Monday, March 23, 2015
My AHL weekend continued on Sunday when I drove about 50 miles west to Springfield. If you do this, take US-20 (the longest road in the nation) and stop at one of the small restaurants along the way. J&Es Yankee Diner was a nice find in Red Sox country.
Springfield is the city where basketball was invented by James Naismith back in 1891 and the National Basketball Hall of Fame is located here, but it deserves a full day and so I will return alone at some point to enjoy it at my leisure. There are several other museums here, including a sculpture garden dedicated to childhood hero Dr. Seuss, that offer a single admission card for only $18, so Springfield is definitely worth a visit for reasons other than a sporting event.
After a brief stop at McCaffrey's Public House to watch Duke defeat San Diego State, my wife (who could not escape attending this game) and I headed over to the MassMutual Center, home of the Springfield Falcons. The main entrance has both pucks and basketballs out front; of course the latter could be due to the city's claim to being the birthplace of the game, but the Springfield Armor of the D-League also played here for five years before moving to Grand Rapids for the 2014-15 season.
Box office prices started at $22, but some fans had extras here, although they were not willing to part with them for nothing. I picked up a season stub from one guy and then a normal ticket from another. As we entered, the season stub was revealed to have been already used. So the guy must print them out, sell the stub, and then enter on the printout. I was surprised that there was a scammer at this level, but it mattered not as they just tore the bottom off the ticket and let us in anyway.
A tour of the concourse revealed a number of concession stands with absolutely nothing out of the
ordinary, and a couple of lounges (one with a slightly expanded menu if you wanted a slightly expanded waistline) showing some NCAA basketball games. The main attraction was the Springfield Hockey Hall of Fame (above) with some familiar names, including Brian Kilrea, who played nine seasons for the Springfield Indians (his last season they became the Kings). He also played in 25 games for the LA Kings in their first season. Interestingly, he had played one NHL game in the 1957-58 season for Detroit, meaning that he spent 10 seasons between call ups, which must be some sort of record.
Inside you had a small lower bowl of 6-8 rows and a large upper deck, all blue seats. The Falcons do not draw well and you could pretty much sit wherever you wanted.
I found the poor turnout to be rather depressing, but not unusual as Springfield ranks 29th of the 30 AHL teams in attendance (link). The 2,198 on hand for this one brought their season average to just 3,129, a far cry from the 8,202 that Providence manages to top the New England teams. Of course, Providence is the affiliate of the Bruins, while Springfield develops players for Columbus (the uniforms are very similar) and that no doubt has something to do with the disparity.
This was the Falcons third home game in as many nights, and they had 4,200 the night before, so I can forgive the locals for being a bit lethargic. The team, on the other hand, deserves no sympathy for their pathetic performance, especially as they are fighting with Worcester for that final playoff spot.
Yes, it was their third game in three days, but that was true for Syracuse as well, who had the added disadvantage of having travelled after two home games. This was a horrible contest with neither team showing much energy from start to finish. Syracuse won 4-1 as Springfield could only muster 14 shots on Kristers Gudjevskis (above, you might remember him from his star turn against Canada in last year's Olympics). As an aside, I appreciated the Syracuse third jersey, even with its garish orange.
My wife spent the game shopping on the Internet (probably for divorce lawyers) and I am severely
indebted to her for having asked her to attend two AHL games in as many weeks. Which means many
more nice (i.e. expensive) dinners in my future.
The Springfield Indians and Kings were the same franchise and one of the original AHL teams, but they moved to Worcester in 1994, then Peoria in 2005, and are now in Utica. The Falcons were an expansion team in 1994. Still, the old banners remain, as they should because at this level it is the city that matters more than the franchise.
Those expensive dinners will have to wait a bit as we are in the middle of March Madness! I will be in Syracuse on the weekend to watch the East Regional games featuring Oklahoma, Michigan State,
Louisville, and NC State. The Crunch have a home game on the rest day so I'll add another AHL rink to the list. Check back next week to see how it went.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
With the college basketball season pretty much over, I'm running out of new venues to visit in New York City. The nascent MLS team NYCFC plays out of Yankee Stadium and I'll be going there next month, and there are some college baseball games but the weather has not been conducive to enjoying those quite yet. So each weekend, I'm heading out of the city to add to my AHL venue count, concentrating on those teams that are moving west after the season. This past weekend all of the nearby New England venues that I've yet to see (Bridgeport, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester, and Manchester) were hosting games, with some having two or even three contests to choose from, I initially planned on Hartford on Friday, Worcester on Saturday, and Manchester on Sunday, but ended up changing that slate as other factors came into play.
