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Ben Smith

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Basketball’s king for at least a day

“Indianapolis knows how to do basketball.”

Mike Brey

Like a politician does hyperbole, it knows how.

And so, last December, Indiana came and Purdue came and Notre Dame and Butler, too – Butler, surely, because getting these four together was an idea that went all the way back to Tony Hinkle himself – and they played something called the Crossroads Classic. And again, Indianapolis did the hoops thing up right.

Nineteen-thousand people showed, a full house in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Everybody whooped. Everybody hollered. The whole thing was a celebration of basketball in the basketball state, an acknowledgment that even four such diverse hoops legacies could find common ground in soil as rich as this.

“It got to be a little bit of a Final Four flavor that afternoon down there,” Brey, Notre Dame’s basketball coach, remembered Thursday, with Crossroads Classic II coming up Saturday.

And then: “It was beautiful last year, sold out, fans rooting for their team, rooting against the other team. The energy in the building was great. It’s a heck of an event.”

And, maybe, given the backdrop against which it unfurls, a bit of a throwback.

Here’s the thing: You put four programs, each storied in its own way, on a national stage in a place where basketball is a hallowed thing, you maybe get a sense for what used to be instead of what is these days. Football, and football money, overwhelms everything now in college athletics, to either the exclusion or diminishment of all else. It drives every decision, dictates every term, even bends geography to its will.

That includes basketball. And basketball’s fed up.

Maybe you missed it, but in the same week when Brey was rhapsodizing about the Crossroads Classic, a seismic event was happening in what used to be the Big East. The presidents of seven non-FBS, tradition-rich basketball schools – Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Villanova – met to decide whether enough was enough. Likely next step: secession.

At issue is the fact that the Big East, conceived as a premier hoops entity, has decided there’s more loot in becoming a pedestrian football conference. And so it’s adding basketball nonentities such as Tulane and Boise State and Navy and SMU, among others.

No thanks, the Hoops Seven seem to be saying. And that makes you wonder if there’ll be similar rifts in other conferences making similar football-driven moves, and if that won’t relegate college basketball to something akin to its own planet.

For Brey’s part, Notre Dame’s move to the ACC might have been for football reasons, too, but it’s hardly a bad deal for hoops. Nonetheless, he mourns what he sees out there.

“The month leading up to us making the decision to go to the ACC, I had very mixed emotions, because our identity and my identity has been with the Big East, and I’m really proud of being a Big East guy,” he said Thursday. “To see that league maybe really breaking off; … I think it’s hard for anybody who invested a lot of time in the league.”

Maybe that’s part of why he’d like to see the Crossroads Classic carry on past the next two seasons, despite Notre Dame’s jump to the ACC.

“I don’t see any reason why, even though we’re going to change leagues, we wouldn’t want to keep this thing going,” he says.

Especially now.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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