College basketball’s Garden Party features Gators, Badgers, Gamecocks and Bears oh my

College basketball, once a staple in the city that never sleeps, returns to New York in a big way this Friday night when the NCAA throws a Garden Party that even the late Rick Nelson would appreciate.

There will be Gators, Badgers, Bears and Gamecocks on the floor this weekend where lions, tigers and elephants used to roam every spring for Ringling Brothers “Greatest Show on Earth,” which is on life support.

The East Region semifinals – South Carolina vs. Baylor at 7:29 p.m. and Wisconsin vs. Florida at 9:59 – are scheduled for the “new” Madison Square Garden.

That’s “new” as in 49 years old.

This “new” Madison Square Garden opened nearly 50 years ago over Penn Station in downtown Manhattan.

You see, I’m one of those who is old enough to have seen sporting events in both the “old” Garden, which existed between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and between 49th and 50th Streets, and the “new” and present Garden, which sits atop Penn Station 16 blocks south between Eighth and Seventh Avenues.

Next February, the “new” Garden turns 50. To me, it will always be the new kid on the block, even after undergoing a recent three-year facelift amidst continual talk for a bigger, better Garden somewhere along the Hudson River so the city can make Penn Station into a 21st-Century transportation hub.

Most of my favorite moments at both the “old” and “new” Gardens were National Hockey League games with Dad and occasionally Mom, who loved battling Orland Kurtenbach, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound protector of the New York Rangers who hailed from the small farming community of Cudworth, Saskatchewan.

I sat in $2 balcony seats in the “old” Garden during the 1967 Stanley Cup playoffs when the Montreal Canadiens swept my Rangers, who had a college-trained forward named Red Berenson who is still coaching his alma mater Michigan at age 77. The Canadiens then lost in the finals to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since.

The “old” Garden, which closed in 1968, played host to many sporting events.

Mom, Dad and I attended the first hockey game at the “new” Garden on Feb. 18, 1968 during the season the NHL expanded from its Original Six to 12 teams. One of those newbies, the Broad Street Bullies-less Philadelphia Flyers, was a 3-1 sacrificial lamb. Afterward, we spent $1.95 for two Nedick’s hot dogs and an orange drink to take with us on the train ride home.

During the winter months, the “old” Garden would be host to all sorts of doubleheaders – National Basketball Association twin bills, usually with the hometown Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics as the home teams; NHL-NBA twofers, with the Rangers playing on Saturday afternoon and then a wooden floor being placed over the ice for a night-time Knicks game; and college basketball 2-for-1s featuring New York’s best college teams – St. John’s, Fordham, Manhattan, LIU and CCNY, among them — against the best the nation had to offer.

Once upon a time, they all wanted to play in New York and the “old” Garden, where the National Invitation Tournament was birthed (Temple beat Colorado for the title) in 1938, a year before the NCAA saw the light and dollar signs and held its first national championship (Oregon beat Ohio State) in Evanston, Ill.

By the time the “new” Garden opened its doors on Feb. 11, 1968 with a tribute to the USO by those old road warriors Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the NBA doubleheaders were a thing of the past, mostly because the Knicks had joined their fellow tenant Rangers as teams that were competitive in their respective leagues and at the Garden box office, and the NHL-NBA Saturday doubleheaders have become rare events.

Occasionally, my friends and I would venture to the “new” Garden for a Saturday evening Knicks game during the 1970 championship season for Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Co. For $5 we could get an upper-deck blue seat to cheer while we drank 24-ounch $1.95 Schaefer beers because our legal drinking age dropped from 21 to 18 midway through our bus trip east through the Lincoln Tunnel running under the Hudson River.

College basketball doubleheaders, holiday tournaments, conference tournaments and the NIT made the trip down Eighth Avenue from the “old” to “new” Garden. I was there for Notre Dame’s St. Patrick’s Day victory over USC that opened the Irish run to a 1973 overtime championship loss to Virginia Tech.

Coach Nat Holman gets a lift from his CCNY Beavers after they completed an NIT/NCAA sweep in 1950 at the “old” Madison Square Garden.

By then, NCAA basketball at either Garden was, sadly, only a memory. Shortly after coach Nat Holman’s CCNY Beavers beat Bradley twice for the NIT and NCAA titles in 1950, a betting scandal involving mobsters and players from CCNY, Bradley, Kentucky and other schools sent those schools to the NCAA woodshed and brought a 64-year NCAA tournament absence to the Big Apple.

When maverick Al McGuire, a street-wise New York kid who found college coaching success at Marquette in Milwaukee, Wis., turned his nose up at an NCAA bid and had his team accept an NIT bid that it turned into the 1970 championship, the NCAA folk passed a rule that if you turned down the Big Dance you couldn’t postseason dance, period.

Eventually the NCAA field kept increasing its field of teams — from 32 to 48 to 64 and eventually to 68 – and the NIT, which had turned to on-campus games in its early rounds to increase its cash flow and stay alive, became a second-class citizen, with the NIT being mocked as the “Not Invited Tournament.” The folks running the NIT eventually sued and the NCAA settled by taking over the NIT for more than $58.5 million.

