Wanted -- College Basketball Power With Courage
Commentary by Scott Soshnick, Bloomberg News
May 31 --``Do you have some games for us?''Bucknell Athletic Director John Hardt asks. He's desperate to fill his men's basketball schedule for next season. Willing opponents are so scarce that he's taken to trolling sportswriters for five able bodies. This is what happens when your team goes from laughing stockto legitimate, from cupcake to capable. Not even Kentucky, seven-time national champion Kentucky for crying out loud, has the gumption to take the court against up-and-coming Bucknell. ``We literally have said we will play anybody anywhere,''Hardt says. ``Before we had notoriety people would take us up on that. Now our phone calls don't get returned.'' This is the price of winning. Two years ago Bucknell -- hardly a basketball powerhouse --upset No. 3 Kansas in the opening round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Eyebrows were raised. Then last season, Bucknell went on the road and trampled Syracuse, Pittsburgh and St. Joe's. Alarm bells sounded around the country. ``To hear the Big Ten, the ACC and SEC say you're too good, it's disconcerting,'' Hardt says. This is the sad reality of college basketball today, where securing enough wins for a spot in the lucrative NCAA tournament dwarfs the importance of maintaining rivalries and a century of tradition. ``I understand the thinking,'' says ESPN basketball analystDick Vitale, ``but I don't agree with it.''
Neither does Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard. Neither does Kevin McNamee, the senior associate athletic director at GeorgeMason, which, you'll recall, made plenty of noise in last year's tournament. George Mason's blitzkrieg to the Final Four has made filling its home schedule more difficult than guarding LeBron James in socks. ``Everybody comes to Washington, and no one is going to play at our building,'' McNamee says. ``Teams are careful about who they play, when they play them and where they play them.'' He calls it artful scheduling. Artless dodging is more like it. Try this on for size: Some big-name schools will agree to play road games on one condition -- that it's held over a holiday break when the students won't be there. Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium isn't the same without the Crazies. And neither is Bucknell. ``Big schools look for any advantage they can get,'' Hardt said.
Pack the Bags
So, as a result, if the Patriots want to face a ranked opponent they'll have to pack their bags. ``You don't want to be America's guest, going on the road all the time and getting your brains kicked in,'' McNamee says. Maryland, of the ACC, has agreed to play George Mason, but only amid the safer home-court confines of College Park's Comcast Center. No home-and-home series. Terrapins don't travel. That brings us to Holy Cross, another program on the rise. The Crusaders recently have been dropped by the schedule makers at Fordham, Iona, Manhattan, Massachusetts and Providence. And then Boston College, of all schools, called to sever ties. While it might not mean much to those outside Boston, ending the B.C.-Holy Cross matchup is a big deal. The schools, whose football rivalry dates to the 1800s, first played basketball in 1905. Boston College abandoned basketball in 1924 and resumed in 1945. They've met just about every year since, with annual home-and-home games that were a circle-that-date special on each school's schedule.
Holy Cross dominated at first, winning 21 straight. However Boston College, now of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has won 14 of the past 15 meetings. So what is B.C. afraid of? Well, the games have gotten a little too close for Boston College coach Al Skinner's comfort. Two years ago, the Eagles needed overtime before winning. ``The big thing is the gap between us has diminished,'' saysWillard, Holy Cross class of 1967. ``Al told me from the very beginning that this game is a no-win situation for him.'' Skinner didn't return my call. But Bob Cousy did. The former Boston Celtics star and Hall of Famer has a passion for both schools, having won the 1947 national championship as a player at Holy Cross and later having coached at Boston College. ``All the powerhouses want to book the patsies,'' said the1957 National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, who went 117-38 as B.C.'s coach from 1963-69. ``Nothing is sacred anymore.''
As things stand, Bucknell's Hardt has four vacant dates on his schedule. ``That's unprecedented for us this late in theyear,'' he says. On a promising note, some ACC schools last week inquired about adding the Bison to their schedules. We'll see. So, to answer Hardt's initial question, I do have some games for Bucknell to schedule. I told him that I'd make some calls to college buddies, including Syracuse basketball assistant and former team captain Mike Hopkins, as well as Todd Barlok, a former walk-on, and 6-foot-7-inch Erik Levin, who is now an intellectual property attorney with the NBA. Though we have a bit of mileage on us and we're woefully out of game shape, we offer what Bucknell and the others need most: a desire and willingness to play. That's more than they can get from Kentucky.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)