College basketball beats the NBA any day


American University Eagles senior guard Lisa Strack has helped her team to a winning record so far thisseason. The Eagles take on Navy on Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. at Bender Arena. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 12, 2012

I love basketball. But I admit to being an elitist. Typically I’ll take the best players in the world over scrappy student athletes any day. But the past few months were a dark time. The NBA went through an infuriating lockout, pitting billionaire owners against millionaire players with little concern for the fans.

So, where did I get my basketball fix during this winter of discontent? The college game, to my surprise. I set out on a tour of some of the area’s smaller gymnasiums to get my proper dosage of hoops and came away not just satisfied, but excited.

The goal was to look beyond the two teams that have long dominated local coverage (the Maryland and Georgetown men’s squads). I watched seven teams that represent just a fraction of the college basketball options in the area but run the gamut from Division I men to Division III women. And every game was so reliably entertaining — the proximity to the action, the unpredictability of the outcomes, the intensity of the (often very few) people in the stands and the unique experience of each gymnasium — that I didn’t simply get a respite from the lack of NBA, I became a full-fledged convert to the college game. (Being able to get cheap and sometimes free tickets at the door is another plus.) So take my word for it. With conference play underway and the season kicking into high gear, now is the time to adopt a new favorite team.

Howard University Bison

The competition: The Bison have just two NCAA tournament trips to their credit, the last in 1992. But the team certainly doesn’t shy away from top competition, playing road games in the past month against top 25 teams Indiana, Kansas and Kansas State. Howard lost those games by an average of 49 points, but the Bison are much more competitive when facing teams that aren’t national powerhouses, and Howard’s 88-83 overtime win over Delaware on Dec. 22 was the most exciting game I saw during my month of gym-hopping.

The logistics: Division I men’s college hoops for free — how can you pass that up? Especially in a gym with a name as cool as the Burr. It’s a tiny spot that can hold up to 2,000 people but rarely reaches a quarter of that, which means you’ll be right on top of the action no matter where you sit. In fact, the venue is so small that if you want to buy popcorn and a soda you don’t even have to walk to the lone concession stand. Just raise your hand, and someone will come along to take your order.

The best part: The compact gymnasium means there’s nothing resembling a bad seat, and you can hear every word the few hundred fans may yell at the refs when disagreeing with a call. And, again, it’s free.

Make a day or night of it: Burr Gymnasium is right near the heart of the bustling U Street corridor, and the games end early enough for an entire night of options — food at Dukem or any of the other Ethiopian restaurants, music at U Street Music Hall, Twins Jazz or the Black Cat or the old reliable, Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Key upcoming games: Monday at 7:30 p.m. vs. N.C. Central, Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. vs. Florida A&M.

Burr Gymnasium, Sixth and Girard streets NW. www.howard.edu/campustour/points/main_campus_3/burr/1.htm.

American University Eagles (women)

The competition: The AU women look to be on their way to a fifth straight winning season and have at least tied for the Patriot League regular season title in three of the past four years. Last year, the team lost to Navy in the conference championship but hopes to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament this year.

The logistics: Bender Arena is one of the best midsize arenas around and keeps spectators involved in the flow of the game thanks to little things such as a scoreboard updated with players’ points and fouls. General admission tickets are $6.

The best part: Sit across from the AU bench and you’ll probably be among players’ family members. You won’t think the game lacks drama when you’re surrounded by proud parents whooping it up every time their kid gets the ball.

Make a day of it: While on campus, be sure to check out the Katzen Arts Center, which hosts modern art exhibitions on par with anything you’ll see in the hippest galleries downtown.

Key upcoming games: Wednesday at 7 p.m. vs. Navy, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. vs. Bucknell, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. vs. Lafayette.

Bender Arena, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. www1.american.edu/athletics/facilities/benderarena.html.

