Maryland joined the Big Ten on Monday and based on their Tweets, Maryland alumni were not pleased. In fact, even among those who have defended the move, the initial reaction was usually a sense of sadness.
This puzzled me at first. Why does a team make a move that is almost universally derided by its own fanbase? I thought perhaps Maryland fans just needed to hear a little bit of the logic before they would endorse the move. When the SEC first expressed interest in Texas A&M, Aggies’ fans hated the notion. As Big 12 fans, the Aggies had spent their lifetimes screaming that the SEC was overrated. But then Texas A&M fans watched big brothers Texas and Oklahoma dictate terms in the revamped Big 12, and the Texas A&M alumni suddenly changed their tune. The A&M alumni realized that being wanted by a dominant and stable conference was not necessarily a bad thing. And before long it was the A&M alumni pushing for the move to the SEC.
And thus my initial reaction to the Maryland news was that Terrapins’ fans would eventually fall in step. They would eventually realize that having Duke and North Carolina dictate the basketball schedule was irritating. They would eventually realize that the quality of Big Ten basketball has upgraded substantially over the past few seasons. The main problem was the shock of the news. No one had time to let it settle in and contemplate the change of leagues. With time, Terps fans would start to get excited about the future.
(I enjoy the online commentary either way. Isn’t it amazing how each side loves to pull out the least attractive match-ups to support their argument. Critics of the move are quick to point out that Maryland will now play games against Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Supporters of the move will point out that Maryland no longer has to play games against Notre Dame, Boston College and Miami.)
But I felt Maryland fans would eventually come around. I thought ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt hit the nail on the head on his radio show. Van Pelt noted that the twinge of sadness Terps fans felt was nostalgia for the past, but it was nostalgia for an ACC that didn’t exist anymore. The days of the double round robin were gone. The days of a fierce rivalry with Duke were over. With 15 schools in the new ACC, a Maryland student enrolling at the school would likely get two home basketball games against Duke in their entire career! It was reasonable to have memories for the past, but under all circumstances the league that most Maryland fans fell in love with was gone. And it had nothing to do with Maryland joining the Big Ten.
And yet the more reaction I read from Maryland fans, the more I am convinced the move was still a disappointment. Terps supporters do lose something permanent with the move. To a large degree, Maryland loses their identity.
It isn’t the school’s identity as a past basketball national champion that is lost. If Maryland returns to the Top 10 they could easily become the Big Ten’s signature basketball property. Do you think Maryland is ever playing the Champions Classic with Duke and North Carolina in the league? But with another NCAA title, it wouldn’t be out of the question in the Big Ten. The Big Ten’s signature basketball team has evolved over the years from Indiana to Michigan to Michigan St., and that title is almost annually up for grabs. Thus this isn’t really about Maryland fans losing their team identity as a past basketball power.
But what Maryland fans lose is spelled out in this simple phrase: “ACC basketball is the best in the nation.” You can throw out whatever statistical argument you want for why that phrase isn’t true. The Big East has been better and deeper over the last five years. The Big Ten has started winning the Big Ten/ACC challenge. Kentucky single-handedly recruited more Top 10 recruits than the ACC this year. But this isn’t a statistical argument. It is about an identity. What players like Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, JJ Redick and Steve Blake did was convince a generation of fans that ACC basketball is always the best in the nation. And now Maryland loses that identity.
Last Friday Sam Gardner made the argument that there might be too many early season tournaments. He argued that the empty seats in Madison Square Garden for an Alabama vs Villanova game prove that the early season tournaments are presenting a watered-down product. I understand the criticism, but I disagree whole-heartedly.
First, I love the empty seats at these events. While the general public may disagree, there is something extremely charming about the general admission nature of an event like the Charleston Classic. You can easily get a seat at mid-court three rows back and watch your team play three games in four days. For anyone who no longer lives in the same town as their favorite college basketball team, you cannot duplicate this type of access. The problem with attendance is that most people do not pay attention to basketball during football season and most people want to spend time with their families rather than vacation this close to Thanksgiving. But if the events are profitable (and each BCS team gets one or two extra exempt home games in addition to the TV revenue), then they could play these games in empty arenas and still provide a valuable product.
And the joy of college basketball is seeing legitimate match-ups between high major teams. These neutral site events ensure that we get quality matchups night after night, and even if some of them are sparsely attended, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
At a tournament like Charleston, we learn something from every game. We learn that sometimes there are other stars. We put Murray St.’s Isaiah Canaan and Baylor’s Pierre Jackson on the Wooden Award and Naismith Watch List, but then a curly haired sophomore guard from Colorado, Askia Booker ends up stealing the show. All Booker did was set a career high for points on back-to-back nights as Colorado knocked off Murray St. and Baylor.
Meanwhile, we watch a young St. John’s team show signs of promise behind its one returning star, D’Angelo Harrison.
We watch a young Boston College team, whose system should be hard to prepare for on one day’s notice, lose three straight games. And we began to ask what head coach Steve Donahue is building at BC.