My wife decided to accompany me, so immediately the chance for three games disappeared, with Friday's contest stricken from the schedule to make room for something called "a nice dinner". I always thought arena hot dogs and chicken tenders qualified as "nice", but let's just say I was politely told otherwise. As it turned out, it snowed on Friday (the last "storm" of the season I hope) which made getting to Hartford in time for the game impossible regardless of my intentions. We continued on to Worcester, with the 175-mile drive taking nearly five hours thanks to the snow and rush hour traffic through Connecticut, reminding me of my recent southern sojourn. After this winter, I am glad that the AHL is moving west and I can look forward to a trip in 2016 without weather worries.
Worcester (it kind of rhymes with rooster depending on who is speaking) is the second-largest city in New England and known as the Heart of the Commonwealth, because of its proximity to the center of Massachusetts. As I drove through town on Saturday afternoon, I commented to my wife that I had never seen such terrible drivers. It seems like the rules of the road are merely suggestions here. At one large intersection where all four lights were flashing red (which means it should be treated as a stop sign) drivers just followed the car in front without stopping. Only when both perpendicular directions were free could you risk entering the intersection, and then every other driver would follow. Yield signs were routinely ignored; I was cut off a couple of times, and generally found many others pointlessly aggressive for such a small town. In a shopping mall parking lot we witnessed one person speeding up to yell at a minivan driver who had committed some perceived offense. Turns out that this was not a small sample size, but a reflection of Worcester actually having the worst drivers in the country. It was gratifying to know that all my road trip experience allowed me to identify them as such.
After our tour, I returning to the safety of our hotel to drop my wife off, before again braving Worcester's worst, zooming downtown to the DCU Center where the Sharks were hosting the Phantoms of Lehigh Valley. San Jose is moving their affiliate to California, where they will play in the same arena as the parent club next season. No ECHL team is replacing them, so this was one of the last chances to see a pro hockey game in the DCU Center, at least until 2017 if an arena bartender is to be believed. I arrived about an hour before game time and as I was standing in front of the arena, I heard a child ask "Where is Granny going?" The reply "She is going to see if anyone needs a ticket," was music to my ears. I scooted up and casually asked if she had an extra, and after giving me the once-over to, she handed me a ticket. Free hockey! Thanks Granny!
Upon entering the venue (#540 lifetime), I saw a long line of fans, many dressed in New England Patriots gear. They were all waiting to receive an autograph from Malcolm Butler, whose last-second interception sealed the Super Bowl for the Pats just over a month before. I'd say the queue snaked halfway around the concourse. I didn't bother lining up, but followed it around until I could snap a surreptitious shot (above). Butler also performed the ceremonial face-off. The concourse is also where you can find a large inflated shark above a game where kids can take slap shots. I am not sure what they will do with this after the game, but I would guess only San Jose can use it.
I really liked the setup at DCU Center, with two bars on concourse level at either end of the rink that were serving decent beers at only mildly inflated prices. The lower bowl has about 20 rows, with the top few high enough to avoid the glass, while the upper deck has about four open rows in front of black curtains, but it provides the better view if you can avoid the railings. There are some groups of seats that rest alone on this level which give you some privacy as well as an unfettered view of the action.
The free ticket I had received was In the corner and the DCU Center is not well designed for hockey, particularly in this area where railings block your view of one of the nets. So I went to Guest Services and asked for an upgrade. I was moved to center ice at no cost, with my new seat written directly on the ticket, something I had never experienced before. I spent the first two periods here, but the seat was not good for taking pictures, so I moved to the upper deck for the third period.
Worcester is fighting for a playoff spot and they opened the scoring five minutes in when Daniel Ciampini (above), newly signed out of defending NCAA champ Union College, potted his first pro goal, converting a perfect pass from Jimmy Bonneau. Five minutes after that, Bryan Lerg doubled the tally with his 5th in three games, netting him AHL Player of the Week honours. When Rylan Schwartz added a third after another five minutes had passed, the rout was on. The Sharks scored twice in the second to salt the game away.
The third period saw the Worcester go two men down and Brandon Manning (above) scored a power play goal just as the 5-on-3 advantage was expired, ending Aaron Dell's shutout bid.
