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College Basketball Exhibitions


By Kristi Chartrand

November 16th, 2004


College Basketball Exhibitions: No Longer Open Season


November is the time when college basketball season finally begins. It’s also the time when top teams tune up against exhibition opponents.


Chances are your favorite team’s preseason schedule looks decidedly different this year. Where are the Marathon Oils, Athletes in Action, Nike Elite, and EA Sports teams who typically tour the country?


Those names are now obsolete in college basketball thanks to an NCAA rule change adopted back in April. Division I schools can no longer compete against non-collegiate competition.


In fact, a travel team appeared on this season’s tilt only if a binding contract existed prior to October 21, 2003 (like Georgia Tech and VA Tech who both played EA Sports).

So what made the NCAA take such a stern look, at what appeared to be, meaningless games?


The AAU ties for one. Certain club teams had connections with coaches who were affiliated with some of the nation’s top prep talent. Several coaches claimed they felt pressure to schedule these teams or lose ground recruiting.


There’s no doubt one incident which became extremely public last season, sped up the legislation process.


The controversy ensued when UCONN scheduled a makeshift travel team called the Beltway Ballers. The Ballers took a 102-44 pounding, but the center of controversy swirled around McDonald’s All-American Rudy Gay’s recruitment. Gay’s AAU team was sponsored by the same group that owned the Ballers.


The Baltimore club team received $25,000 just for showing up in Storrs. Maryland Head Coach Gary Williams, who was also recruiting Gay, turned down a chance to play the Ballers. Williams was quick to imply that the game was scheduled to secure Gay’s commitment to the Huskies.


The Terp’s coach was quoted as saying, “we could’ve scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 dollars like some schools I know.”


Though UCONN was guilty of no wrongdoing (according to the rules), the riff between Calhoun and Williams became public.


But was it a case of sour grapes from Williams or was this a legitimate concern?


It wasn’t easy for the Maryland coach to watch such a gifted athlete walk out of his backyard and into a Connecticut uniform. 


But were coaches buying exhibitions or buying recruiting relationships? A question the NCAA answered by eliminating the notion of impropriety. The exhibitions were soon history.


Some coaches will claim this practice was not a prominent part of the college basketball landscape. However, most will agree that even if it happened once, it’s worth fixing. We all know it happened more often then that.


The majority of Division I coaches were unfazed by the ruling and considered it a plus. Conversely, others thought the competition had been downgraded and scheduled closed door scrimmages against other Division I schools.


In May, Kansas’s Bill Self was one coach who provided his stamp of approval.   "I am all for playing exhibition games against four-year institutions," Self said. "I think this is a great exhibition game. From their perspective, they (in-state Division Two schools) would rather play them as exhibition games rather than regular season, too, because they don't count on your won-loss record."


Scheduling Division II opponents is nothing new for the Kansas Jayhawks. Since 1992, KU has played two in-state opponents during each regular season. The goal in mind was to help bolster the budgets of their in-state buddies.  


The tradition will continue at KU when the Jayhawks play a duo of DII schools in each exhibition season. Four state schools exist so each school will travel to Lawrence every other year. This year the honor belonged to Emporia State and Washburn. Next year Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State take a turn. The $20-$25,000 each school receives to play these games goes a long way in helping to finance each school’s athletic program. More Division II schools will reap those benefits thanks to the new legislation.


Conflict of interest and possible recruiting issues were not the only reasons coaches were happy to make the change. At times, the club teams were disjointed and seemingly could’ve found 5 players from the stands and been more competitive. Other times the competition was very stern (like the Harlem Globetrotters). Regardless, teams have a much better chance of playing a well-organized squad that plays together.


At Illinois Head Coach Bruce Weber’s Fighting Illini disposed of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 78-58 in their exhibition-opener. The 2nd year coach gave Division II exhibition games his stamp of approval.


“The teams we’re playing now at least have a team concept and have been together for a certain amount of time”, said Weber. “They can control tempo to a certain degree and give you some different looks that help you prepare a little better for the regular season.”


Set offenses and set styles; two other elements Division I coaches looked forward to from their Division II foes. The exhibition season is coming to a close and the jury is still out, but most coaches have already reached their verdict.


