Game #9-043: Norfolk State vs. Loyola (Md.) GreyhoundsNovember 17, 2012 12:00 pm
UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Sometimes in life, you take a look around and things just don't make a whole lot of sense.
Seeing Loyola of Maryland and Jimmy Patsos and Norfolk St. together warming up for a game on a Saturday morning in a near-empty cavernous arena in my home state of Connecticut did not really compute. In the middle of a casino, no less.
But there they were. And there I was.
The story of how we got there actually goes all the way back to 1979, when the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic began in Springfield, Mass. because, well, the Hall of Fame was there. It ran until 2005, when scheduling changes by the NCAA and the proliferation of other preseason tournaments in much more exotic locales that Springfield led to its death.
Five years later, though, it was back. And it was a disaster. A ticket snafu, an ability to get only seven Division I teams, and UMass not being on the level it was in the past led to putrid crowds in 2010.
The Hall of Fame decided to best way to save the tournament was to move it 70 miles southeast to the Mohegan Sun Arena
, attached to the Mohegan Sun Casino
. Like many things involved in college athletics lately (see: conference realignment), it made perfect economic sense: the Mohegan Sun had a relatively new arena that seats 12,000 and the country's second largest casino (slightly misleading, both of them are in Connecticut because they are the only ones in the state).
The Mohegan Sun opened in 1996, taking advantage of being on technically Native American land and has expanded ever since. It offers sweet deals to promoters of big events because it will do anything to draw people to its casino, where they will in turn spend money. Lots of money. All you have to do is take one tour of the place and you can see how much cash is circulating at any given time.
Scary stuff for someone of modest income like myself, but money talks, as we know all too well. It even talks in high school athletics. Connecticut used to hold its high school basketball championships at Central Connecticut and Hartford, but they were too small. They tried Gampel Pavillion in Storrs, but UConn was charging big bucks to rent their facility and Mohegan Sun was basically offering theirs for free. An agreement was reached whereas the student-athletes would be brought in a different entrance so they wouldn't actually see the casino floor. Really.
So the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic moved to Uncasville, Conn. last season and attendance mysteriously skyrocketed when John Calipari and Kentucky showed up last year. Heard they did all right last season, although I checked out after Ohio lost in the Sweet 16.
But who I am to wax sacrosanct when it's not my money? And so here we are. As the game tipped off, a guy behind me with a toddler was on a cell phone, telling someone, "Look, I dropped him off at the babysitting for about 90 minutes while I played some craps and now I'm at the basketball game, OK?"
I think the "OK" was secrectly meant for me as well.
It also made me a little bit sad to see such a small crowd for a game I was really looking forward to. We know about Patsos, but I was probably more excited to see Anthony Evans and Norfolk St. The Spartans were not only coming off an NCAA Tournament victory, but beat up Rhode Island in their opener, and - judging by their ambitious non-conference scheduling - think they might be reloading this season.
That, and the fact that it would be the first time in forever I would be seeing an HBUC school in person (I saw Coppin St. in the NCAA Tournament 15 years ago), and I was fired up.
My seats were next to the Loyola bench, and the mother and son behind me - like most at Mohegan Sun - were there to see the later games, featuring Ohio State. I'm sorry, The Ohio State. Anyway, I gave them a quick preview that both teams were in the NCAA Tournament last season, Norfolk St. pulled an all-time shocker over Missouri and this Patsos guy was just nuts.
It took Patsos a while to get going, but he's still Jimmy. At one point, he grabbed talented freshman Tyler Hubbard after he hit a three-pointer and Hubbard didn't know whether to pull away or embrace him. Instead, he looked terrified.
Later, he got in the face of an official and screamed at him for a good five or six seconds before going back to the huddle. When he left, the official in question was trying to hide it, but he was visibly laughing at whatever Patsos had told him.
As the second half started and Loyola got beat to a loose ball, Patsos stormed down the bench and yelled, "That's a dive on the floor. At every level." Only no one really knew who he was talking to? Some Loyola fans in the first couple of rows? Someone on the end of the bench? A newspaper reporter behind the basket? Me? Himself? Probably the latter in retrospect.
At one point, the kid behind me said what we all knew, "That guy's nuts. He's been going off on the same guy for like five minutes. And he's winning. I don't know how they deal with that the whole game."
The mom retorted, "Sounds a lot like your coach. How do you deal with it?"
"I just ignore it."
"Well, there you go."
Something else hasn't changed much around Loyola this season and that's the stifling defense that led them to the MAAC title last March. Norfolk St. scored 16 points in the game's first 10 minutes, but would get only 33 the rest of the way; a host of contested shots and forcing opposing plays so far off course that they became unrecognizable.
As Loyola opened up a 13-point halftime lead and kept a fairly comfortable margin throughout the second half, the body language of Evans juxtaposed against Patsos on the other bench was striking. Evans rarely raised his voice and stayed crouched in front of his team for most of the game. His expression almost never changed, whether things went wrong or right. He got the most fired up when the Spartans made a mini-run to get within seven early in the second half, but that was about it. From behind the other bench, I heard his voice only a handful of times.
Despite a serious roster turnover (Pendarvis Williams is the only player returning that saw meaningful minutes against Missouri last March), Norfolk St. still showed glimpses of a team that might be able to return to the NCAA Tournament out of the MEAC. Freshman Rashid Gaston and seven-foot junior Brandon Goode give the Spartans an inside presence not many teams are their level can match, and the schedule (at Illinois, NC State, and Iona still to come) should have them prepared.
The game ended fairly quickly without any late-game fouling, so with some time to kill, I walked about 50 feet from the arena, I sat down at a blackjack table. I made it back for the next game $80 richer.
Mashantucket Pequot Nation. What a country.
Should gambling and college athletics be that closely mixed? Isn't that asking for trouble, especially for people with an inclination to have a gambling problem?
There are battles to fight in this world. For me, this isn't one of them. That ship has sailed. I'm just going to enjoy the basketball the rest of the weekend. LOYOLA (MD.) 65, NORFOLK STATE 49
NORFOLK STATE 2-2 (0-0) -- P. Williams 5-12 2-2 14; M. Hawkins 4-9 2-3 12; R. Gaston 5-9 1-4 11; K. Brown 0-3 0-0 0; B. Goode 3-5 0-0 6; A. Rogers 1-2 0-0 2; K. Lila-St. Rose 1-7 2-2 4; J. Weathers 0-1 0-0 0; R. Johnson 0-3 0-0 0; Z. Estime 0-0 0-0 0; R. Maye 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 19-53 7-11 49.
LOYOLA (MD.) 3-1 (0-0) -- D. Cormier 7-11 5-7 19; E. Etherly 4-13 4-6 12; R. Olson 4-9 0-0 11; A. Winbush 1-4 0-0 2; J. Latham 2-4 0-0 4; J. Brooks 2-3 0-0 4; T. Hubbard 3-6 2-2 11; J. Jones 0-0 2-2 2; F. Rassman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-50 13-17 65.
Three-point goals: NORF 4-9 (M. Hawkins 2-3; P. Williams 2-5; K. Lila-St. Rose 0-1), LMD 6-13 (R. Olson 3-7; D. Cormier 0-1; T. Hubbard 3-5); Rebounds: NORF 30 (R. Gaston 8), LMD 24 (E. Etherly 9); Assists: NORF 7 (M. Hawkins 3), LMD 12 (R. Olson 3); Total Fouls -- NORF 15, LMD 9; Fouled Out: NORF-None; LMD-None.