Keith Strudler: UAlbany At "The Big Dance"

Mar 19, 2014

For all those in the Albany area that consider themselves fans of the U Albany Great Danes men’s basketball team, today is your day. Today is the day after your school’s first ever NCAA tournament victory, albeit one that came in the second-tier first round, or play-in game as it’s more commonly known, where the worst teams in the tournament play for the right to join the square field of 64. They handled Mount St. Mary’s last night, and early this morning landed in Orlando where tomorrow they’ll take on the #1 ranked Florida Gators, a team that’s won 26 straight and the SEC regular and tournament championships. For the sake of comparison, Albany did not win a single game against a team from a so-called “power conference,” even using the term loosely.

Albany’s best win this season likely came against Vermont, the 106th best team in the country, according the statistics RPI rating. That’s still far ahead of Albany’s ranking of 192, which puts them a mere 191 spots behind the Gators. Albany uses a style of play that’s best described as deliberate, where half the court is more than enough. Florida runs like a track meet, which tomorrow’s game could become if Albany can’t somehow prevent the inevitable.

Still today is Albany’s day. For a full 40 or so hours, the entire basketball viewing public can fancy Albany the giant slayer, perhaps the first 16 seed to ever defeat a one seed in the history of the tournament. We’ve had 15’s over 2’s, 14’s over 3’s, and enough 12’s over 5’s to make it feel like a trap game. But never has one of the first four succumbed to the bottom four, a statistic that’s most likely to continue through this year’s tournament.

In many ways, the NCAA basketball tournament is about these very types of games. The chance to see a team with no pedigree – and remember Albany only joined Division I athletics in 1999 – play a team with $125 million athletic budget. That compares to the nearly $15 million Albany spends on sports, most all of it subsidized by student and tax subsidies. For that money, this game, and the time leading up to it, are largely the payoff. Even with all the money generated by the NCAA tournament, Albany and its America East conference will see very little of it, given its paucity of teams in the field. The Great Danes work for publicity.

Perhaps the question to ask, for Albany, and Cal Poly, and the other schools need only pack one change of clothes for the tournament, is if it’s worth it. If all the spending, all the resource, and, let’s face it, all the cultural critique, is worth one shining moment, as CBS Sports puts it in their closing montage. The answer to that is no more simple than the question itself.

From a revenue perspective, it’s a definitive no. The state will subsidize Albany sports as long as it exists. And capital costs will rise faster than any revenue stream will. But college sports are far more impulse buy than reasoned decision. And from that perspective, the value proposition is, well, debatable.

For Albany, a school with noted academics but lacking the community soul of its contemporaries from other states, Division I sports, particularly successful Division I sports, is a means of attracting and maintaining a student population. Much of the SUNY movement to Division I sports, which includes everything from Stony Brook to Binghamton, was to keep top students from leaving home for places like Maryland, Penn State, and Indiana, all fine schools who also maintain major collegiate athletics programs. It’s also a strategy to slow the ever widening gender gap in American universities, something that’s potentially aided by big time college sports. And for better or worse, Albany believes that joining the Division I hierarchy puts it in a more competitive neighborhood, in everything from research productivity to endowment. And in college sports, neighborhood is everything. Just ask the Ivy Athletic League, the only true affiliation of those eight universities.

For today and tomorrow at least, the Albany Great Danes have moved into a nice neighborhood, a palm tree lined estate on Central Florida. And tomorrow, they’ll share that real estate with the Gators, the biggest star on the block. Of course, all but the most allegiant of Great Dane fans know Albany’s simply renting, not buying this time around. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy the trip, even if it won’t last very long.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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