Thursday, December 26, 2013

Could Michigan Recreate The 'Crossroads Classic' With MSU?

Photo Credit: Thomas Beindit
For the last few years, a unique event has taken place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  To those well versed in the NBA, they would know that this is the home of the Indiana Pacers.  The event has featured two non-conference college basketball games between the "top four" programs in the state of Indiana: Butler, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Purdue.  The question for today's post is whether a similar event could be recreated in the state of Michigan.  Let's break it down.

First, what makes this event special and unique?  There are plenty of early season tournaments, neutral site games, and hyped matchups, so why is this different?  The first factor is the event's regional focus.  It is one thing to have a marquee non-conference game or a neutral site game, but in college basketball, they are often located away from home and between teams that often have no history.  For instance, look at Michigan's game against Stanford and the Champions Classic.  Though all the games in both events were intriguing, neither had any regional focus with all the teams playing pretty far from home and none of them faced off teams with any relationship with one another.  Regional focus in scheduling is often the subject of debate, but it is something that makes the Crossroads Classic unique.  The games happen in relatively close proximity to all 4 schools and are between teams that all come from the same state.  This may not necessarily create your #1 vs. #2 matchups, but it should at least excite local fans.

Another factor that makes the Crossroads Classic so intriguing is in its design to create new and interesting games.  As we all know, Indiana and Purdue are both in the Big Ten and are guaranteed to face each other at least once per year.  The event takes this into account and ensures that they cannot play one another.  For some, this may limit the amount of matchups, but this means you are either going to play Butler or Notre Dame every year.  Sure, those teams are not Duke and Kentucky, but those are still big time opponents that typically field a competitive team.  The same can largely be said for Indiana and Purdue, who are both pretty good basketball programs.  Every team plays a different opponent each year and they play an opponent that has at least some quality.

Perception is always a thing of opinion, but it is hard to argue that the Crossroads Classic has not put together some interesting games in its brief history.  Even if it has not been a perfect event, it certainly is an event that deserves some attention and possible attempts to replicate.  This is where this post comes into view.  What about the state of Michigan attempting to recreate the Crossroads Classic?  Maybe it is not the most obvious place out there, but when thinking about it, I think it at least merits discussion.

The first thing would be to determine the teams.  Clearly, the runaway targets in Michigan would be Michigan and Michigan State.  Both have been the class of the state in recent years and frankly have largely dominated basketball within the state for much of college basketball's history.  The clear issue here is that the teams would likely not want to play each other considering they are both members of the Big Ten and are already guaranteed games every year.  This means you have to add at least two other teams from the state.

There are a few options here, but personally, I think the one that jumps out is Detroit.  The Titans may not be what they have been in the past, but they are certainly on the trend upward and made the NCAA Tournament in 2012.  They also just put a player pretty high in the NBA Draft, which is noteworthy.  It would also make for an interesting selection given their ties to Michigan's largest city.

The final selection would be a little more murky.  The team that jumps out would be Oakland, who has built themselves into a pretty solid program.  They certainly are not making it to Final Fours on a regular basis or anything, but they did make the NCAA Tournament in 2005, 2010, and 2011.  The one issue to note is that they have been trending a bit downward recently.  Some would argue Oakland would be a better selection than Detroit and for the most part, their argument would probably be stronger, but the reason I would bump them down to the last slot would simply be due to pull.  I still believe Detroit (fair or not) has more of a national and statewide pull.  Maybe I am wrong, but this is the way I have always perceived it to be in the past.

The other top choices would have to be the three MAC schools located in the state: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan.  Central and Western have each made the NCAA Tournament once in the 2000s and Eastern made it last in 1998.  None of these three have been exactly great in recent years, but once in awhile they do put together a decent team.  Worth noting is that all three of these schools could probably have more of a draw than Detroit and Oakland, especially Central and Western.  Another option of course would be to have three games (one more than the Crossroads Classic) and bring along two of these schools as well.  One problem with this would be that it might make the scheduling even more difficult considering all three of these schools play in the MAC, which means they would likely not want to face each other in a neutral site event.

