Most worthwhile college basketball rivalries germinate on the court: two successful and/or evenly matched opponents playing each other on a regular basis where familiarity breeds contempt. Defeating your rival generates particular and peculiar pride for both players and fan bases alike. Coaches uniformly downplay the importance of such matchups as "just another game," but deep down they know better, because they know boosters feel differently. Rivalry games are circled on calendars, and coming out on top simply matters more.
Geography often plays a role in a rivalry. While conference foes (in normal-sized conferences) typically lock horns at least twice a year, non-conference rivalries can stem from a local school suffering from a inferiority/superiority complex which translates into a passion to win. Wanting to be the best team in a region or state requires having to defeat the other schools within those borders, which inevitably adds to the importance of those contests. Indeed, many diehards link the success of a school's season to how well they compete solely against their rivals. It's an inaccurate litmus test, to be sure, but it's undeniable evidence of how important those games are to those that care about such things.
The America East Conference is comprised of nine institutions sprawled over seven states, with only New York housing more than one. As such, outside the Empire State, the conference is simply unable to generate any intrastate conference rivalries. Further, the landscape and participating members of this conference (like many others) has changed enough over the years that the schools, for the most part, are not entirely familiar with one another.
To better analyze the lack of real rivalries in the AE, let's take a closer look at the host of our game this evening, the Vermont Catamounts. The obstacles facing Vermont in this regard are not unique, and can be easily exported to the conference's other member institutions.
Vermont has been a participant in the current conference (despite the conference's numerous name and membership changes) for several decades. In those years, there have been some common opponents who have managed to stick around, among them the University of New Hampshire Wildcats and the University of Maine Black Bears. At first glance, these two schools appear to be in the best position to foster a rivalry with Vermont. Geographically, they are all in northern New England, and each identifies as their respective state's primary public institution of higher education.
The problem, however, is that at no point in the histories of these three schools have any two of them been competitive at the same time for a measurable length of time. Indeed, until the past eight years or so (for UVM), all these schools have been middle-of-the-pack or bottom feeders regardless of how the conference happened to be comprised at that point in time. Neither Maine nor New Hampshire has ever even been a legitimate threat to make the NCAA tournament. It is understandably difficult to create a rivalry when so little is at stake on the court. The aspiration to get the fifth seed in the upcoming conference tournament is generally inadequate motivation to transform a regular conference game into a rivalry. It is likely why none of these three schools considers any of the other a true rival.
Geography and lack of history are enormous obstacles for UVM when it comes to generating a rivalry against either the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers or the Stony Brook Seawolves. UMBC and Stony Brook joined the America East conference within the past decade, so there is no longstanding animosity whatsoever. Further, the distance between the northern New England schools and Maryland/Long Island is vast enough that most of the fan bases have never even set foot on the campus of the other. In other words, it's unlikely some prankster from UMBC is going to steal the uniform of Rally the Catamount. While UMBC and Stony Brook have each garnered some success in the conference (one NCAA berth and NIT berth, respectively, more than either Maine or New Hampshire has ever accomplished), there have been as many downs (3 wins for UMBC this season thus far) as ups, and no indication that either school has an idea of what is required to sustain success.
There is an implied understanding that the other schools in the America East would like to separate themselves from Binghamton University as much as possible, rather than foster a rivalry. Binghamton had one year -- one well-publicized, fraudulent year -- of basketball success. It has been paying for its ticket to the dance ever since. The last thing that UVM, or any school in the America East wants, is to stake claim to the fact that Binghamton is its chief rival.
The University of Hartford is geographically closer to Vermont, et al., than some of the other conference affiliates, and the Hawks have been a bit more consistent over a longer period of time than the aforementioned programs. Unfortunately, the type of consistency they've experienced is not necessarily a good thing. Absolutely no history of winning (zero NCAA appearances, even during the Vin Baker era) or, frankly, sustained competitiveness. Hartford is also a private institution, located in a major metropolitan area, which economically puts it on a distinct footing with the public schools in the conference. Of course, to date, Hartford has yet to exploit this potential recruiting advantage. In short, when Hartford comes to town, fans go to the movies.
Boston University resembles Hartford in that it is private and in a true New England city. Its status as a potential UVM rival is somewhat warmer than Hartford, however, in light of the fact that it has been in (at least) the top half of the conference -- not to mention the perennial pre-season favorite -- for a number of years. Even when the conference had schools which regularly buried the likes of the UVM, UNH and Maine (such as Drexel or Hofstra), BU could always put up a fight. They did regularly seem to recruit like a school could/should in Boston, and the talent to make a run for the conference title is seemingly on its roster each season.
Nevertheless, if the city of Boston fosters BU's competitive strength, it also plays a role BU's weakness as a rival. In short, college sports get second billing in Boston and, in the case of BU basketball, 14th billing. Outside of a few very loyal fans (Jesus and Hot Dog immediately come to mind), the Boston University community and the city's residents do not seem to really embrace BU basketball. In fact, they don't care about it at all. Despite having one of the premier facilities in the northeast, attendance is pathetically low, and passion for the team is virtually non-existent. If having a rivalry means as much to the fans as it does to the players, then don't you need opposing fans to have a rivalry? In this regard, BU falls way, way short.
