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End of Great Alaska Shootout sad day for college hoops

August 25, 2017 Columns No Comments

As much fun as bucket lists are, the cold reality is that sometimes we don’t get to fill them. Such will be the case with what we’d suggest is the ultimate college basketball bucket list, which will shrink by one after this upcoming season.

The University of Alaska-Anchorage announced Thursday that this year’s Great Alaska Shootout, the 40th edition of the granddaddy of all early season tournaments, will be the last one. School budget cuts and the loss of the big name schools that once dominated the event contributed to its downfall, meaning a Thanksgiving weekend tradition will soon disappear.

Its loss is nothing less than a sad day for the sport. Nostalgia for what was once a highlight of the sport’s regular season says as much, but so does the loss of the flavor the Shootout contributed to the sport, one that college basketball will miss badly, even as the event had notably slipped in recent years.

At the risk of self-indulging in a story, I’ve long wanted to go to Anchorage, Alaska, to see the Great Alaska Shootout. Like many college basketball fans growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was one watching Shootout games on TV late at night/early in the morning over Thanksgiving weekend, seeing a number of outstanding games while the rest of the house was sleeping.

Still in my possession is a VHS tape of a 1989 Shootout quarterfinal game between Hawaii and host school Alaska-Anchorage, a wonderfully conceived matchup between flagship schools from our 49th and 50th states. It began at 1:05 a.m. Eastern time on ESPN, an unheard of time even then to start games, yet seemingly perfect for these two far off schools. It remains one of the more memorable games I’ve watched, for many reasons mostly small, but in short it’s a game that made me a big fan of the event.

Even at a young age, it was an event already easy to appreciate. Obviously the quality of it was already well-known by then, but there also was the distinct location. Alaska. Snow. Moose. Now that’s original.

Anyone can stage an event in a warm climate in the winter. Shoot, college football figured that out in the 1930s, when the Cotton, Orange and Sugar Bowl games joined the three decades older Rose Bowl to quickly become highlights of their sport.

It took innovation to build a premier sporting event in Alaska. What the state and host school UAA may have lacked in palm trees, though, it more than made up for with uniqueness but also a human touch, long remembered as a signature of the Shootout.

By these days, many have forgotten just how good the Great Alaska Shootout once was. And it was good. Really good. A list of its champions and MVPs is nothing less than a roll call of college basketball royalty. A top 10 list of the best games could be debated for years.

Even in recent years the tourney’s quality-though certainly less-endowed with heavy-hitting programs-was still better than many think. Three teams from the 2016 Shootout appeared in the most recent NCAA Tournament. Even now, the Shootout has put at least one of its teams in that season’s NCAA tourney every year of its history except two, one of those back in 2006- when the host school still later advanced to the NCAA Division II Tournament.

An incredible 36-year streak was finally blotted only a couple years ago, in 2015. Coincidentally, that was the same year when Colorado State-the 2014 Shootout winner-was one of the more egregious snubs in the history of the 64+ team field, and the first of too many inexcusable oversights over the next couple years by committees filled with “Power 5” star-crossed eyes.

While powerhouse programs were undoubtedly the main draw, and the reason for the tourney’s explosion in the 80s, the Shootout always was more than that.

There was Division II host Alaska-Anchorage, regularly giving its Division I guests fits. The Seawolves have won 38 games in the event’s history, with the likes of Auburn, Dayton, Miami (Fla.), Missouri, New Mexico, Notre Dame, Texas and Washington among their many victims. And while Duke and Cincinnati’s superb 1999 championship game is remembered by many as the event’s pinnacle, UAA’s upset of a Wake Forest team by shutting down a freshman named Tim Duncan in 1993 is right there among its greatest moments.

Basketball is a tournament sport, and underdogs taking on powers is a most enduring charm of hoops at its best. UAA was an almost yearly reminder of this, and the Seawolves’ regular appearances against the big boys will be sorely missed.

There were the unique cultural aspects of the Anchorage, such as TV cameras showing moose sometimes walking the streets downtown-where are you going to find that at Disney World, or in Cancun or St. Thomas? There was the well-known longtime pre-tournament luncheon, where coaches from every team spoke, as well as the hospitality and community aspect, no better summed up than in this story by Alaska Dispatch News sports editor Beth Bragg. (Lew Freedman’s outstanding coffee table book about the Shootout also is another excellent insight into the event.)

In recent years there was CBS Sports Network analyst Pete Gillen giving out the “Mighty Moose Award” after games, where one player after each televised game would don a furry, Halloween costume-like moose hat on their sweaty noggin. With anyone else or any other event, it would’ve been ridiculous, but the hilarious Gillen made it work, with players regularly smiling and playing along.

It goes without saying the Shootout was weakened in recent years. It’s easy to blame ESPN for a lot of things these days, but in the case of the Great Alaska Shootout, it’s true-ESPN had a lot to do with its downfall.

The network once reliably televised from Anchorage every year, but in 2008 dropped the Shootout. The network decided to start promoting its very own events over the Thanksgiving weekend when relaxed NCAA rules on exempted postseason tournaments allowed ESPN and a host of others to start their own events and lure away the big-time schools that used to show up in Alaska yearly. (Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn wrote a great piece about this years ago)

While that’s their right-after all, the Great Alaska Shootout was once started with similarly capitalistic thoughts, taking advantage of an NCAA rule-the NCAA’s latest exemption rules, or lack of them, chipped away at the Shootout. And the looseness of those rules is where the frustration with this really lies.

It’s one thing for legitimate tournaments to get exemptions and compete against each other. It’s another for events to choose four predetermined semifinalists, tab a couple of secondary teams to serve as guarantee game fodder for the chosen ones-and somehow be rewarded with an exemption. Just like it’s a joke that a four-team round-robin event on a campus site with no tournament structure also can now grab an exemption.

Both types of events go completely against the spirit of what an exempted tournament should be. The NCAA and its member schools should’ve recognized this years ago and tightened it up.

Is it really too much to ask a tournament to be, you know, a tournament? If not, then what’s the point of an exemption in the first place?

In the end, it wasn’t ESPN’s your-name-here events at Disneyland and Disney World that ended the Alaska Shootout. It was the other bogus tournaments that for no good reason received NCAA blessing that did it.

It’s on that note that complaints about and suggestions for improving college basketball’s regular season often ring hollow. How can the sport improve something when it willingly lets its assets in said area fall by the wayside?

The sport once had it right, with three premier early season events-the preseason NIT, Maui Classic/Invitational, and the Great Alaska Shootout, plus several other big tourneys scattered throughout December, then those four-team home tournaments substituting for our current endless drudgery of buy games. Even with others getting into the tournament game, there should’ve been enough room for a Great Alaska Shootout to maintain a foothold. Other than the heavily-financed Battle 4 Atlantis, it’s not as if many of these other events have proven to be year-in, year-out studs. Even with Alaska’s noted less money than others, there should’ve been enough teams to go around.

The answers aren’t clear-if they were, they would’ve been found years ago. Still, it sure seems like more could’ve been done to preserve events like the Shootout, or at least let it be usurped by events of equal quality. Instead, the NCAA and its member schools stood by idly, and we now have a non-descript November and December dominated by guarantee games and a bunch of cookie-cutter events indistinguishable one from another.

Some of us will miss our chance to ever see the Great Alaska Shootout (work has gotten in the way too much here), and a unique event on the schedule will be gone soon. And let it be clear: the sport is worse off for it.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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