There is no likelihood that the NCAA Final Four will ever have a run on or off Broadway because the Garden maxes out at 19,812 for basketball, much too few wallets for the NCAA’s taste. It prefers its final weekend host cities to have domed football arenas that can accommodate crowds of 65,000 or more, which is why it is scheduled for April 1 and 3 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., with San Antonio’s Alamodome on tap for 2018, Minneapolis’ new U.S. Bank Stadium in 2019, Atlanta’s soon-to-be completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2020, and the NCAA’s hometown of Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium in 2021.

When Providence made its run to the 1987 NCAA Final Four at New Orleans, it was coached by Rick Pitino, center, and led by players Billy Donovan, left, and Delray Brooks. Donovan, of course, would coach Florida to two consecutive NCAA titles.

But that doesn’t mean the NCAA and NIT can’t co-exist in some way at the “new” Garden. They did in 2014 when their Cold War officially ended at the East Regional. In the semifinals, top-seed Virginia lost to fourth-seed Michigan State, 61-59, while seventh-seed Connecticut sent third-seed Iowa State home, 81-76.

In the championship, UConn beat the Spartans, 60-54, to reach the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where coach Kevin Ollie’s Huskies beat Kentucky, 60-54, in the championship game.

The two other teams in that Final Four were Florida and Wisconsin, whose defenses were impressive last weekend in knocking out Virginia and defending champion Villanova, respectively.

Fittingly, the Gators and Badgers will settle matters just about when the “old” day becomes a “new” day in old New York, New York, the city so liked they named it twice.

After Midnight, as the late J.J. Cale wrote and slowhand Eric Clapton stroked, that’s when Gator Nation hopes to let it all hang down.

Friday, March 24 semifinals at New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden)
(7) South Carolina (24-10) vs. (3) Baylor (27-7), 7:29 p.m. (TBS)
(8) Wisconsin (27-9) vs. (4) Florida (26-8), 9:59 p.m. (TBS)
Thursday, March 23 semifinals at San Jose, Calif. (SAP Center)
(4) West Virginia (28-8) vs. (1) Gonzaga (34-1), 7:39 p.m. (TBS)
(11) Xavier, Ohio (23-13) vs. (2) Arizona (32-4), 10:09 p.m. (TBS)
Thursday, March 23 semifinals at Kansas City, Mo. (Sprint Center)
(7) Michigan (26-11) vs. (3) Oregon (31-5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS)
(4) Purdue (27-7) vs. (1) Kansas (30-4), 9:39 p.m. (CBS)
Friday, March 24 semifinals at Memphis, Tenn. (FedExForum)
(4) Butler (25-8) vs. (1) North Carolina (29-7), 7:09 p.m. (CBS)
(3) UCLA (31-4) vs. (2) Kentucky (31-5), 9:39 p.m. (CBS)

Sunday, March 26 championship at New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden)
(4) Florida / (8) Wisconsin winner vs. (3) Baylor / (7) South Carolina winner
Saturday, March 25 championship at San Jose, Calif. (SAP Center)
(2) Arizona / (11) Xavier, Ohio winner vs. (1) Gonzaga / (4) West Virginia winner
Saturday, March 25 championship at Kansas City, Mo. (Sprint Center)
(3) Oregon / (7) Michigan winner vs. (1) Kansas / (4) Purdue winner
Sunday, March 26 championship at Memphis, Tenn. (FedExForum)
(2) Kentucky / (3) UCLA winner vs. (1) North Carolina / (4) Butler winner

Saturday, April 1 semifinals at Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium)
East Region champion vs. West Region champion (CBS)
Midwest Regional champion vs. South Regional champion (CBS)
Monday, April 3 championship at Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium)
Semifinal winners (CBS)

Wednesday, March 22 quarterfinals (campus sites)
(4) UCF 68, (2) Illinois 58
(8) CSU Bakersfield 80, (6) Texas Arlington 76
Tuesday, March 28 semifinals at New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden)
(8) CSU Bakersfield (25-9) vs. (6) Georgia Tech (20-15), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
(4) UCF (24-11) vs. (4) Texas Christian (22-15), 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, March 30 championship at New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden)
(6) Georgia Tech / (8) CSU Bakersfield winner vs. (4) UCF / (4) Texas Christian winner, 8 p.m.