Outside the conference, UVM has been unable to garner any annual rivalries of note. Geographically, Dartmouth makes the most sense, but the traditional lack of stakes and competitiveness has made this a game more of scheduling convenience than anything else. There's also the annual preseason game with crosstown "opponent" St. Michael's College. This is essentially a no-win contest for the Catamounts; either defeat the lower division team soundly as it should, or raise eyebrows and question marks in light of a close game or -- it has happened -- a loss. But how much importance can really be placed in a preseason game? The fact that it's a hot ticket is more a reflection of the lack of an alternative rival each team has than the prospect of establishing a true rivalry itself.
That brings us to UVM's opponent this evening, the University of Albany Great Danes, the only conference opponent not easily dismissed as a rival. Geographically, the schools are relatively close (approximately 150 miles). Since its inclusion in the America East, Albany has enjoyed substantially more success than its cohorts and has, for the most part, remained relevant in the competitive balance of the conference. Furthermore, and quite significantly, Albany fans travel well and root for the Danes. That sort of passionate fanbase breeds contempt from opposing fans, particularly when you see it on your home floor. Plus, cats and dogs are natural rivals, so there's that.
This "rivalry" may have sparked in 2007, when the Catamounts and Danes battled for the America East crown at Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium (least intimidating facility name in the world), and Albany came away with a heartbreaking (if you're a Catamount fan) one-point win. Even though Jamar Wilson deserved that win, losing to Albany has just not sat right with Catamount fans since that game. "Celebrate on our floor?" The nerve. "I hate that team." The anger. "Can't wait to play them again." The rivalry.
Unfortunately, this is simply a one-sided look at how the rivalry has emerged, and odds are it is not entirely reciprocated. The biggest challenge in establishing this possible rivalry is that Albany already has a very real one of its own, with the extremely proximate Siena Saints. Even though it's a non-conference game, it is played annually, and that game matters as much (if not more) to the Albany faithful than any conference tilt. It is a true rivalry game that every other team in the America East conference longs to enjoy. Which is why, perhaps, fans of other schools lacking such an opponent feel the need to manufacture such things. Hey, at least I'm self-aware enough to know that's exactly what I'm doing.
The big rivalry game tonight took on added importance, as both teams came in with conference records of 4-2, and wanted to cement its position as contender for the conference's crown and automatic NCAA berth which, more and more inevitably, appears to be a round-trip ticket to Dayton. The added draw (as if the big rivalry game needed more!) was a first opportunity to see Gerardo Suero in person, Albany's ultra-dynamic offense threat, who came into the contest fourth in the nation in scoring.
The game itself was as entertaining as an America East conference game can get, with loads of offensive execution, plenty of lead changes (18 in all), and an outcome decided in the game's final minute. Surprisingly, the Vermont student section made its presence known, a rarity in Burlington. The Catamounts clearly enjoyed the energy generated by the pep band and students, and locked down defensively in the final minutes to hold serve at home, 73-69. The "good" Matt Glass showed up tonight for UVM, hitting clutch shots when needed. And Brendan Bald and Brian Voelkel combined to "hold" Suero to about six points below his season average, although Suero displayed a combination of speed and ability you rarely see in the America East.
Ultimately, both teams demonstrated that they'll likely be in the mix for the conference title come season's end. Perhaps, if things break right, the rivalry can grow with another head-to-head battle for the crown. If not, Vermont will have to continue to settle for being a second-fiddle rival to Albany. Manufactured? Perhaps, but we'll take it. After all, there's nothing better than a rivalry game.
at VERMONT 73, ALBANY 69 01/19/2012
ALBANY 12-9 (4-3) -- M. Black 5-9 3-3 14; L. Aronhalt 4-13 2-3 12; G. Suero 7-14 2-2 16; B. Metcalf 4-5 0-0 8; L. Devlin 4-7 0-2 10; R. Watts 0-2 0-0 0; J. Guerrier 4-6 0-0 9; J. Puk 0-0 0-0 0; T. Gibson 0-0 0-0 0; S. Rowley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-56 7-10 69. VERMONT 11-10 (5-2) -- S. Carissimo 2-5 0-0 5; L. Apfeld 4-7 2-3 10; F. McGlynn 2-6 3-4 9; B. Bald 5-12 0-0 12; B. Voelkel 2-5 0-0 6; M. Glass 6-11 2-2 16; C. Rugg 4-4 3-4 11; J. Elbaum 0-2 0-0 0; B. Crenca 1-2 0-0 2; P. Bergmann 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-56 10-13 73.
Three-point goals: ALB 6-20 (L. Aronhalt 2-5; M. Black 1-4; R. Watts 0-2; J. Guerrier 1-2; L. Devlin 2-4; G. Suero 0-3), UVM 9-18 (M. Glass 2-4; L. Apfeld 0-1; B. Bald 2-5; S. Carissimo 1-3; B. Voelkel 2-2; F. McGlynn 2-3); Rebounds: ALB 28 (L. Devlin 9), UVM 27 (M. Glass 5); Assists: ALB 11 (M. Black 3), UVM 14 (S. Carissimo 5); Total Fouls -- ALB 14, UVM 15; Fouled Out: ALB-None; UVM-None.