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Purple Aces

December 14, 2008

First off, I finally saw the end of season one of Celebrity Championship Wrestling. That series was quite enjoyable, and hopefully it helped people to understand just how difficult it is to be a professional wrestler. It's much, much, much harder than most people realize. My one complaint was Dennis Rodman being declared the winner; for my money, Todd Bridges (of Diff'rent Strokes fame) was the best of the bunch.

Last night was a rare occasion for me: an opportunity to watch the Evansville men's basketball team on television here in the Nashville market. The reason? Western Kentucky was the opponent, and they apparently have a deal with Fox Sports to have their games televised. It was buried on DirecTV channel 617, and the tip-off went head-to-head with the Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN, but it was still a chance to see my alma mater in action.

The Aces haven't made the postseason since the 1998-1999 season, which happened to be my senior year of college. They made the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection and lost to Kansas in New Orleans. Had they won, they would have played Kentucky... for the first time ever. More on that in a bit.

In a very strange move, the Western Kentucky game on FCS Atlantic had WKU-biased announcers. I soon discovered that the game was on television but that they had the Western Kentucky radio team doing the always-tough radio/TV combo. It kind of reminded me of watching Cubs or White Sox games on WGN where the announcers were opening rooting for the Chicago team, but it was stranger than that with the game being on the usually neutral Fox Sports.

It wasn't just that the WKU announcers were pro-Hilltoppers, but they were a bit insulting toward Evansville. They made fun of Aces second-year coach (and former star player) Marty Simmons saying he has "put on a few pounds since his playing days". That wasn't necessary. The crew whined about their broadcast location at Roberts Stadium (which is actually a basketball arena and not a traditional stadium that you think of for baseball or football), noting that they were very far away from the court. I announced many basketball games from that arena on WUEV and, on that one, they had a point since it's not particularly a great vantagepoint. They then knocked UE by pointing out that there were plenty of empty seats in front of them. "It's a late-arriving crowd" deadpanned the PBP guy.

Luckily Evansville brought its A game, and as the Aces expanded their lead more and more the smart remarks and quips quickly ended. The best way to shut someone up is to kick their ass. As the Iron Sheik would say: "Break your back and make you humble!" The Aces controlled it in a runaway, winning 72-40. Evansville is now 8-1 (really 9-1 if you count UE vs. USI in the battle of Evansville, though embarrassingly that went to double OT). The only loss was at Butler, which has developed into a very strong program since the days when they and Evansville used to play in the MCC.

So far so good, right? Unfortunately, the fun ends on Thursday 12/18 when Evansville plays at #1 North Carolina. That game will air live on ESPN, which is great exposure for the UE basketball program. I'm pleased to see that the Aces are making a move to get some decent non-conference competition on the schedule. The deal with North Carolina is a 2-for-1, with the Tar Heels coming to Evansville in 2010 and UE returning to Chapel Hill in 2011. See, it can be done!

Back in the 1990s, before and during my time at the school, Evansville used to play many major conference schools in basketball. Then, strangely, early in this decade the non-conference schedule began to get very soft. VERY soft. It's hard to sell season tickets without a big home game on the schedule, and even if it meant doing 3-for-2 or 2-for-1 or even 3-for-1 deals with major schools, in my estimation it would be worth it for the exposure, PR, and schedule strengthing involved. Evansville is a much better sell in my opinion with top-name competition on the schedule, even if that's at the expense of an extra home game or two in the schedule.

Maybe I'm just naive about the ability of mid-majors to get deals in place with major conference schools, and I don't write this in criticism as much as I do in mild bewilderment. Evansville was able to get big-name opponents even when it was in the MCC and in the early days of the MVC, right up until the point that the MVC became arguably the most exciting of the mid-majors come tournament time around the start of this decade.

And, yes, I realize that Jim Crews had a strong connection with Bobby Knight which helped get Indiana on the schedule, and perhaps other teams as well. Again, maybe I'm just ignorant about how tough it is to book games, but the change seems strange to me.

One advantage Evansville has is that they are geographically well-positioned to allow for easy travel to play big-time teams, with a host of great college basketball programs within a 5 hour drive. Consider the possibilities of both major and mid-major competition in close driving range:

Purdue - West Lafayette, IN (207 miles)
Indiana - Bloomington, IN (135 miles)
Kentucky - Lexington, KY (194 miles)
Louisville - Louisville, KY (118 miles)
Vanderbilt - Nashville, TN (151 miles)
Illinois - Champagne, IL (204 miles)
Memphis - Memphis, TN (324 miles but with routing could be viable)
Cincinnati - Cincinnati, OH (216 miles)
Xavier - Cincinnati, OH (216 miles)
St. Louis - St. Louis, MO (170 miles)

I could go on, but you get the idea. It saddens me that Evansville and Kentucky have never met in men's basketball. It almost happened in 1999 in the NCAA tournament, but no dice there. But, really, it shouldn't come down to that for that matchup to happen.

What I know is this: the Aces are playing well, they have a chance to upset the #1 team in the country on national television on Thursday night, and the program looks as good as it has in years. Plus they have a player in Shy Ely who is both a great player and who also has one of the greatest names in college sports. And all of that, for me, is reason to cheer.

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