March 17th, 2017

REED: on regional schools and NCAA dreams


Billy Reed

Executive Editor 

REED: on regional schools and NCAA dreams
Northern Kentucky's Cole Murray / photo from NKU athletics

LOUISVILLE – It’s a terrific achievement for Northern Kentucky University to make the NCAA Division-I Basketball Tournament the first year its team is eligible. But I also wonder what the commonwealth’s other regional universities are thinking right now about the future of their D-I basketball programs.

Unlike Kentucky and Louisville, the regional universities do not have self-sustaining athletics programs that are attached to the universities but also separate from them. The money for their intercollegiate athletics programs comes out of their General Fund, in other words.

I don’t have the facts in front of me, but I strongly suspect that intercollegiate athletics is a losing proposition at Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Murray State. It could be different at Western Kentucky, where the football program has been successful in D-I and basketball has a solid fan base.

Their financial concerns had to be intensified by Gov. Matt Bevins’ decision to cut the budgets at all state universities. Some programs will have to be cut, pure and simple, and it’s difficult to make the case that intercollegiate athletics should be immune.

The alums at the regional schools would fight to keep their programs in D-I, arguing that it’s good for recruiting and student morale. When one of them makes the NCAA tournament field, the student experience is enhanced enormously. A game or two on CBS – or one of its satellites networks – elevates a university’s stature and makes it familiar to a national audience.

While all that’s true, it’s also true that in the larger scheme of things, intercollegiate athletics is a luxury more than a necessity. Sports teams are not integral to a university’s core academic mission. It’s difficult to argue that cutting academic programs is a better choice than scaling back on intercollegiate athletics.

There’s also the fact that of all the commonwealth’s regional universities, only Western Kentucky has the facilities, support, tradition, etc., to have even a remote chance of making the NCAA Final Four, which it has done only once in its long and rich history.

The others – and I’m including NKU – are D-I programs in name only. They never have, and never will have the way things are going, the resources necessary to recruit players good enough to get them more than a cup of coffee in March.

Yes, certainly, I remember how the fierce rebounder Kenneth Faried led Morehead State to a shocking first-round upset of Louisville in 2009. And yes, I remember EKU and Murray State turning in some respectable first-round performances.

But is making the Big Dance once every decade or so worth the cost? Wouldn’t it be better to drop down a division and have a legitimate chance of playing for a championship?

With alums, students, and administrators, the head probably says yes, but the heart says no. They prefer to cling to that dream that’s fed every year by a team from a small conference that advances farther than anybody expects. (I refuse to use the term “Cindrella” because no such person exists in the hard, cold reality of today’s NCAA D-I tournament.)

The problem is, however, that the prospects ranked highly by the recruiting and summer-camp gurus want to play at one of the marquee programs where they have a better chance of cashing in on their college careers.

Consider, for example, Dominique Hawkins.

He led Madison Central of Richmond to the championship of the 2013 Kentucky State High School Boys tournament. But instead of staying home and playing for Eastern Kentucky, where he would have been a star, he opted to try his luck with John Calipari’s NBA factory at UK.

For four years, Hawkins has mostly sat on the bench, watching the parade of one-and-done superstars go through the Calipari car wash. But now, finally, he’s getting a lot of serious playing time because the current bunch of future NBA stars needs his experience, leadership, and calming influence.

Both Hawkins and fellow senior Derek Willis, a product of Bullitt East High, no doubt will tell you it was better to be bit players at UK than stars at a regional university. Good for them. But bad for the regional universities that are struggling to justify the cost of remaining in a division where they have absolute no hope of competing for anything more than making the field and being one-and-done in the first round.

I believe in dreams as much as anybody. So I say that if the regional universities can financially justify remaining in NCAA D-I, more power to them. But with the Bevin budget cuts, that has to be more difficult than ever. Each school’s faculty will have a say in the matter.

As Bellarmine University in Louisville now is showing, there can be more to college basketball than belonging to D-I. The Knights, who won the 2011 national D-II championship, are back in that division’s Elite Eight, only three wins away from a second national title.

Under Coach Scotty Davenport, the Knights have been so successful, in fact, that there has been talk of moving up D-I.  But that’s a slippery slope for a small, private Catholic university, and the saga of the regional universities provides the university’s administration a cautionary tale to seriously consider. Bigger is not necessarily better. Reality sometimes must trump dreams.

In the current tournament, NKU’s dream should end with a thud against UK tonight. The Norsemen can only hope that Calipari calls off the dogs early, in order to have rested players for the second-round game against the Wichita-Dayton winner. I look for the Cats to win that one, although it won’t be easily, and then get knocked out by UCLA in the round of 16.

The Louisville Cardinals are a Forrest Gump team – you never know what you’re going to get until open the box and take a bite. But somehow I think Coach Rick Pitino is on a redemption crusade that won’t stop until the national quarterfinals, where they’ll lose to Kansas or dark horse Purdue.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. For now. I reserve the right to change my opinion. 


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