A late goal from John McCarthy (that's the puck entering the net behind Anthony Stolarz above) made the final 6-1 Worcester. Attendance was announced at 6,131 but I'd say many of these were fans of Malcolm Butler who left before the game even started.
The referee was Jamie Koharski, son of long-time NHL official Don, who is most famous for having a character in Wayne's World named after him.
I love how the minors turn any player who toiled there into a "star" when they make the jump. Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels are solid players but not likely to make the Hall of Fame.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
March Madness refers to the NCAA Tournament, which features 68 teams playing 67 games over three consecutive weekends. The tournament invites 32 conference champions and selects 36 other teams, mostly from the six basketball power conferences. This season, there were 7 at-large selections from mid-majors (Dayton and Davidson from the Atlantic l0, Cincinnati from the American, Wichita State from the Missouri Valley, Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, and BYU from the West Coast). The other 29 selections included teams like UCLA (which scored 7 points in a half against Kentucky and lost all 5 games against teams from other power conferences) and Oklahoma State (8-10 in Big 12 play) instead of Murray State who were perfect in the regular season in the smaller Ohio Valley Conference. Murray State was hampered by a weak strength of schedule, and that is the problem - crappy teams in the power conferences get the benefit of a strong strength of schedule and will receive most of those at-large spots. Those squads have bigger followings which means more advertising dollars as well. I know that Murray State would probably lose to pretty much any power conference team, but shouldn't they get the chance to dance? Nope, because the NCAA tournament is not about finding the best team in the land, but about finding the group of teams that will generate the most interest and revenue. To be fair, the NCAA could remove the autobid for conference tournament champions and simply pit the best 68 teams in the country, but that would kill the madness aspect. Having one spot guaranteed for each conference generates upsets and story lines throughout March and means that each school can dream of making it big on the national stage. If Murray State wanted into the tournament, they should have beaten Belmont in the OVC final.
But they didn't. So what happens? They go to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). This competition, around since 1938, invites all regular season conference champions that did not make the NCAAs plus some other quality teams from both power conferences and mid-majors to make 32 entrants. It is owned by the NCAA and the first 3 rounds are played on campus courts, with the semifinals and finals held at MSG during the week before the Final Four. Murray State received a 3 seed and beat UTEP in the first round.
These two tourneys combine to give 100 teams a postseason experience, but that leaves 251 other clubs in Division I with nothing to do except study for final exams. How mundane! So a couple of enterprising groups created their own tournaments. In 2007, the Gazelle Group found the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) with 16 teams playing on campus sites. The tournament is often referred to as the "Cash Buy In" as teams now pay to host games. In 2009, Collegelnsider.com founded the Collegelnsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) and this now has 32 mid-major teams playing on campus sites. Last year's champion was Murray State, who beat Yale in the final, so there are arguments that these less famous tournaments give you a chance to see which teams will surprise next year.
So why all the preamble? Because this year, NJIT, the only Division I independent, was invited to the CIT and would even host a first-round game. This is one of three schools in the area that I had yet to visit (Iona and Fordham are the others) so when the game was announced, I immediately put it on my schedule. The opponents ended up being the New Hampshire Wildcats of the America East. The Wildcats blew a late lead against Albany in the conference semi-finals, and their reward was a trip to Newark to face the Highlanders.
NJIT plays out of the worst-rated venue on Stadium Journey, the Edith and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center. Located about a mile from Newark Penn Station, you can take light rail there or brave the streets of one of America's most dangerous cities. I chose the latter and discovered that Division III Rutgers-Newark is right next door. It always amazes me how many institutions of higher education there are in this country and nearly all of them have athletic programs. I don't consider these lower level schools worth visiting but I might make an exception for this one that is so close to my office.
The Fleisher Center has no amenities, it is just a simple gym with about 10 rows of seats and the worst acoustics ever. Look at the ceiling in the photo above - not very good for hearing what the announcer is saying. The lighting is also terrible; I could not get any good pictures of the action from my seat and the staff photographer had set up flashes at each corner to illuminate the floor whenever he took a shot, which was very distracting at first. To make matters worse, the mascot (below) looks like a zombie with pallid grey skin.
There were a couple of positive aspects. Free t-shirts were given out to all fans, and there is a small Hall of Fame inside the lobby. Other that that, it is just a gym. NJIT has plans to build a $100 million arena in the next few years, so it is safe to say that this was my last visit to the Fleisher Center.
