NEW YORK — It was suggested Sunday by many in Connecticut, New York, and maybe even New Jersey that the Big Ten should have annexed the University of Connecticut rather than Rutgers.
Connecticut Huskies football is every bit as glamorous as Rutgers football, which is to say not at all. But UConn basketball has national clout with three NCAA championships. Also, there were the seven Big East tournament titles the Huskies won in New York City, the biggest apple the Big Ten Network is trying to pick for television market share.
Madison Square Garden was again UConn’s Garden again Sunday, this time at the Big Ten’s expense. The Huskies rallied for a surprising 60-54 NCAA East Regional final win over a Michigan State team many network basketball experts pegged as the favorite to win the whole tourney.
The crowd of 19,499 was predominantly UConn supporters in full-voice. Trains filled with fans wearing navy blue-and-white arrived at Grand Central Station Sunday, then got to the Garden by taxi, subway or foot.
Those fans had seen a lot of happy Huskies history in the self-titled World’s Most Famous Arena, but this was something more. This was UConn became the first Final Four participant determined here since 1951.
It seemed a tad unfair a No. 7-seed should have a home-away-from-home in its NCAA games against Iowa State Friday and then Michigan State, but that’s the way the brackets broke. Plus, it wasn’t crowd noise that did in ISU or MSU. Instead, it started with the savvy of UConn All-America guard Shabazz Napier.
And, it was a strange daze indeed when it came to Spartan ballhandling. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo used the term “out-of-body” repeatedly in describing his team’s 16 turnovers. Most peculiar, mama.
How odd? Izzo noted his team out-rebounded UConn and the Huskies shot 34.7 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from 3-point range.
“You should win 99 percent of those games,” he said. “And we lost easy. It was because of turnovers, and ‘turnovers for touchdowns’ as I call them.
“ ‘Out-of-body.’ I like that better because ‘weird’ does not explain how ridiculous some of them were. And we looked tired today. Maybe the whole season wore on us.”
In the first half of this season, MSU senior guard Keith Appling played like an All-America himself. But he broke a wrist, and was an unconfident player the later the season wore. Sunday, he was a cipher.
The curtain came down on the Spartans for all practical purposes when Appling fouled Napier on a 3-point shot with UConn up just 53-51 with 30.6 seconds left.
Appling sprinted toward the MSU bench with his hands on his head in despair and disbelief. Napier sank all three free throws — naturally, since his team was 41-of-44 from the line in two games here — and the Spartans got no closer.
“I told him I didn’t think he fouled him, if you want the truth,” Izzo said.
There are more than a few Big Ten fans of the non-Spartan variety who might suggest it was about time a critical foul-call went against Michigan State.
But with Michigan’s regional final against Kentucky still to come Sunday afternoon, the Spartans’ loss denied the Big Ten a chance of having three Final Four teams next weekend. Michigan’s loss to Kentucky made for the worst Sunday the league has had since long before it added Rutgers and Maryland.
The only conference that ever owned three-fourths of a Final Four was, ahem, the old Big East in 1985.
Connecticut, now in the American Athletic Conference, didn’t land a big-league home after all the conference-realignments of the last couple years. If the Big Ten isn’t done expanding and is serious about taking Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too …