Washington Politics: Negotiating a Capital Area Basketball Tournament

Rachel EstabrookContributor IAugust 26, 2009

ATLANTA - MARCH 14:  Spalding basketball on the court during the Duke Blue Devils game against the Maryland Terrapins during the semifinals of the 2009 ACC Men's Basketball Tournament on March 14, 2009 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Universities in the Washington, D.C., area are generally not known for their football prowess.  So next week when much of the country fires up pigskin-themed barbecues, fans inside the Beltway may be tuning in to other sports. 

Soccer will surely be among them, with three schools in the city ranking in Soccer America Magazine's NCAA men’s preseason top 25. One is George Mason, which will host the annual DC College Cup from September 2-5. 

The round-robin style tournament pits the Patriots against American, George Washington, and Howard, setting up matches between some of the better teams in college soccer and raising the profile of the sport in the city. It also builds regional pride and rivalries among local schools.

But the city’s biggest draw in collegiate sports is undoubtedly basketball.  This begs the question: why does Washington not have a showcase for hoops like the DC College Cup? 

Over more than 50 years, Philadelphia has perfected this concept with its round-robin style Big 5 tournament. The Big 5 schools (Villanova, Temple, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, and the University of Pennsylvania) play three games each during the out-of-conference portion of the basketball schedule, most at Penn’s Palestra, and the format has even extended to other sports.

At the risk of offending the infamously rabid fans in Philadelphia, a similar tournament in D.C. would be even better, with higher quality teams overall and a larger venue. 

I am far from the first person to suggest this, but I have not yet heard a good explanation for why it cannot be done.  The tournament could even incorporate the best of D.C.’s save-the-world comportment by donating proceeds to a worthy cause, like the city’s public schools, for example.

Washington is home to several intriguing and talented teams: of course Georgetown and Maryland would be the biggest draws, plus George Mason (a Final Four team in 2006), George Washington (ranked in the top ten during the 2005-2006 season), and American (a Cinderella in last year’s March Madness).  Howard could also be included, with consideration going to surrounding schools like Navy, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth, and Virginia Tech.

For teams like American, George Washington, and George Mason that have a hard time enticing big name schools to play on their home floors, the chance to face perennial top 25 opponents close to home would be a blessing. 

GW used to get that chance through the BB&T Classic, which is played in December and in the past drew teams like Stanford, Illinois, UConn, and Michigan State.  Since 2005, however, the BB&T has become a shred of its former self because, according to the tournament’s website, it could no longer draw such quality teams.

The BB&T eliminated the tournament format altogether and shortened the event from two days to one.  Coincidentally or not, these changes followed two years in a row when GW beat Maryland.  It should be noted that the BB&T does raise money for the Children’s Charities Foundation; perhaps the Classic can be a launching point for a larger citywide effort.

One disclaimer before I continue: I am a GW alumna and former season ticket holder.  But I am not a blind loyalist, and I in no way speak for the team or the university.

Plus, the big guys (Maryland and Georgetown) stand to gain something, too.  The event would draw huge crowds at the Verizon Center, where Georgetown plays its home games (as do the Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics).  The tournament would bring positive attention to basketball programs throughout the city, attracting recruits from D.C. and beyond.  The schools would also be able to further build goodwill with the city and its residents.

Maryland has shown hints that it would consider such a tournament.  The Terps have participated in the BB&T since its inception in 1995, although the only team it will play in this year’s version is Villanova.  However Maryland consistently exposes itself to playing “mid-major” teams like Charlotte, VCU, and Winthrop.  Likewise Georgetown played American last year, in addition to Wichita State and Drexel.

Rumors abound as to why Georgetown never participated in the BB&T when it was still an interesting tournament.  Some say Gary Williams and Maryland are not willing to play if Georgetown is in it.  Others say Georgetown is afraid to play the local “mid-major” teams because John Thompson III’s squad would have more to lose than it would have to gain from such match-ups. 

I cannot say whether any of that is founded, whether it is paranoid speculation, or some combination of the two. 

What I do know is that from this fan’s perspective there is little downside to a competitive, inclusive tournament in D.C. in the mold of the Big 5. 

After all, if Philadelphia, which rarely lives up to its “brotherly love” moniker at sporting events, can make it work, why not Washington, D.C.–the capital of diplomacy?