For NJIT's first-ever postseason game (it was also the Wildcats' inaugural appearance in the wonderful world of March Sadness), a band was brought in to deafen the 1,300 patrons (sold out!) on hand, most of whom had paid $15 for the pleasure. The evening got off to a funny start when both microphones didn't work (this is the New Jersey Institute of Technology after all), but then again, I could barely understand the announcer anyway once they got the mike operating.
This happened to be the only men's college basketball game in the country, and perhaps the first to use a 30-second shot clock, as that innovation is being tested by the CIT. New Hampshire stormed to a quick 10-0 lead but NJIT chipped away and tied the game at 27 when Tim Coleman converted a three-point play. The half ended on a weird sequence: coming out of a timeout with 2.5 seconds left, Ronnel Jordan of UNH went for a jump shot just inside the arc, but it was blocked by Coleman. The ball came right back to Jordan who threw up a prayer from the other side of the three-point line and it swished through, giving New Hampshire a 37-32 lead at the break.
The second half saw each team score 15 points each in the first 8 minutes as the pace was quick, with neither club running too many set plays. Over the next four minutes, NJIT went on a 13-0 run to take a 60-52 lead, capped by a thunderous dunk from Odera Nweke that sent the crowd to their feet. UNH got back within 3 but NJIT rolled off another 9-2 run. With less than four minutes left, the Wildcats were forced to foul as much as possible and try to drain threes when on offense, which brought them within 6 but no closer as they ran out of time, losing 84-77.
This was a fun game to attend, with fans enjoying a rare chance to celebrate a successful season for the Highlanders. NJIT will host a second round match against Cleveland State on Monday, March 23rd. I'll update you on the result then.
If you want to annoy other fans, yell "STEPS!" whenever a player appears to commit a traveling violation. Guy behind me did it on several occasions (he was rarely right) and I am sure I was not the only one who wanted to tell him to shut up.
An AHL weekend on tap as I head to Massachusetts to see the Worcester Sharks before they move to San Jose, as well as the Springfield Falcons. I'm still only halfway through the league, but I find these games to me more enjoyable than the NHL variety; check back next week to see if that trend continued.
Monday, March 16, 2015
After recovering from the stunning Stony Brook loss, I managed to get to Glens Falls for an evening of AHL hockey as the Marlies were visiting the Adirondack Flames. The two parent clubs had met in Calgary the night before with Toronto losing 6-3; I hoped for a better result in this contest. As an aside, hope is for the foolish.
There's a top notch Vietnamese restaurant between Albany and Glens Falls (Saigon Spring in Clifton Park) so my wife agreed to join the Adirondack adventure if we stopped for dinner there first. Well worth it and a welcome change from all the pub food I usually eat on these trips. We got to Glens Falls around 6, shocking my wife who realized that she had to spend an hour before the game in a cold arena. Her argument: you don't arrive an hour before watching a movie, why do it at a sporting event? My attempts to explain the beauty of the hockey warmup and writing down line combinations fell on deaf ears.
The Glens Falls Civic Center is an old building that looks like a grocery store from the outside. Inside, it is filled with passageways that lead to a pub underneath the seats and some very old honourees of some sort, which are not that well maintained. On the other hand, the New York Basketball Hall of Fame takes up a couple of walls next to the main entrance and is worth a quick look if only for the pictures of future NBA stars in high school, including Ron Artest and Elton Brand. There is also a small Glens Falls Hockey Hall of Fame on the other side of the entrance with several old Adirondack Red Wings enshrined, including Pete Mahovlich and Barry Melrose.
I bought good seats and we ended up sitting right next to the Marlies entrance onto the ice, across from the benches. It was good to see some familiar names in the lineup, including William Nylander, the Leafs #1 pick from 2014. The Flames had Devon Setoguchi, clearly on the downside of a once promising NHL career, as well as Markus Granlund who played 37 games with Calgary earlier this year. The seating bowl is steep and a concourse circles the top, with a few concession stands should you get hungry or thirsty.
The scoreboard has no video, but there are two large screens at opposite corners where low-quality replays are shown. Overall, this is a great throwback facility for hockey, but probably not up to AHL standards. The Flames are moving their affiliate to Stockton next season (where they will become the Heat) while the ECHL will take up residence in Glens Falls as the Adirondack Thunder. If you are hanging around in upstate New York during the winter, try to see a game here and experience hockey like it was 50 years ago.