George Mason University Patriots

The competition: The Patriots are arguably the new royalty in Beltway college basketball. The team made a Cinderella run to the NCAA Final Four in 2006 and is now something of an established power, with two NCAA tournament visits since. This year the team is still finding its footing under new coach Paul Hewitt (Jim Larranaga left for the University of Miami after 14 seasons) but is priming itself for another postseason run.

The logistics: The Patriot Center is your standard basketball arena/concert venue. It works fine for a Soundgarden concert but was built to host hoops. Tickets are $16 to $20, which is steep compared with the rest of this list, but even with a 10,000-person capacity you never feel too far from the action. Budget a few extra minutes to figure out the maze of parking lots — George Mason’s campus can be tough for rookies to navigate.

The best part: The in-game entertainment at the Patriot Center is on another level, with a dance team, frequent T-shirt launches and free-throw contests for students. But the student band — the Green Machine — is enough of a show on its own. The 60-odd-piece group, which became Internet-famous last yearfor its medley of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of” and “Bulls on Parade,” keeps the energy level high throughout games. At some point, you’ll hear Kanye West’s “Power,” which at most arenas is just a tinny recording of the real thing; here it’s a raucous pep-band version. George Mason’s men’s and women’s basketball have family-friendly additions at most games. Check out www.gomason.com to find what events are at each game. (The women’s games, in particular, have a very participatory atmosphere, where children can try free throws after the games, get autographs from their favorite players or even take part in high-five lines.)

Make a day or night of it: You won’t be able to buy alcohol at any college game, but beer lovers will want to make time for a visit to the nearby Dogfish Head Alehouse, where many varieties of the local brewery’s beers are always (often exclusively) on tap.

Key upcoming games: Wednesday at 7 p.m. vs. Delaware, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. vs. Hofstra, Feb. 14 at 9 p.m. vs. Virginia Commonwealth.

Patriot Center, 4500 Patriot Cir., Fairfax. www.patriotcenter.com.

Marymount University Saints

The competition: Division III college hoops is about as far from the NBA as you can get. No athletic scholarships are awarded at this level. The Marymount women’s team has been a perennial power, making it as far as the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Division III tournament in 2010, the final season of coach Bill Finney’s storied 27 years at the school. Both the men’s and women’s squads are below .500 this season but are easy to root for thanks to their camaraderie and scrappy play.

The logistics: The Verizon Sports Arena, right in the middle of the school’s cozy campus on Glebe Road in Arlington, can seat about 1,000, but it’s rare to see more than about 100 spectators. You can walk right into the gym, but be careful — a stray step and you’re on the court. One neat scheduling quirk: The men’s and women’s teams have many back-to-back games, so you can see both teams in one afternoon.

The best part: The gym’s small size and small crowd is part of its charm — you can’t help but be right on top of the action. Although the game may be slower and played below the rim, the players dive for loose balls and fight through screens just the same. The games also can be a great learning experience for kids who play basketball — they can hear every instruction the coaches shout.

Make a day or night of it: A few miles away, you’re in the heart of Clarendon. Grab a meal at Lyon Hall, gelato and coffee at Boccato or a drink at Galaxy Hut, and then make your way to Iota to hear music.

Key upcoming games: Men’s and women’s teams vs. York on Jan. 21 (women at 2 p.m., men at 4 p.m.) and vs. St. Mary’s on Feb. 4 (women at 2 p.m., men at 4 p.m.)

Verizon Sports Arena, 2807 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. www.marymount.edu/athletics.

University of Maryland Terrapins (women)

The competition: To see a local team with the best chance of reaching the Final Four this year, head to Comcast Center for a Lady Terrapins game. The 2006 national champions have a deep, talented squad that has risen to near the top of national polls. With conference play underway, the team is facing its toughest challenges of the year.

The logistics: Comcast Center is truly a state-of-the-art arena. (You won’t find luxury boxes — or luxury anything — at any of the other venues.) Everything is high quality, from the concessions to the scoreboard to the seats. Don’t discount that last one. After sitting through a handful of games in uncomfortable chairs or on backless bleachers, the padded seats at Comcast Center feel truly regal. General admission tickets are $10-$12.

