Georgetown will take on Syracuse this Wednesday, and depending on how the postseason goes (as well as the details of Syracuse’s departure to the ACC) this could be the final Big East contest between the two schools. Vox is going all out to mark the occasion, including a road trip up to the Carrier Dome. But first, a history lesson:
Georgetown first played Syracuse in basketball in the 1929-30 season. The Orangemen prevailed 40-18, and unless you count the recruiting coup that was Fred Mesmer, there wasn’t much narrative significance to the game. It was just two college teams playing basketball.
The two teams would play some 16 times over the next 50 years, with some lasting tensions finally starting to build in the 1970s. All those meetings were merely prologue, however, to the struggle for supremacy that began February 13, 1980–the night John Thompson Jr. closed Manley Field House.
The 1979-80 season marked the first year of the Big East, and the first conference meeting between Syracuse and Georgetown just happened to produce one of the most legendary games in the rivalry. Before the Carrier Dome opened, the Orange played in Manley Field House, a 9,000-seat arena renowned for its Cameron Indoor-like atmosphere–when the Hoyas came to town that night in February, Syracuse had won 57 straight games at home.
Syracuse would move into the Carrier Dome the next season, and the Georgetown game was the final contest scheduled in Manley. Long story short, the closing didn’t go the way the Orange would have liked it. The Hoyas won, 52-50, and John Thompson Jr. used the post-game press conference to issue a proclamation: “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
Thus began what is arguably the Big East’s greatest rivalry. More than 30 years later, surprisingly little has changed. Jim Boeheim is still the coach at Syracuse, as he has been for every year of the conference’s existence, and a Thompson still mans the sideline for Georgetown. And, most importantly, Georgetown and Syracuse are still fighting at the top of the conference standings.
Some rivalries are based on ideology, while others are born of geography, but Georgetown-Syracuse has the simplest origins–both teams have been very good for a very long time, and they are always in each other’s way. The Hoyas’ victory in Manley led to the two teams tying for first in that inaugural Big East season, but it was Patrick Ewing and Georgetown’s national championship season that kicked off the longest sustained battle for the top of the standings. From 1984 to 1990, both schools finished in the conference’s top-3 every year, combining for five regular season titles (including one they shared with each other) and five tournament championships (Georgetown won all three head-to-head finals).
Over the Big East’s entire history, Georgetown and Syracuse are tied for second with nine regular season titles apiece (UConn has 10). The Hoyas have the edge in the conference tournament, with seven championships to the Orange’s five, but ‘Cuse has the edge in all-time meetings, 47-39 (since the Big East began the record is 36-33 in favor of the Orange).
Of course, a mutual history of excellence hardly explains the extent of the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry. There’s a reason why this post is titled “hate” instead of “begrudgingly respect.” As is often the case, the vitriol that has developed over the years owes as much to the people in the stands as the players on the court. And while Georgetown has been far from completely innocent, much of the rivalry’s ugliness seems to emanate from the stands of the Carrier Dome.
Exhibit 1-A in the case against Syracuse fans came in 1985, when fans at the Carrier Dome threw an orange onto the court and chanted obscenities at Patrick Ewing as he tried to take a free throw. Sadly, as the participants of a fateful 2009 Hoya Blue road trip learned, the manners of Syracuse fans haven’t improved much over time.
That’s not to say that the players who have worn the Orange aren’t loathsome in their own right. Over the years, Boeheim has trotted out lineups featuring countless players that drew the ire of Hoya fans for seemingly every reason–the insufferable overachievers (Gerry McNamara, Andy Rautins), the infuriatingly talented (Derrick Coleman, Carmelo Anthony), and the straight-up reprehensible (Eric Devendorf).
Still, regardless of who’s on the court for the Orange, Georgetown’s problem with Syracuse ultimately remains the same–they’re in the way of the ultimate prize. That’s still the case this season, as the Orange are perched atop the Big East with a commanding two-game lead over the Hoyas. With Syracuse’s defection to the ACC looming, it’s only fitting that the potential final Big East showdown between the two schools has stakes just as high as the first one. The Orange are at the class of the conference, if not the country, and the only way the Hoyas can seemingly catch them is by beating them in Syracuse.
It may not be closing Manley Field House, but John Thompson III has an opportunity to bring his own bit of finality to this rivalry.