I hoped that my wife would bring the Marlies some luck, but as mentioned, hope is for the foolish. Adirondack scored thrice on their first six shots, with goals by Setoguchi and Granlund sandwiching one from Max Reinhart. Just 8 minutes in and starter Antoine Bibeau was sent to the bench. Actually, he was sent to a chair right beside our seats as the benches are not big enough for the backup goalie. I thought the fans might heckle him but they left him alone, perhaps realizing that the poor man belongs to the sorriest franchise in the NHL these days. Bibeau was replaced by Christopher Gibson (below) who settled things down somewhat. Nylander got Toronto on the board with a nifty bank shot off a defenseman's skate midway through the period, only to see Brant Harris, making his first appearance on loan from Florida of the ECHL, score to send the Flames to the first intermission up 4-1.
Josh Leivo scored the only goal of the second period, jamming the puck behind Doug Carr, and when Nylander converted on a power play for his second of the game just 17 seconds into the third, the Marlies were suddenly within one. But 40 seconds after that Granlund scored his second on another Marlie defensive breakdown to restore the two-goal lead.
The Marlies didn't give up though, and Ryan Rupert, the Leafs 6th-round pick in 2012, tipped one over Carr's pad with 12 minutes left. The rest of the period saw Toronto attacking relentlessly as they peppered 20 shots on goal during the frame, but Carr prevented the tying tally and Adirondack held on for an exciting 5-4 win. Despite the unfavourable result for Toronto (something I am quite used to), a very enjoyable evening at an old-time barn. My wife, however, was not a convert to the beauty of minor league hockey.
The highlights are here should you be interested, Nylander's first goal is worth a look about a minute in and Troy Bodie is in a long fight around the two-minute mark.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Stony Brook Seawolves 50 at Albany Great Danes 51 (NCAA Basketball, America East Championship) - March 14, 2015
"I love it when a plan comes together." Those of us who grew up in the 1980s remember this as the catch phrase of Hannibal Smith, leader of the A-Team, who graced our TV screens between 1983 and 1987. Sports travellers use slightly different wording when planning their trips, often exclaiming "I love it when a schedule comes together," when they find a game at a nearby venue that slots nicely into their plans. Such was the case this past weekend when my personal life combined with the schedule to allow me to see three A-Teams in the New York capital region.
For reasons that are not germane to the story, my wife was in Canada and had to return to the US around Friday the 13th. I knew this sometime in advance but did not know the exact date of her return, only that it would be decided at the last minute. For this reason, flying was not an option; she would either take a train or a bus. As I scoured the sports schedules between New York and Montreal to see where I could meet her, I noticed that the AHL's Adirondack Flames would be hosting the Toronto Marlies on Saturday night. I really wanted to visit Glens Falls Civic Center before the franchise moved to the West Coast, but couldn't imagine that there would be many buses from Canada stopping there.
The nearest big town was Albany, and buses from Montreal stopped there regularly. Their AHL team had a three-game homestand over the weekend, but I had visited them last season (ironically against Adirondack) so wasn't particularly interested in that. But the University at Albany (part of the SUNY system) was involved in the America East tournament, and as the top seed, they would host all games they played on campus. Even better, the championship was scheduled for March 14. All Albany (15-1) had to do was beat Maine (2-14) and New Hampshire (11-5) and I would have a game to see on Saturday morning. The Great Danes dispensed of the Black Bears with no problem, but were losing to the Wildcats at halftime, only to come back and win by 2. All of a sudden, the schedule had come together! Even better, their opponent would be Stony Brook (12-4), a Long Island based team I have seen twice now as my friend Eddie is a huge fan. The Seawolves defeated Vermont on the road, setting up a rematch of last season's title game. When my wife confirmed she would be returning on Friday I asked her to get dropped off in Albany, and the weekend was set.
I rented a car and drove up to Albany on Friday after work, watching the Devils beat the Worcester Sharks 3-2 as I awaited my wife's arrival. As an aside, it is amazing that Albany continues to have an AHL team when nobody shows up to the games. Anyway, my wife eventually made it to Albany and we enjoyed an evening at the City Beer Hall, about the only open bar in the downtown area.
