Thursday marked the first-ever visit to Madison Square Garden for many of the players on the Virginia basketball team. But their coach had been there before.
"I'm actually fascinated to see the floor out there. Because I played, we played the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1993, played there," said Tony Bennett, a member of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets that season. "So I can't wait to see this."
But they know it's special," Bennett said of his players, "but I think that they're just looking forward to it."
The Cavaliers, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA's East Regional, face No.4 seed Michigan State at 9:57 p.m. Friday in this year's Sweet 16. That game, and the preceding match-up between Connecticut and Iowa State in the other East Regional semifinal, mark the first NCAA Tournament games played at Madison Square Garden since 1961.
All four teams held open practices at the Garden on Thursday afternoon.
"As a basketball fan just growing up, Madison Square Garden is always the arena where you see big time players come in here, they go off for huge games. All the history and tradition this arena has," said UVa senior guard Joe Harris. "I mean, it's the world's most famous arena."
Friday night's game will mark the first at the Garden for the UVa program in 14 seasons. It will also be Virginia's first appearance in the NCAA's Sweet 16 since 1995.
Despite being the top seed in the region, UVa will take the floor on Friday as a two-point underdog against the Spartans. So while the Cavaliers are enjoying this experience at the Garden, they say their focus is on their opponent -- not the setting.
"This is fun, just to be able to do all this kind of stuff before we play a basketball game. But once the jump ball starts, we'll have to be ready," said sophomore forward Anthony Gill. "We'll have to be focused. And I think we all understand that. It's nice to just soak it all in right now, but we understand that."
"I think it's better to soak it in now, than when we get out there and first get ready to play," said freshman guard London Perrantes. So we're just going to try to take it all in. But when it comes down to it, it's just another game. Just another arena -- well, you can't really say it's just another arena. But it's just another game. So we've just got to go out there and play our game."