BOSTON – The gym was packed. Not only that, but it was a lively crowd, rocking from start to finish and on seemingly every play. It helped that the game went to overtime, although that didn’t always look like it would be the case as the visitors led by double digits for a stretch in the second half. It wasn’t just the home team whose fans made the atmosphere what it was, because the visiting team had its share of fans as well. In short, it was a great setting.
And sadly, it’s relevant to things to come in the larger picture of college basketball.
Northeastern’s 82-74 win over Boston University in overtime isn’t a story of utmost national significance all by itself. It barely registers on an opening night with several intriguing matchups to go with the Carrier Classic. And the rivalry between these schools isn’t exactly Duke-North Carolina; in fact, it’s not even on the level of Old Dominion-VCU. But it’s an old rivalry that means something to both schools and their fans.
It’s hard to remember the last time Case Gym was as packed as it was on Friday night, save for the occasions the Terriers have hosted a conference title game. At times, you could feel the floor shaking on press row. There were fans sitting in the aisles and on the front row (not in seats) on Friday night, a sign of how many people showed up. Both schools made an effort to get people to come to the game, and it showed. The fact that it was the season opener for both teams surely helped, as every team hopes to have a good crowd for their home opener.
And while the NBA lockout is no doubt a contributor, this is still Boston, where most sports fans probably cared a lot more about reports of Jonathan Papelbon signing with the Philadelphia Phillies than the great game being played at Case Gym.
It was a game between two cross-town rivals, one that means something to the teams and their fans, hence they got up for it. The two schools have now met 139 times in their history. And unfortunately, such rivalries are losing their feeling and impact because of the changing landscape.
Already, it’s a shame that Northeastern and Boston University only play once a season. The two schools are perhaps a ten-minute drive through the city from each other and are very similar. They’ve been rivals away from the athletic playing field, to the point where Northeastern used to market itself as the school that gets all the kids that can’t afford to go to Boston University. (Nowadays, if you can’t afford one you can’t afford the other.) And their basketball teams have a long history that includes some memorable showdown games in regular season and in the conference tournament back when they were in the same conference.
Look throughout the landscape, and you’ll see there are lots of great rivalries – bigger than Northeaster-Boston University – that we have lost and will soon lose with conference realignment. When Boston College left the Big East, that meant they only play Providence once a year. Syracuse’s imminent departure from the Big East means they don’t play Georgetown or Connecticut, or at least will play them no more than once a year. Pittsburgh’s departure for the ACC, followed by West Virginia leaving for the Big 12, means an end to their games with West Virginia (or at least, just once a year). We will soon lose Texas A&M-Texas, which is a bigger rivalry in football much like Colorado-Nebraska. In the worst one of all, Kansas and Missouri may no longer play unless they meet in a postseason tournament now that Missouri is heading for the SEC.
And the list will go on, as the picture hardly seems settled. There are surely more maneuvers still to come, and most feel that four 16-team conferences is an inevitable result.
It didn’t take being in Case Gym on Friday night to drive it home, but anyone who was there had to wonder: is it really worth making the move to another conference in exchange for, among other things, losing great rivalries?
Friday night’s game was a great way for both schools to open the college basketball season. The last couple of years, the game has felt like a rivalry game with its atmosphere, and that’s how it should be. But it also leaves you wanting more. It leaves you looking forward to the next meeting between the two, in this case across town near Huntington Ave. Then reality sets in: they’re only playing once this season. And before long, more rivalries just like this will still be fierce on game day, but it won’t feel the same because they only play once each season.