The next day I awoke groggily, but quickly regained my senses when I realized that there was a conference championship game starting in a couple of hours at 11 am. I sped through Albany (yeah right, the lights here are so mistimed that you can barely get above 30) and arrived on campus at 9:30. Parking was free at a lot about 5 minutes away from SEFCU Arena (above), with shuttle buses taking those too lazy or cold to make the trek. The venue is sterile from the outside, with little to let you know that Division I basketball is played inside.
The game was advertised as sold out, but there will still a bunch of student tickets available. Eddie was waiting for me at the door and we went to will call to pick up the tickets (face value $25). Upon entering, the first order of business was to meet with Bob Deal, an Albany supporter and another sports traveler. Bob was inside the Albany Sports Hall of Fame, but they let us in to say hi even though Eddie was wearing a Stony Brook toque and jersey. With the pleasantries out of the way, we made our way to the seats, which were in the top row at the far corner behind Stony Brook's bench. In other words, the worst seats in the place (not even visible in the picture below).
As game time approached the crowd slowly filtered in, and by tip off it certainly looked sold out. The game started as ugly as possible with both teams showing nerves and shooting terribly. The score was 2-2 after 5 minutes and then 6-4 Albany after 10. My friend Sharpy, watching at home in Ottawa, called it "unwatchable dreck". He may have been right for those sitting on a couch in their living room, but the atmosphere in the arena was electric, even with all the misses. The tension seemed to ratchet up with every clank of the iron. Both teams eventually relaxed, and with 4 minutes left in the half and down 16-13, Stony Brook finally found a rhythm and ended the half on a 7-0 run.
I used the halftime to move to the concourse high behind the net that Stony Brook would be shooting at in the second half (above). This was right behind the band and offered a much better view of the action, as well as having the advantage of being relatively free of other fans. The second half was much better than the first, but the Great Danes were unable to close the gap. When Carson Puriefoy (#10 below) sank a couple of key threes to give the Seawolves a 44-38 lead with 4 minutes left, it looked like the visitors might steal one.
Still, I could sense that Stony Brook lacked the killer instinct they needed here. Albany kept it close, but after another Puriefoy three, the Great Danes were down 47-40 with 3 minutes to go. Then the wheels fell off the Stony Brook bandwagon.
Jameel Warney missed the front end of a one-and-one and then committed a foul on Albany's next possession, with Evan Singletary converting both foul shots. After both teams added two points to their total, Singletary fouled Warney, who missed both shots. You could see the panic in their eyes; Stony Brook was not in control. Sam Rowley missed a trey but picked up the offensive board and converted a jumpshot to bring Albany within 3. On the inbounds, Puriefoy turned it over and Albany managed two straight offensive boards before a Warney foul sent Mike Rowley to the line. He calmly made both and it was suddenly 49-48 for Stony Brook with 21 seconds left.
At this point, Stony Brook took the last timeout in the game. I texted Sharpy, telling him that Albany would win on a 3 after Stony Brook missed one of their two free throws. Puriefoy was fouled on the inbounds play and made the first foul shot. Of course, he then missed the second and the Great Danes took the ball down the court quickly. Ray Sanders missed his shot but the ball was tipped out to Peter Hooley who drained the three (the only one for Albany in the game) to send the crowd into a frenzy. Stony Brook had a couple of seconds to get a shot off but with no timeouts, they couldn't even get the ball to half court and the crowd rushed the floor (below) while the Stony Brook supporters stood stunned.
An incredible ending that was the top play on SportsCenter that night and capped one of the most interesting games I have seen. You could sense that Stony Brook were nervous down the stretch and it cost them the game, as they shot only 10/19 from the line, dooming them in such a low-scoring contest.
If you missed the story, Hooley, an Australian, lost his mother to cancer back in January and had missed some games to be with her, returning in February. His winning three netted him an appearance on ESPN a couple of days later. Although I was cheering for Stony Brook, it is hard to be upset when you read something like this. All mid-major teams deserve a bit of time in the sun and I'll be rooting for Albany when they play Oklahoma in the first round.
This past season I attended games at 14 schools, with all of them providing some great memories, especially now as tournament time approaches. It is gratifying as a sports traveler when a team I have seen wins its conference tournament, as Eastern Washington and Manhattan did. I'll be following those two teams closely in the tournament. But there is no doubt that being one of just 4,468 fans at the 2015 America East championship is something I'll never forget and why I will never stop traveling for sports. You just never know when you might see history, especially from an A-Team.
