It's been five days since my grand basketball adventure concluded, so here are some of my thoughts about what I saw.
Attendance: The number of empty seats at these early-season events can be disheartening to a college hoops fan. I really wonder how tournaments like the CBE Classic survive if there isn't a team of local interest involved. For example, this is what the crowd at Sprint Center looked like just before the Washington-Florida third-place game.
Now the crowd did grow as the evening progressed and tip time for SU-KU approached, but there was still enough of an issue with selling tickets that the Gazelle Group authorized a 2 for 1 deal on tickets. Ticket prices may have been part of the issue. My seats at the top of the lower bowl were almost $70, seats closer to the court were about three times as costly. A not-so-good Missouri appeared in this tournament in 2008, and I remember there being far more empty seats on TV. I can only anticipate that the crowds will be down in KC next season if there isn't a local team involved.
Now, attendance at the Old Spice Classic really hit its stride in the tournament's third year. I remember being able to basically pick any seat in the Milk House two years ago, but that wasn't the case this year. Michigan State sent a ton of fans. In fact, the crowd for the late consolation game on Friday, featuring the Spartans, was greater than the crowd for the Maryland-Gonzaga semifinal just before. The Thursday evening crowd was the first recorded sellout in the history of the event.
Really, this tournament is almost an ideal experience for fans. Not only do you have the attraction of Disney World if you need a break or have a family, but ticket prices are extremely reasonable. A tournament pass is less than $100, and that gets you into 12 games. Plus, it's general admission seating, so you can sit almost anywhere you'd like. (Though this year, I did notice more team reserved seats.) The Milk House is an ultra-modern facility with throwback sightlines and atmosphere. Parking is even free. The only things that would make the tournament better would be popcorn at the concession stands and additions to the scoreboard to show stats for the players on the court. It's really hard to follow the flow of the game without this feature.
I know that ESPN is trying to make the 76 Classic the West Coast equivalent of the Old Spice Classic, but it hasn't really worked out yet. However, it looks like this tournament, much like its Eastern cousin, may jump to the next level in its third season. The 2009 field features UCLA (which alone should really boost attendance), Clemson, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Butler, Minnesota, Portland, and Long Beach State (serving as the host school). Compare that to the 2009 Disney World field: Alabama, 2008 Anaheim runners-up Baylor, Creighton, host-school Iona, Marquette, Michigan, and Xavier. The eighth team is to be announced, but I would be stunned if it wasn't an ACC school (Georgia Tech? Or if ESPN wants to really cause a splash, Carolina or Duke?) I may have to think about a trip to Disneyland next year. Of course, I have to see where SU and UF ends up. The Big East hosts the Puerto Rico Tip-off, maybe Syracuse goes there next year...
Basketball Quality: You would be hard pressed to find another more competitive doubleheader than Finals Night at the CBE. Take a look at the scoreboards.
It was a typically uneven performance from the Gators - jumping out to a big lead, then barely hanging on at the end. Syracuse, meanwhile, showed a ton of heart. About four minutes in, the Kansas fan sitting next to me told his son sitting on the other side of me that "It's going to be just like last night. We're gonna blow them out." It certainly looked like that for much of the first half, but the Orange switched to man-to-man early in the 2nd half, and started to get turnovers. By the end of the game, KU's inexperience started to show and they just looked worn out. Tournament MVP Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, Arinze Onuaku, and Eric Devendorf led the way, and the Jayhawks' long regular-season win streak in Kansas City came to an end.
It was a slightly different story in Orlando, where despite the competitive nature of the programs, there were a lot of outright uncompetitive games. Maryland looks to be back to its inconsistent ways. I'm still surprised that the Terps were able to thoroughly humiliate Michigan State. Sure the Spartans have some injury issues, but they still should've been able to handle a Terp team that's lacking inside. Gonzaga and Georgetown were both able to handle the Terps fairly easily for this reason.
Wichita State is a team that really impressed me. They definitely have the never-say-die attitude that is needed to be competitive in the Missouri Valley, but they also have enough talent to make things interesting. The Shockers are just going to get better and better with time. Creighton and SIU need to watch out for them as the conference season approaches.
Siena was a major disappointment. The Saints had high hopes of getting perhaps two wins out of the weekend. Unfortunately for them, the opposition figured out that if you cut out easy slashes to the basket, Siena is a very average team. That being said, Siena was another team that showed a lot of heart, making the 7th place game with Oklahoma State a competitive one after halftime.
But what else can you say about Gonzaga? Well, like I posted via Twitter after they won Sunday night, can they keep it up throughout the year this time? They get another shot at Tennessee in Knoxville in January, and you can be sure the Vols will be ready. Additionally, UConn plays the Zags Seattle in a couple of weeks, Memphis visits Spokane, the WCC race will be tougher than ever this year, etc. If Gonzaga avoids the slip-ups and inconsistency that has plagued them the past few years, the Bulldogs may very well end up on the top line in March, since the Pac-10 looks to be down this year. The Zags are just an unbelievable fun team to watch. There seriously needs to be a pay-per-view slam dunk contest between Austin Daye, Jeremy Pargo, Ira Brown, Steven Gray, and Josh Heytvelt.
Here are the links to my complete photo albums for the trip.
The BB&T Classic is next up for me on Sunday night. Virginia Tech should have an easy time with Navy, but Maryland should be prepared for a battle with George Washington, especially since the Terps lost to VCU in this event last year.