These were Head Coach Mike Brey’s comments after his Notre Dame team defeated St. Joseph’s Indiana in an exhibition game 80-67. "I like the new rule having to play college teams (in exhibitions)," said Brey. "It was great for us. We had to prepare against a difficult system. They played hard. I don't know if we'll play against a team who changes ends as hard as they do."


High praise from a coach who’s team could contend for a Big East title this year. Maryland Head Coach Gary Williams backed up the notion that these exhibition opponents can certainly alert coaches to potential trouble spots. The Terps trailed Bryant College at the half, but won 100-85.


“You find out what you need to find out. I was concerned if there was a blowout, we wouldn’t find some things out,” said Williams. “But the way Bryant hung with us certainly gave us a chance to see some things, and one is that we’re not playing good enough defense.”

While Division I coaches attempted to dissect their problems, their DII foes relished the opportunity.


Do DII and III schools lack the athleticism, size, and depth of their Division I counterparts? In most cases the answer to that question would be a resounding – Yes. They’re willing to take the beating because it’s not about a margin of victory. It’s about the financial lift given to their athletic programs and the experience of a lifetime provided for the players. 


Take for example Kentucky Wesleyan who has won 8 national championships. But arguably, the program’s most unbelievable 7-day span came when they took on Kentucky and Louisville in exhibition contests.  It’s more then an exhibition game to these teams.


Like Kansas, some Division I schools attempt to keep the finances at home by playing and paying their DII neighbors. Penn State paid Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference member East Stroudsburg University $5,000 to come to the Bryce Jordan Center and find out how they stacked up against the Nittany Lions.


Again, as ESU Head Coach Jeff Wilson will reiterate, it’s not about a final score but the unparalleled experience his players were a part of.


“It was an experience that no one else in our program’s had. We got to play in a Division I Big Ten arena and see where our team is at”, said Wilson. “It was a great experience for our kids to compete against athletes of that caliber and in that kind of atmosphere.”  


Wilson chose to play Warrior-style basketball against their formidable Big Ten foe. The result was an 87-46 loss, but it was not a wasted trip for ESU.


“The question is do you play your style or do you walk it up? Our style is to run and press” said Wilson, who was also an assistant coach at the Division I level at Lehigh.  “We chose to play our style and that’s to run and press. A lot of teams might have chosen to have a better chance at winning by walking it up and using the 35-second shot clock. We decided to press to see what we could do against their team.”


According to Wilson, the games are a no-lose proposition. “No negatives come out of these games as long as everyone’s healthy. Our guys came out of it healthy, their guys are healthy. There are no negatives.”


The Warriors, like many other Division II and III teams, would like to make these games an annual occurrence.


“I don’t know if we’d play two games like this but I’d definitely like to play one every year”, said Wilson. “Maybe play one Big Ten team and one lower level Division I team to see where we’re at.”


So that leaves my assessment of the situation. I think the travel team impact on recruiting was overrated. I don’t believe these games made the difference as to whether a team landed a talented prep star. However, I think arm-twisting occurred with the potential for more. I just don’t believe it actually mattered much in the final outcome. That being said I love the rule change, and anything that attempts to clean up college hoops is a good thing. 


The highlight of the rule is the big boys are able to give back to the little guys financially. The cash flow isn’t the same in Division I, II, and III. A guaranteed payout is a huge boost to any athletic program. This has to be a lift in for their recruiting too. I’m sure there are a bunch of travel team coaches and organizers who don’t share my enthusiasm. They can thank the few bad seeds for costing them these opportunities. Bottom line is that’s not what matters most in this equation. Club coaches can no longer manipulate the system.


All DI coaches aren’t convinced the “new” competition is up to par. I’m convinced it’s a step above most of the travel teams that showed up. Collegiate teams run a system with set plays, they’ve played together for a longer period of time, and they will certainly bring their best effort. Ask Kansas if Washburn was decent competition, ask Maryland about Bryant. The margin of victory in these games was not as wide as you might’ve thought


What an opportunity for the kids to play in a Division I arena, against elite competition to find out how they stack up! In my mind with this new rule everybody wins. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just schedule these games before.


Learn more about the author Kristi Chartrand and how to contact her here.

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