Maybe this is too positive of an assessment, but I think you could create some fun games for the community out of 4-6 of these schools.  Let's just assume they would select Michigan, MSU, Detroit, Oakland, Central, and Western.  Here are just a few scenarios that could occur:

Scenario #1
Scenario #2
Scenario #3
Scenario #4
Michigan - Detroit
Michigan - Central
Michigan - Western
Michigan - Oakland
MSU - Central
MSU - Western
MSU - Oakland
MSU - Central
Oakland - Western
Oakland - Detroit
Central - Detroit
Detroit - Western

Let's be realistic about these games.  Not one of these matchups could get the kind of national attention that an Indiana vs. Butler or a Purdue vs. Notre Dame type of game would attract.  Maybe once in awhile when one of the small schools puts together a really good team the media would give this event a lot of attention, but in probably 9 out of 10 years, none of these games would be a "marquee" matchup by most people's standards.  However, this does not mean that the event would be a failure.

Take a quick glance at KenPom for your answer.  Outside of Central, all of these teams are still rated in the Top 162.  That may not sound great, but here are some of the teams that are below that rating: Auburn, Houston, Mississippi State, Rutgers, and TCU.  None of these are exactly powerhouses, but all come from BCS level conferences.  The smaller schools that would potentially be in this event may not be Arizona, Duke, or Louisville, but they aren't the worst teams out there either.  Plus, if the games really started to become so uncompetitive that the event lost interest, you could certainly look at adding regional teams to the event like a Toledo or rotating the directional schools and selecting the ones that appeared to be the best teams coming into the year.  You could also cut the event to two games as well, but that may reduce the interest a bit, but something to at least consider.

Along with this, it is also worth noting that a lot of these games would simply be interesting from a local perspective.  Excluding a potential NCAA Tournament matchup, Michigan will play none of the smaller schools this year and MSU will have only played Oakland.  Last year, Michigan played Central, Eastern, and Western and MSU only played Oakland.  In the year before, Michigan only played Oakland and MSU only played Eastern.  In short, Michigan or MSU will typically play one of these smaller schools each year and it often ends up being the same team.

Some may say that number is plenty considering that typically Michigan and MSU win these games, but the truth is that these schools are still going to schedule nobodies to replace them.  Michigan has an insanely tough schedule this year, but still has 5 non-conference opponents that are pushovers.  Personally, I would rather play a Central, Detroit, or Oakland over Holy Cross and UMass Lowell.  Not only is there a better chance to have some connection to the school, but their fans also tend to travel to the games and help create a better atmosphere.  Even if the interest is one-sided, at least the smaller schools would be excited about these games and I'm sure there are plenty of people that think like me about these games.

The other part of this event that could be really interesting are the potential venue choices.  Even if you added a Toledo or something to the mix, all of these schools and their fans would be located in close proximity.  Think about hosting this event at the Palace or Ford Field.  Once again, maybe this is too positive of an assessment, but if you put this event in downtown Detroit, I think you would have a good shot at filling up Ford Field.  Not only do you have Michigan and MSU fans, but you would certainly attract a lot of Detroit and Oakland fans and if you added a Central and Western, you could probably draw even more to the pot.  You could sell tickets to sections based on the schools and make for a pretty fun neutral atmosphere.  Think about Michigan and MSU fans rooting for an Oakland or Detroit to upset their rival.  The smaller schools would have a built in crowd.

Overall, this may be too positive of a look at this event, but it truly would have the potential to offer some interesting games and atmospheres for fans.  We've seen it work in Indiana and with the close proximity of so many schools, why couldn't this work?  Fans are tired of boring non-conference opponents where one team is massively favored over the other.  This would at least be better than those types of games and the schools could still collect revenue from an event like this.  Maybe it is not perfect, but it is a fun to predict what an event like this could look like in the future.

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