The best part: Make sure to arrive 30 minutes or so before game time, especially if you’re a former Terp, to take in all the memorabilia on display. This isn’t exactly the best of times for Terps athletics, but the concourses double as a University of Maryland sports history museum, where you can see the hardwood courts on which the men’s and women’s basketball teams won their respective championships and reminisce about U-Md. greats from all sports. Bring the kids Feb. 12, when tickets to the Miami game are discounted for groups and rec league players.

Make a day or night of it: Across campus is the university’s other crown jewel — the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Programming is dark until the last week of January, when a wide variety of theater, dance and music performances will start up again.

Key upcoming games: Monday at 8:30 p.m. vs. the University of Virginia, Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. vs. Duke, Feb. 24 at 8:30 p.m. vs. North Carolina.

Comcast Center, 201 W. College Park St., College Park. www.umterps.com/facilities/md-comcast-center.html.

University of the District of Columbia Firebirds

The competition: The only public college in Washington has one of the area’s best teams this year. The Firebirds’ fortunes fell a long way after their Division II title win in 1982, but lately things have turned around, largely thanks to coach Jeff Ruland, who had Division I success at Iona College. In his third season at UDC, the former NBA all-star with the Washington Bullets has the Firebirds off to a nearly flawless start.

The logistics: The gym at the sports complexon campus seats 3,500, which puts it on a level with many D-1 gyms. Only a fraction of those seats are filled for games, though, but don’t blame location — the school is conveniently near the Van Ness-UDC Metro station. Tickets to games aren’t free anymore, but the way the team is playing, the new $5 charge is worth it.

The best part: Sometimes you just want to see the home team notch one in the victory column. The Firebirds are just about the most likely team on this list to send the fans home happy.

Make a day or night of it: One Metro stop down is Cleveland Park, where you can watch a movie on the city’s biggest screen at the Uptown.

Key upcoming games: Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. vs. Mercy, Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. vs. Dowling.

UDC Sports Complex, 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW. www.udcfirebirds.com/information/facilities/index.

Loyola University Greyhounds

The competition: Looking for a March Madness sleeper? There could be one up I-95 in the form of the Greyhounds. In his eighth year as head coach, former Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos has his best squad yet and one that could challenge for the team’s first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title.

The logistics: Loyola has a beautiful, calm campus a few miles from downtown Baltimore, and Reitz Arena is cozy and reliably packed, which makes for the ideal small-college game atmosphere. General admission bleacher seats are $7. To sit a little closer and in a proper chair, it’s $15.

The highlight: There’s perhaps no more entertaining coach in college basketball than Patsos. He’s a screamer — at his players, at the refs, at nothing in particular. Sitting in the opposite corner of the gym at the top of the bleachers, I was able to easily hear his multiple instances of chewing out a guard. A bit uncomfortable? Sure. Entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission? You bet.

Make a day or night of it: Take the day off to enjoy time in Baltimore before a night game. The Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium and Fells Point are all popular spots, but don’t miss the American Visionary Art Museum, home to one of the country’s most eclectic, unique collections.

Key upcoming games: Thursday at 7:30 p.m. vs. Siena, Jan. 22 at noon vs. St. Peter’s.

Reitz Arena, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore. www.loyolagreyhounds.com/facilities/locl-facilities.html.

Road trip

Although there’s no shortage of basketball options in the Washington area, if you head into Virginia, the choices become almost infinite. The focus of the college basketball world shifted to Richmond last March when the men’s teams at two of the city’s schools — Virginia Commonwealth and the University of Richmond — made the Elite Eight, with VCU earning a trip to the NCAA Final Four. Old Dominion University in Norfolk also has made the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Other road-trip stop possibilities include Charlottesville (University of Virginia), Williamsburg (William and Mary) and Harrisonburg (James Madison).

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