katz walked into the press dining room in a nice-looking suit, so I made sure to sit far away to avoid spilling any food on him. Most media food is cheap both in cost (none) and quality (lukewarm pizza/cookies), but the Garden charged a whopping $8 to eat, although to be fair they did provide a nice spread (chicken parmesan, pasta, salad, cake, etc.). I walked out to the court about 30 minutes before game-time only to find that the stands were near-empty. After checking with an usher to ensure I had the start time correct, I headed to my seat on press row…then realized I had been placed in a corner press box up on the second level despite the fact that the building was far from full. My Wildcats were facing Drexel for the first time ever, and I was trying my hardest to not look ahead to playing Duke for the championship. Drexel brought about a dozen cheerleaders north from Philly while Arizona only brought four east from Tucson (plus everyone’s favorite mascot Wilbur the Wildcat).by