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Kevin Willard loves MSG, but okay with playing St. John's in Queens

Seton Hall will come to Carnesecca Arena on January 23rd.

Crystal Logiudice-US PRESSWIRE

Kevin Willard loves Madison Square Garden, but is fine with having to play St. John's in Queens this year.

Last March, the Big East announced its new deal with the Garden to host its conference tournament at the World's Most Famous Arena until 2026. For many in the league, the venue is a familiar place and for others playing there is an exciting new venture.

For Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, retaining Madison Square Garden was as important a task as any the conference faced during the last few months - the first for the league's new management.

"It's one of the first things that the conference did. I played [at the Garden] and I used to run around as a ball boy for the Knicks back in the day when Coach Pitino was there," Willard said on Wednesday.

Like Willard, six other Big East coaches are familiar with the hallowed grounds on the corner of 7th Avenue and 34th Street come March. The Big East Tournament has been held there since 1983, and has sustained as one New York City's premier sporting events throughout the calendar year.

"There's nothing like the Big East Tournament on a Thursday or Friday, and there's nothing like Madison Square Garden," Willard continued. "The fact that we're going to be there for next 20 or 25 years is great for the conference and all of the kids who are going to come play here."

It's not discouraging. It's discouraging that we have to play against D`Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson. -Kevin Willard, on playing St. John's at Carnesecca Arena

For as important a tool the Garden can be for coaches in terms of attracting talent to their programs, it is always nice for Big East schools to have the opportunity to play there multiple times per year. The easiest way for teams like Seton Hall, who do not play in the country's premier nonconference tournaments, to do it is to play St. John's on the road.

But Willard's Pirates won't have that additional opportunity this season, as Seton Hall will be playing St. John's on the Red Storm's campus in Queens. Carnesecca Arena, which houses a capacity of about 6,000, is a much smaller, more intimate setting. But it just isn't the Garden.

"It's not discouraging. It's discouraging that we have to play against D`Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson," Willard said. "Carnesecca is a great old-school type building. It's a tough place to play."

He's right, given the recently off-chance that St. John's teams attract sold-out atmospheres at Carnesecca Arena. When the arena, which is named for Lou Carnesecca's namesake, is full of electricity it can be loud and daunting for opponents.

Dating back to the Bobby Gonzalez era and beyond, Seton Hall has played at Carnesecca many times before. Last year, however, the Pirates played St. John's at the Garden.

"No matter what you've still got to play the game," Willard said. "The only thing is we don't get to stay in the city and get a great night out here."

The Pirates were picked eighth in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, announced on Wednesday at the conference's annual media day. Willard is entering his fourth season at the helm for Seton Hall, where he has accumulated a 49-48 overall record.