Wasting an Opportunity

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series. Look for part two in Monday’s issue.

Upon entering the arena, I could feel the electricity in the air. The line to enter the student section was so long that students were waiting outside the arena, suffering in the lethal cold, just for a chance to be a part of the excitement that is big-time college basketball.

You could sense that this was a big game well before the start. The majority of the seats were already filled with bodies, almost all wearing identical shirts in support of their team. The opposing team was warming up; the heckling and chants had already begun. The decibel level rose quickly as the home team emerged from the locker room to start warm-ups.

The noise grew even louder as the home team’s starting lineup was announced. As the players gathered for the opening tip, the students started jumping up and down, yelling and screaming, as if the game was already well into play.

Throughout play, the deafening chants of “Defense” echoed through the large arena, with almost everyone participating. The students did not sit down until halftime, perspiring as though they all had been the ones playing.

The second half began; the students rose and did not sit until the end of the game. The home team went on a run midway through the second half and started to pull away; the crowd grew even louder, sensing the win was near. The visiting team’s starting point guard, a player who had one of the best seasons in the school’s history last season, was rattled from the start.

By game’s end, he had suffered through the worst game of his collegiate career: He shot 2-for-15 from the field. When the final buzzer sounded, the fans stormed the court, celebrating wildly with the players as though they had just won the national championship.

VCU’s victory over cross-town rival Richmond? Not quite.

This was the scene at the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame basketball game in Pittsburgh, a game which was both teams’ Big East opener.

That’s what we as students are squandering. With the all-important conference schedule in full swing, our own team should be playing in front of a packed house night in and night out. Instead, our players compete in front of a mostly uninspired, unmotivated crowd.

Last year, VCU went 13-1 at home, including an undefeated conference record. Average attendance: Less than 5,000 per game. This year, the team has already lost two home games, and the average attendance is about 1,500 less than last year, at a sad 3,530 per game. Considering that VCU has an enrollment of more than 25,000, these numbers are unacceptable, especially when smaller schools fill their gyms.

Take Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa. The school’s enrollment is just 7,130, and the team plays in one of the few remaining bandboxes in the nation, seating just 3,200. The gym transforms into a wonderfully rowdy and loud environment at game time. No wonder St. Joe’s hasn’t lost a game at home this year. They fill the small gym for each contest, the student body playing a critical role in every win.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, with the exception of a few moments and the Richmond game, the noise and overall atmosphere at the Siegel Center hardly rivals that of the Virginia high school basketball powers.

I know VCU doesn’t compete in the most prestigious of conferences, but it is still a league that has many competitive teams, most notably UNC-Wilmington, George Mason and Hofstra. UNC-Wilmington pulled one of the major upsets in last year’s NCAA Tournament, defeating a much larger and nationally ranked USC team in one of the best games of the entire tourney.

The year before, George Mason almost embarrassed the eventual Final Four Maryland Terrapins team led by future pros Terrance Morris, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter.

It is the smaller schools from the lesser-known conferences that annually provide much of the excitement and appeal that make the NCAA Tournament the best overall sporting event of the year. Need I remind you of Kent State, the little-known Mid-American Conference representative, the overlooked No. 10 seed, that advanced all the way to the Elite Eight last year, before getting knocked off by championship runner-up Indiana? The Golden Flashes, who didn’t get any respect entering the tourney, only had to go through major college programs No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Alabama, and number three Pittsburgh. No team with the exception of Indiana and Maryland had a more impressive and memorable run last March.

How about the No. 12 Creighton Blue Jays shocking fifth-ranked Florida in the first round, in double overtime? An amazing game capped off by a three-pointer at the buzzer, easily one of the top moments of last year. All of these great games and upsets, and I’m only talking about last year’s tournament. And I don’t even have to get into the Cinderella of Cinderella’s, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, everyone’s favorite underdog.

It is no wonder that the “mid-major” programs such as Kent State and Creighton are getting a lot more respect this year. In fact, Creighton is currently ranked No. 14 in the nation. Parody has become the theme of the 2002-03 season to date, with the smaller schools now capable of knocking off the big-name universities, thanks to great coaching, more and more available talent and home-court advantage.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply