It's now been 15 years since Quinnipiac first announced it was going to the promised land of Division I. That sentence looked about as out of place in 1996 as the Bobcats' new home - the $52 million TD Bank Sports Center - looks today as it rises from what was formerly a random hillside across the street from the Quinnipiac (pronounced QUIN-a-pee-ack , not quin-a-PEE-ack, by the way) campus. Tuesday night was my first trip of the 2011-2012 as the Bobcats opened their home campaign against Yale, who was nice enough to make the 10-minute bus ride down the street. Despite the proximity, it marked the first time Yale has ever played at Quinnipiac, which tells you a lot.
I've now been to the TD Bank Center a few times since the opening in 2007 (including a couple for hockey - the two arenas sit side-by-side, and a Quinnipiac-Yale hockey game would be a sure sell-out at either school. Hoops? Not so much. Yet. Although 2,744 is not a bad crowd for a Tuesday night), and while the shock value has worn off a little, I think of the couple of times I saw the Braves (the old Quinnipiac nickname) play as a Division II team against local powers Southern Connecticut State and UNH (New Haven not New Hampshire) back in the early 90s.
But this is a new world order in little old Hamden, Conn. Quinnipiac has followed the beat of Peter Gabriel into the "Big Time". In words that will resonate with many readers on this site, long-time Quinnipiac Athletic Director Jack McDonald says in the media guide, "Every student-athlete goes to college for two reasons - to get a degree and to play in the NCAA Tournament."
Preach on, Brother Jack.
And it looked like Jack would have his wish in 2010. (He actually came close right off the bat in 2002 when a Joe DeSantis-led 14-16 team made a surprising run and lost in the NEC final to Central Connecticut). He had lured Tom Moore, a Jim Calhoun assistant at UConn for 13 years, to Hamden, and in his third season, Moore put together what was clearly the best team in the NEC. But, for most of the teams you read about here (Yale being a notable exception, the Ivy League don't need no stinking postseason tournaments), you have to produce in March, and Quinnipiac - at home - endured a heartbreaking loss to Robert Morris in the NEC final, 52-50, in one of the ugliest games you'll ever see.
However, while Mike Rice (after taking Villanova to overtime in the ensuing NCAA Tournament) left for the big-time of Rutgers (all together now, "Booo"), Moore stayed and appeared to have a loaded team heading into last season. It never really panned out, though, an injury to NEC Player of the Year Justin Rutty left them foundering, and despite a 13-5 NEC record and Rutty's eventual return, it all ended again at the hands of Robert Morris in the NEC semifinals.
Moore has signed a new contract, but expectations are a little lower at QU this season. Rutty and others graduated, and the Bobcats were picked fifth in the NEC preseason poll (behind Long Island, Robert Morris, Central Connecticut, and Danny Hurley-led Wagner) Two of their best players - James Johnson and Ike Azotem - were arrested in the off-season for their role in a fight, and Johnson was suspended for the season-opener, in which Quinnipiac was handled rather easily by Fairfield.
On this night, though, Quinnipiac showed off the stifling, physical defense that has made them so successful under Moore, and the neighboring Ivy Leaguers had no real answer as the Bobcats opened their home schedule with an impressive 68-62 win. Ironically, Yale has still never beaten Quinnipiac (four meetings). Johnson played extremely well in the second half, finishing with 25 points, while Azotem added 17 points and 18 rebounds. QU won the battle of the boards, 54-41. The game featured a whopping 57 fouls, but that's the type of game that Quinnipiac and Moore like to play.
Yale is hoping to return to the Big Dance since 1962 (if they can get Tommy Amaker and Harvard out of the way), but they'll have to play much better than they did tonight. Coach James Jones used a lot of players, but his best - senior Greg Mangano, who played for the U.S. in the World University Games this summer - managed only one field goal and five points, and many of the others were just not prepared to deal with Quinnipiac's strength inside.
Tom Moore and his staff (which includes former UConn standout Scott Burrell) still appear to have their work cut out for them. But there's always hope in a conference like the NEC: get hot at the right time, get a break or two, a dollar and a dream as it were.
And so much better than a wretched stretch from 1995-98 when Division II Quinnipiac went a combined 14-65, 8-46 in the mighty Northeast-10 Conference.
Indeed, if you build it (and you spend $52 million on it), they will come.
And, if they don't come, you'll at least have heard of Quinnipiac University. Mission accomplished.