Kansas, Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky. It was sort of like a Final Four, given the teams and the coaches and the blur of McDonalds and Parade All-Americans who for some reason chose not to attend Georgia or Georgia Tech.
Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas. (Sounds great in any order, doesn’t it?) It was sort of like a Final Four, except without the deciding third game and the fact that it’s November, not April, and that probably not enough people in Atlanta were really paying attention.
Despite the marquee value of the teams, coaches and players, this “Champions Classic” didn’t create significant buzz on the Atlanta sports landscape in the past few days, smothered by all things Bulldogs, Falcons and … well, did you see that David Ross signed with the Red Sox?
What’s it going to take for college basketball to be picked up on local radar?
“It would certainly help if Tech and Georgia were on more of a national scale,” said former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who was among those in attendance Tuesday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Dome’s basketball setup was near filled (close to 30,000 fans). Fortunately, Kentucky would bring half the state’s population with the team even if it was playing a game on the east coast of Bulgaria.
The first game was a treat: Michigan State 67, Kansas 64. A great, left-handed dribble drive by guard Keith Appling in the final seconds sealed the win for the Spartans.
“Let’s make this short and sweet so I can go watch the other great game,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, alluding to Kentucky-Duke.
Five months from now, the Georgia Dome will host the Final Four. The odds favor at least one of these teams coming back here. When asked if this being the host venue that will cap March Madness had come up at all during preparations for Tuesday night’s game, Izzo laughed.
“That would be getting a little bit ahead of us right now,” he said. “We have to crawl before we walk. Some years I’ve used that [as motivation], but not this year.”
This fledgling tournament brought together the champions from four of the nation’s premier college basketball programs, led by four of the sport’s marquee coaches (Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Izzo, Bill Self). This is as good as college basketball gets, at least until the conference and NCAA tournaments. Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Kansas have combined for 19 national championships and 52 Final Four appearances.
Maybe Georgia and Georgia Tech never get to that level. OK, almost certainly Georgia and Georgia Tech never get to that level. But is it so outrageous to think college basketball can matter in Atlanta?
Dick Vitale, ESPN’s longtime college hoops analyst, agreed, saying: “It depends what Georgia Tech and Georgia do. That plays a great role. It’s a phenomenal city to host a tournament. The restaurants, the hotels, the airport — they have all the parts. But you’ve got to keep the players (in state). For there to become basketball mania here like in other places, you have to win big. And when you win big, that’s when you get those players.”
Imagine if the impact if the Bulldogs or Yellow Jackets landed players such as Appling. He made a 3-point shot with a minute remaining to give Michigan State a 65-61 lead. He turned the ball over the next time down the court, but made amends with his late-game heroics.
“Very, very well-coached,” Izzo cracked. “First time this year Keith listened to me. The left-hand layup was superb.”
These are the elite of college hoops. Conversely, Georgia’s most recent NCAA tournament win came in 2002, and the program has won two tournament games since reaching the regional semifinals in 1996. Tech has won two tournament games in the past eight years. Georgia State has one NCAA tourney win in its history (2001). Everybody else in the state — bupkis.
Maybe some day it will turn.
Maybe one day it won’t take an all-blue-clad crowd to fill a venue like this.
By Jeff Schultz
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (a few recent blogs)