I was born in Durham, NC and grew up on Tobacco Road (seriously – we had tobacco fields right behind my childhood home). My parents went to Duke, my dad spent some time as an adjunct at Wake Forest, and my brother graduated from NC State. Cliques formed around ACC basketball school fanbases in schools to the point that the different colors could have been mistaken as gang colors. I might like to talk about football around here, but I was raised on basketball.
The Quicken Loans Veterans Classic would have fit right in with the basketball culture that rules North Carolina. And much like the cozy confines of Cameron Indoor, Alumni Hall provided an intimate evening for nearly 6,000 fans to watch Navy play host to Michigan State, VCU, and Tennessee.
The first matchup of the evening saw VCU, lead by Shaka Smart, open up an early lead on Tennessee that was not relinquished. There were some kinks with the shot clock early on, and a scary moment when VCU guard JeQuan Lewis went down hard and appeared to have a seizure on the court. But the real story was that Smart’s Havoc is real and it is spectacular. VCU seemed to swarm the court on both ends, creating opportunities on offense and confusion for Tennessee on defense. Oh and the VCU pep band is extremely fun. Anyone who has 7 tubas shaking it in the aisles gets a big thumbs up from this former band nerd.
But enough about VCU-Tennessee. Let’s talk about the amazing experience that was Navy vs. Michigan State.
First up: the crowd. I have never heard Alumni Hall sound like that. The Mids in attendance were loud all game long, being relentless when Navy needed to get stops and giving plenty of love for great offensive play. It was something to see when compared with the relative quiet of the mandatory fun Army-Navy games. I can only imagine what Halsey Field House was like when David Robinson was on his way to becoming the Admiral, but I would guess that Friday night came pretty close to matching that intensity.
And the Sparty fans that were around were a lot of fun. Everyone I met was eager to talk, swap stories, and offer up opinions on the event and the play on the court. Granted, they were doing their best impression of Ohio State fans at the Horseshoe in 2009 – quiet consternation and a general “is this really happening” feeling oozing from their clenched hands.
And the consternation was well deserved, because Navy played a complete game and took Michigan State to the wire. Let’s be perfectly clear, this was not a case of Navy hitting miracle threes to keep it close and entertaining. Navy simply went toe-to-toe with Michigan State, capitalized on MSU mistakes, and made a run when they had to. And they did this all with Worth Smith leaving the game with a knee injury in the latter parts of the first half, after already racking up 7 points and a pair of steals and rebounds.
Sure, Michigan State had the highlight reel plays. On a few occasions, Sparty got odd-man breaks on a turnover or steal and shook the court with some high-flying alley-oops. But Navy was never intimidated. We joked about taking pictures of the scoreboard when the Midshipmen held leads early in the game. We were all happy when it was a seven point game at the half. And when Michigan State went on a run to open it up to a 13 point lead in the 2nd half, we all seemed to sense the inevitable blowout upon us. Before the game, I asked Mike if we could keep it to 20. Seemed pretty prescient at the time.
Then Navy went on a 10-0 run to close it right back up.
From there on out, Navy couldn’t get closer than three. But Michigan could never open it back up, either. Over the course of the 2nd half, Navy outscored Michigan State by 2 and held their own on the boards (losing the rebound battle by one). Perhaps the most shocking stat of the game was that Navy’s bench outscored Michigan State’s by a 17-16 margin.
It should be noted that Navy got over 100 minutes of play out of plebes and youngsters. Ed DeChellis has struggled through his first 3 seasons for consistency and depth. But after one game, it looks like the Midshipmen may finally have some. For my money, the Navy player of the game was Edward Alade. He led all Navy players with 12 points on 5-of-6 from the field and a couple of free throws. He went against the trees of MSU under the basket and held his own.
There were multiple stories to come out of Friday night. That Navy took a nationally ranked team to the final minute of the game was the biggest. But right behind it was the quality of the even and the bright future for the Veterans Classic. Some of the biggest names in the country are clamoring to attend (John Feinstein reported on Saturday that Notre Dame will play Navy next year while North Carolina and Temple face off in the other game). With another 3 years left on the current contract, it looks like CBS and Navy have a winner on their hands.
If you passed on the event this year, don’t make the same mistake in 2015. This event matched the energy I’ve felt in attendance at ACC basketball games. It reminded me of the pure fun of watching Tobacco Road teams square off. And it let the nation know that there is a great new event taking place every November in Annapolis. And it let me know that I need to get to more Navy basketball games this season (and write about them). You should come out, too. Looks like it’s going to be a fun year.