And we see the drama as a College of Charleston team blows any chance it has of an at large bid with back to back losses to St. John’s and Auburn, all thanks to Andrew Lawrence having the stomach flu. Every game counts. In addition to the Charleston Classic, there were five more events that just wrapped up:
Memorable Moment: Alabama’s second buzzer beating three of the season, this time by Rodney Cooper, deserves honorable mention. But the image that will stick with me is Purdue blowing a late four-point lead when Purdue’s DJ Byrd was called for a flagrant foul for swinging his elbows. Villanova made two free throws, sank a bucket, and sent the game into OT where Villanova prevailed. The look on Byrd’s face on the sideline during the OT loss was painful. It wasn’t just that he let his team down in this game, but having missed the wide open three against Bucknell a few games earlier, he looked like a player who was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But as bad as Byrd feels, he isn’t the only one who deserves blame. Purdue blew a bunch of close games last year due to bad free throw shooting and if early returns are any indication, Terone Johnson still has problems at the charity stripe. Johnson shot 44% on his free throws last year and is shooting 50% this year. He had two key misses late against Villanova, and if he makes those shots DJ Byrd doesn’t look like the goat.
Memorable Moment: St. Joseph’s Langston Galloway had his head crushed against the floor and a tooth came flying out of his mouth against Notre Dame. Galloway went to the sideline, and after holding a towel in his mouth to slow the bleeding, Galloway returned to the game. Galloway then made a key driving lay-up as his team rallied from eight points down in the final minutes to knock off the Fighting Irish in OT.
I am far too enamored with St. Joe’s this season, but I cannot help but gush about this team. Besides CJ Aiken’s shot-blocking and Galloway’s efficiency, the complimentary players for St. Joe’s all have such incredible skill. With Tay Jones missing for one of the games, Chris Wilson showed great quickness in penetrating to the basket. Halil Kanacevic continued to be an extremely impressive passer for a big man. And Ronald Roberts, always good for the occasional amazing dunk, is starting to turn his athleticism into a true skill as a dominant rebounder. Roberts has averaged 13 rebounds per game through 3 games. The top six players for St. Joe’s have the ability to hang with anyone, but they have to make sure their decision making and defense match their highlight reel ability.
Memorable Moment: NC State’s CJ Leslie and Lorenzo Brown sat on the sideline with dejected looks as Oklahoma St. blew out #6 NC State in the title game. What really disturbed me about this loss was that I didn’t think Oklahoma St. played a perfect game. The Cowboys offense settles for far too many bad shots and on too many possessions, the offensive plan seems to be to get the ball to LeBryan Nash or Marcus Smart and hope. But NC State did nothing to take advantage of that. On one possession in the second half, Oklahoma St. failed to run its offense and forced a bad three as the shot clock was winding down. Normally that is the type of shot that results in a lay-up on the other end. But instead of NC State grabbing the rebound and attacking, they seemed unaware of the ball. It hit the floor, was picked up by an Oklahoma St. player, and that player was fouled. Dan Dakich can rub people the wrong way with his commentary, and I’m sure a lot of NC State fans thought he was going too far by questioning the Wolfpack’s effort. But he was right. NC State didn’t just lose because they couldn’t make shots. They lost because they were out-worked.
Memorable Moment: Seton Hall was not outworked. I look at Seton Hall’s lineup and wonder where the scoring is going to come from. And thus it was not surprising that the Pirates trailed by 16 and 10 at halftime in both games in the Hall of Fame tournament. But thanks to some defensive adjustments, Seton Hall came back to force OT in the first game (before ultimately losing) and then won the second game. I’m not sure I’ve seen a team shoot as many airballs in crunch time as the Pirates did in this tournament, but they showed plenty of heart.
Memorable Moment: As ugly as Seton Hall’s shots were, the games in the Virgin Islands were just the opposite. Quinnipiac and UConn played a 2 OT instant classic that involved a buzzer beating three by Quinnipiac at the end of OT, and a 10 point comeback by UConn in the final four minutes of regulation. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were basically un-guardable at the end of the semifinal game.
But it wasn’t the best ending of the tournament. Trailing George Mason by five in the final minute, New Mexico’s Kendall Williams took three steps past half-court and unleashed a true prayer for three. It swished through the rim. Then Williams stole the inbounds. The ball was then kicked to Tony Snell who knocked down a three at the buzzer to give New Mexico the win. It was an unbelievable sequence and no matter what New Mexico does this season, they will always have that game.
With these six tournaments in the books, there are still thirteen more tournaments to be completed during Feast Week. The Legends Classic isn’t over, but Georgetown pulled a nice upset over UCLA. UCLA struggled against the Hoyas zone defense, which is too bad because the Bruins have potentially one of the best zone-busters in the country in Kyle Anderson. Anderson is a tremendous passer for his size, but Anderson did not have a good game on Monday and UCLA played with little energy. In Maui, I’m going to have a hard time choosing a memorable moment as Rotnei Clarke had a ridiculous buzzer beater as Butler beat Marquette, and Texas playing without Myck Kabongo, lost to Chaminade. The feast is just getting started.