Georgetown, Syracuse meet to ‘officially close’ a rivalry

John Thompson. (Youtube)
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Sometimes rivalries just fade away.

For all the stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, for example, it's worth remembering also that their final game in New York, on September 8, 1957 at the Polo Grounds, drew just over 22,000 fans.

This will not be the case with Georgetown and Syracuse, who will take the floor Saturday afternoon before what might be the largest crowd in college basketball history. If this rivalry is going out of fans' lives, it will be with a bang.

The two teams are tied for first place in soon-to-be-unrecognizable Big East, with Georgetown, winners of eight in a row, ranked 11th in both major national polls, just below Syracuse, ranked eighth.

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Syracuse, following the season, is headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference, where there is significantly more money to be made via a television contract. The Big East had a chance to sign a similar deal in 2011, but held out for more. Subsequently, the conference collapsed, raided by others, and will cease to exist in anything like its current form within the year.

Syracuse and Georgetown have discussed scheduling one another annually in a non-conference matchup. After all, the two played 17 times, dating back to 1929-30, before the Big East even came into existence in 1979-80. 

But the real birth of the rivalry, ironically, dates to a closing: Manley Field House, the cozy predecessor to Syracuse's cavernous, intimidating Carrier Dome. 

Entering the Georgetown-Syracuse game at Manley on February 13, 1980, the Syracuse program was thriving, and had been for years. The 1966 Orangemen made an N.C.A.A. regional final, with a backcourt of future N.B.A. standout Dave Bing and current Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. In 1973, they began a string of eight consecutive N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, first under coach Roy Danforth and then, beginning in 1976, under Boeheim. From 1976 through the Georgetown game, Syracuse did not lose at Manley Field House, a streak of 57 straight home games.

As for Georgetown, a three-decade period of futility, with no N.C.A.A. bids since 1942, had ended shortly after John Thompson Jr., father of the current Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, took over a 3-23 team in 1973.

But the Hoyas were still upstarts; Syracuse and St. John's were considered the class of the Big East in the conference's inaugural year. Syracuse entered the final game at Manley Field House ranked second in the country; Georgetown was unranked at the time.

No one imagined that Syracuse would lose on that February night: as the New York Times explained, "Neither Jim Boeheim, the coach since the 1976-77 season, nor any of his present players had ever lost at Manley. Tonight was supposed to have been a happy ending to Syracuse basketball at the Field House."

For most of the game, that expectation held. Syracuse led 32-16 late in the first half, and maintained a 48-40 lead with 5:20 to go. But the Georgetown defense that would become so famous over the subsequent decade held Syracuse to just two points the rest of the way, and Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Thompson's first real star in the program, made a pair of free throws to give Georgetown a 52-50 win. 

"A stunned crowd of 9,521 quietly left the arena", the Times reported. 

Thompson wasn't quiet; the boisterous Georgetown coach loudly declared, "Manley Field House is officially closed."

Three decades of elite basketball followed. Each program won national titles, Georgetown in 1984 with Patrick Ewing, Syracuse in 2003 with Carmelo Anthony. Both also played in two other N.C.A.A. championship games, and combined for 13 trips to the Elite Eight. (Thompson's upstart 1980 club was one of those 13.)

Seldom did a season go by without multiple future N.B.A. players plying their trade in this rivalry, which featured multiple altercations, Jim Boeheim throwing a chair in anger at a postgame press conference, and a combined 12 Big East tournament championships for the two teams. In 22 of the 33 Big East championship games, at least Georgetown or Syracuse participated; the two teams played one another five times. Both Boeheim and the elder Thompson, who coached until 1999, are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Here in 2013, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The crowd on Saturday at the Carrier Dome will be roughly four times that of the Manley Field House closing, with more than than 35,000 tickets sold. Manley Field House was converted to a practice facility, but is no longer even that. A new practice facility was built, and named in honor of benefactor Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to its only national title, and was also, it must be said, a perfect 3-0 against Georgetown in his lone collegiate season.

But so much will be familiar. Boeheim, the coach since 1976, will be patrolling the sidelines for Syracuse; Thompson III, the son of the Manley Field House closer, will be coaching Georgetown, while his father will almost certainly be in attendance. Georgetown will feature future N.B.A. lottery pick Otto Porter; Michael Carter-Williams, the future N.B.A. point guard, will lead Syracuse's offense.

Even the teams are familiar types, with Syracuse relying on that Boeheim 2-3 zone, and Georgetown this season playing more like the defense-oriented scappers the elder Thompson coached than the more elegant offensive squads that have succeeded under his son prior to this season.

The game is the first of a scheduled pair the two teams will play over the next few weeks, the second at Georgetown's Verizon Center March 9, with the Big East regular season title likely to be decided between them (though Marquette could still have a say in things).

A few days later, Syracuse and Georgetown will head to Madison Square Garden, where the final Big East tournament featuring both schools will take place from March 12-16. If there's any justice in the world, the two programs will meet there one final time, preferably in the final, before the lure of college football money ends a rivalry everyone else would happily see live on forever.