Bring college basketball back to college...and more hoop thoughts
The best early season games have been played in stale neutral-court venues
A stocking full of nuggets, including Michigan State finally getting healthy
Ohio State made it on my AP ballot this week as Davidson dropped off
On Saturday, CBS broadcast a quartet of matchups that was as good as any the network has aired during my six years working there: Duke-Xavier, Texas-Michigan State, Purdue-Davidson and UConn-Gonzaga. All of those games had two things in common. First, and most delightfully, they each featured two ranked teams.
Second, and less delightfully, they were all played on neutral courts. Duke-Xavier was in the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Texas-Michigan State was in Houston, Purdue-Davidson was in Indianapolis and UConn-Gonzaga was in Seattle.
Why all the neutrality? Well, coaches will tell you they want their teams to play in an NCAA tournament-like atmosphere, and they like to travel to big metropolitan areas where they recruit. And, while the financial incentive is less substantial than you might think, there is obvious appeal in a guaranteed six-figure payday offered by some enterprising promotional company.
Still, we all know the real reason why coaches schedule games on neutral courts: They're a lot easier to win than true road games.
Don't get me wrong, it's terrific that there are so many good games being staged in November and December, thanks mostly to the NCAA tournament Selection Committee's increased emphasis on nonconference scheduling. (It would be even better if those games didn't start until late November, but that's a column for a different day.) Still, it's a shame that all these high-powered matchups are taking place off-campus, especially since so many schools have made the investment to build wonderful arenas like Gonzaga's McCarthey Center, a gleaming, $25 million facility that was completed in 2004. The McCarthey Center may only seat about 6,000, but that is what makes it such a cozy, crazy environment.
Obviously, the city of Seattle was partial to Gonzaga (located in Spokane), so the term "neutral court" is not totally applicable. But the two-year, off-campus series has increasingly replaced the traditional home-and-home deals, and that's not a good thing. Last year, Texas and Michigan State played in The Palace of Auburn Hills instead of the Spartans' Breslin Center, one of the best places in the country to watch a game. The issue here is aesthetic as well as competitive. If Saturday's UConn-Gonzaga game was played on Gonzaga's campus instead of in Seattle's Key Arena, we wouldn't have been exposed to what will surely be the worst on-court logo you'll see all season, an enormous box touting the "Battle in Seattle" that stretched from three-point line to three-point line. The logo was put there to cover up another garish logo promoting the WNBA's Seattle Storm. Either way, it was not a pretty sight.
The four games on CBS were not the only ones played on neutral courts last Saturday. North Carolina met Valparaiso not at the Crusaders' Athletics-Recreation Center, where a packed crowd of 5,000 would have been at full throat, but in the United Center in Chicago, which was not even half-filled. Even more inexplicably, when Minnesota upset Louisville to remain undefeated, the Gophers celebrated not at their venerable old Williams Arena but in the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Minnesota-Louisville tilt was part of something called the 2008 Stadium Classic, a doubleheader that also included Arizona State's dramatic win over BYU. Imagine how much more fun that ending would have been had it not occurred in front of more than 20,000 empty seats.
The difference between campus and off-campus environments was driven home to me earlier this month, when I watched Duke play Purdue and Michigan State play North Carolina on back-to-back nights as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Even though Mike Krzyzewski is notoriously allergic to nonconference true road games (hence the Blue Devils' trip to the Meadowlands, rather than Cincinnati, to play Xavier), he took his team into Purdue's Mackey Arena. It was college sports at its best: The students had camped out, the band was pumping, the place was electric for tipoff, and the Blue Devils showed great poise in a 76-60 win.
The following night, the Spartans and the Tar Heels drew more than 20,000 fans to Detroit's Ford Field. That's a terrific crowd for a regular-season college basketball game, but in that NFL stadium, it still left more than half the seats unoccupied. (Perhaps the folks thought the Lions were playing.) The game took place at Ford Field partly to give the NCAA a logistical run-through for the Final Four. That may have been an important task, but it came with a price.
It's tough enough watching so many sparsely-attended games being played during Thanksgiving week in exotic locales, but to have all these neutral-court contests being scheduled well into December is bad for the game. I would submit to coaches that there are worse things than losing a road game. The players prefer to play in on-campus arenas, the fans have a better time there, and it makes for much better television.
The bottom line is, college basketball belongs in college. If we wanted to watch hoops played in antiseptic environments at half-empty arenas, we can watch the NBA.