Wednesday, March 22 semifinals (campus sites)
Coastal Carolina 89, UIC 78
Wyoming 74, Utah Valley 68
Monday, March 27 championship (first of best-of-3 series)
Wyoming (21-14) at Coastal Carolina (19-17), 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Wednesday, March 29 championship (second of best-of-3 series)
Coastal Carolina at Wyoming, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Friday, March 31 championship (third game of best-of-3 series, if necessary)
Wyoming at Coastal Carolina, if necessary, 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Wednesday, March 22 second round (campus sites)
Texas State 64, Idaho 55
Saturday, March 25 quarterfinals (campus sites)
Furman (22-11) at Campbell (19-17), 2 p.m.
Saint Peter’s (20-13) at Texas State (22-13), 5 p.m.
Sunday, March 26 quarterfinals (campus sites)
Liberty (21-13) at Maryland-Baltimore County (20-12), 2 p.m.
Fort Wayne (20-12) at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (22-11), 3 p.m.
Wednesday, March 29 semifinals (campus sites)
Game times 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Friday, March 31 championship (campus site)
Semifinal winners, 9 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Wednesday, March 22 quarterfinals at Sioux Falls, S.D. (Sanford Pentagon)
(1) Fairmont State 86, (8) Rollins 68
(4) Bellarmine 92, (5) Colorado Mines 72
(2) Northwest Missouri State 79, (7) St. Thomas Aquinas 70
(3) Lincoln Memorial 74, (6) Chico State 61
Thursday, March 23 semifinals at Sioux Falls, S.D. (Sanford Pentagon)
(4) Bellarmine (32-3) vs. (1) Fairmont State (33-2), 7 p.m.
(3) Lincoln Memorial (30-5) vs. (2) Northwest Missouri State (33-1), 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 25 championship at Sioux Falls, S.D. (Sanford Pentagon)
(2) Northwest Missouri State / (3) Lincoln Memorial winner vs. (1) Fairmont State / (4) Bellarmine winner, 3 p.m. (CBS)

Saturday, March 25 semifinals at Bridgeport, Conn. (Webster Bank Arena)
(10) Oregon (22-13) vs. (3) Maryland (32-2), 11:36 a.m. (ESPN)
(4) UCLA (25-8) vs. (1) Connecticut (34-0), 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Friday, March 24 semifinals at Oklahoma City, Okla. (Chesapeake Energy Arena)
(4) Louisville (29-7) vs. (1) Baylor (32-3), 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
(3) Washington (29-5) vs. (2) Mississippi State (31-4), 7:11 p.m. (ESPN2)
Friday, March 24 semifinals at Lexington, Ky. (Rupp Arena)
(5) Ohio State (28-6) vs. (1) Notre Dame (32-3), 7:06 p.m. (ESPN)
(3) Texas (25-8) vs. (2) Stanford (30-5), 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, March 25 semifinals at Stockton, Calif. (Stockton Arena)
(12) Quinnipiac (29-6) vs. (1) South Carolina (29-4), 4:04 p.m. (ESPN)
(3) Florida State (27-6) vs. (2) Oregon State (31-4), 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Monday, March 27 championship at Bridgeport, Conn. (Webster Bank Arena)
(3) Maryland / (10) Oregon winner vs. (1) Connecticut / (4) UCLA winner
Sunday, March 26 championship at Oklahoma City, Okla. (Chesapeake Energy Arena)
(2) Mississippi State / (3) Washington winner vs. (1) Baylor / (4) Louisville winner
Sunday, March 26 championship at Lexington, Ky. (Rupp Arena)
(2) Stanford / (3) Texas winner vs. (1) Notre Dame / (5) Ohio State winner
Monday, March 27 championship at Stockton, Calif. (Stockton Arena)
(2) Oregon State / (3) Florida State winner vs. (1) South Carolina / (12) Quinnipiac winner

Friday, March 31 semifinals at Dallas, Texas (American Airlines Center)
Bridgeport Region winner vs. Oklahoma City Region winner
Lexington Region winner vs. Stockton Region winner
Sunday, April 2 championship at Dallas, Texas (American Airlines Center)
Semifinal winners

Thursday, March 23 third round (campus sites)
St. John’s (22-11) at Michigan (24-9), 6 p.m.
Virginia Tech (19-13) at Penn State (21-10), 7 p.m.
Villanova (18-14) at James Madison (26-8), 7 p.m.
Middle Tennessee (23-10) at Georgia Tech (19-14), 7 p.m.
Tulane (18-14) at Alabama (21-13), 7 p.m.
SMU (19-14) vs. Indiana (22-10), 7 p.m.
Colorado (17-15) at Iowa (19-13), 8 p.m.
UC Davis (25-7) at Washington State (14-19), 10 p.m.
Saturday, March 25-Monday, March 27 quarterfinals (campus sites)
UC Davis / Washington State winner vs. Iowa / Colorado winner
Tulane / Alabama winner vs. Middle Tennessee / Georgia Tech winner
Michigan / St. John’s winner vs. Penn State / Virginia Tech winner
Villanova / James Madison winner vs. Indiana / SMU winner
Wednesday, March 29-Thursday, March 30 semifinals (campus sites)
To be determined
Saturday, April 1 championship (campus site)
Semifinal winners, 3 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Thursday, March 23 semifinals (campus sites)
Milwaukee (22-11) at UNC Greensboro (19-14), 7 p.m.
Idaho (19-14) at Rice (20-13), 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 25-Sunday, March 26 championship (campus site)
Milwaukee / UNC Greensboro winner vs. Idaho / Rice winner

Wednesday, March 22 semifinals at Columbus, Ohio (Alumni Hall)
(6) Virginia Union 86, (2) Cal Baptist 81
(1) Ashland 90, (4) Harding 77
Friday, March 24 championship at Columbus, Ohio (Alumni Hall)
(6) Virginia Union (28-4) vs. (1) Ashland (36-0), 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)