Saturday, March 14, 2015
The past year I have become a big fan of college basketball, a sport I once disdained for its lack of pace and oversaturation of the sports calendar in March. With 351 Division I teams throughout the country, college hoops provides more road trip destinations than any other meaningful sport (I don't count Division II or III or high school sports in this category). Most of these schools are known as mid-majors as they don't play in one of the power conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12). In basketball, the Big East and American are not really mid-majors either, but that still leaves 25 conferences that are, including the Atlantic 10. What is best about the smaller mid-major schools is that their games are played in small venues, usually on campus, with a raucous atmosphere that is hard to replicate in the pros. The game itself still suffers from too many stoppages, but when you are at the venue, the atmosphere makes up for it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to conference tournaments, too many of these mid-majors succumb to the cynicism that plagues the NCAA as a whole and play the entire competition at a neutral site. Students who supported the team all season are forced to fork over travel money if they want to cheer them on any further.
Even more cynical is the fact that all teams in the conference make the tournament, thus necessitating even more games. The A10 is one of the mid-majors that allows every squad into its playoff, which is now held over five consecutive days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There are 14 teams in the A10 (yet another misnamed conference), which means 13 games are required to crown a champion. With nothing else to do on Thursday night, I headed over to watch a couple of games in the night session of the second round.
The first round was played on Wednesday and featured #11 Duquesne (6-12) defeating #14 St. Louis (3-13). If that wasn't enticing enough, your second game was between two 4-14 teams (Fordham beat George Mason). The Thursday morning session saw La Salle (8-10) "upset" Massachusetts (10-8) while VCU disposed of Fordham.
I arrived a few minutes before the 6:30 tip for the evening session (when four games are played on a single day, you have to buy two session tickets naturally) and paid $20 to get in, about $19.95 too much. The first match featured St. Bonaventure (10-8) taking on St. Joseph's (7-11). If you recall, St. Joes took eventual national champion Connecticut to overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, but they lost three seniors (including current Knick Langston Galloway) and are back to also-rans. The Bonnies (a relatively new nickname as the team used to be called the Brown Indians until 1992) lost to Florida State in the first round of the 2012 tournament. Their mascot is the Bona Wolf as seen on the cheerleaders above.
The game was a slog, especially in the first half when neither team could do much. The Hawks went into the break with a 28-23 lead, much to the chagrin of the Bonnie fans who had travelled from western New York. They were loud and obnoxious, standing for much of the game and annoying the fans around behind them who realized that an early round A10 tournament game is not really a good excuse to get drunk and stand up for 2 hours.
DeAndre Bembry misses another shot above while Denzell Gregg drives the lane below
Fortunately for them, their long trip was not a complete waste as St. Bonaventure started the second half on a 14-6 run to take a 3-point lead which they never relinquished, using strong free throw shooting down the stretch to pull away 60-49. Like it mattered, they were eliminated the next day by #2 seed Dayton, but hey 1-0 is better than 0-1.
This was unpleasant from start to finish, with St. Joseph's shooting just over 25% while both teams were horrible from three point land (5/30). This would have been fun to watch on St. Bonaventure's home court, but in an empty arena, it was just depressing.
After a half-hour break, George Washington (10-8) took on Duquesne and I was glad I stayed around as this game was much more entertaining. Both teams played hard and the pace was quick although it was clear that the Colonials were a superior squad. It was 40-27 for GWU at halftime so I headed home as it was well past 10:00 and I had to work the next day. GWU went on to win 73-55 but were dismissed by Rhode Island the next evening.
The highlight of this game was watching Yuta Watanabe (below), the first Japanese-born player to receive a scholarship for Division I basketball. He is only a freshman and worth following as he displayed a good outside touch for a big man.
VCU was the eventual tournament champion, beating Davidson and Dayton in the final. All three teams made the NCAA tournament, while George Washington, Rhode Island, and Richmond are in the NIT.
This was the second season in a row that I've seen a conference tournament at a neutral venue and I am not a fan. What makes college basketball exciting is having games played in a small gym surrounded by fans of the team, mostly students and locals. These contests were mostly meaningless - was it really necessary to take the bottom six teams here? The NCAA argues that student-athletes are students first, but having a 3-13 team make the post season so the conference can charge their New York-based alumni a few bucks proves otherwise. The NCAA is about one thing and that is money, as we all found out on Selection Sunday. But more about that in a later post.