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BIG 4 DOUBLEHEADERS SEEM LIKE A PASSING FANCY

We've got blueprints, but no new Peace Bridge. And we've got negotiations, but no Bass Pro.

Likewise, we've got Big 4 basketball, just no downtown tournament in HSBC Arena to show for it.

And it is not likely to occur at any point in the near future.

"It's a shame in a way and it's frustrating," said Ron Bertovich, the Mid-Continent Conference commissioner who headed, among other things, basketball operations at HSBC Arena between 1998 and 2003. "You have this first-class arena, and no matter how hard the powers that be attempt to work at this, it just doesn't seem to be working out."

Though prospects of Big 4 events -- let alone a tournament -- in HSBC Arena are not especially promising, steps in that direction are being made. Larry Quinn, the managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres who played a major part in securing Big 4 doubleheaders in the arena in 1996 and '97, is back in a position to bring Big 4 action downtown featuring the University at Buffalo, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure.

He is taking it one step at a time, beginning Nov. 27 with a tripleheader. The UB women tip it off against Lafayette, followed by the UB men against Indiana State and then the St. Bonaventure men versus Canisius.

In the long term, Quinn sees it as an event that needs only the Big 4 teams, along with a permanent date and an identity. That way people would make it a tradition, always knowing when it would be -- just like the National Football League opening the Sunday after Labor Day.

Though there have been no formal meetings between Quinn and all four Big 4 athletics directors, one proposal suggested by UB's administration was for a tournament-style event on the two nights after Thanksgiving.

"A tournament idea would bring some excitement to the game," said Bill Maher, UB's interim athletics director. "If all four schools are playing each other anyway, then it may make some sense (to have a tournament). . . . There's an opportunity to create a little more interest around a tournament concept than if it would be just a doubleheader."

All about the 'W's

There are two major problems with making a Big 4 event work at the arena.

"From the coaches' perspective, they're probably saying, 'We don't want to give up a home game,' as far as the home-court advantage-type thing," Canisius coach Mike MacDonald said. "From the administrators' perspective, they're looking at the source of income. That's being perfectly blunt and perfectly honest about it."

The NCAA allows a team to schedule only 27 games. Conference play ties up Canisius, Niagara and UB for 18 games apiece, while Bona has 16 conference matchups each season. So teams have limited spots for nonconference games, though all of the Big 4 schools will play each other this season, except for UB and St. Bonaventure.

Canisius and Niagara meet twice per season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. A third game between them would be considered nonconference.

According to Jim Sukup of RPIRatings.com, 73.8 percent of last season's Division I men's nonconference games were won by the home team. It doesn't take a whiz to figure out how coaches, measured primarily by their win totals, would feel about moving two of those nine contests to a neutral court.

HSBC Arena is considered neutral by all the Big 4 coaches since it's not where the teams practice and they won't get the rowdy environment that makes it so hard for opponents to beat them in their smaller buildings.

"Our sport now is so centered around conference affiliation that it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for nonconference rivalries," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose stance on a downtown Big 4 event has changed since he served as the arena's director of amateur basketball operations during 1996 and '97.

"It isn't just this area that is going through that. This purging is taking place nationwide. That's the reason you don't see Georgetown's big basketball rivalry with Maryland."

Another example of nonconference rivalries dissipating is seen in Philadelphia. The Big Five schools (La Salle, Pennsylvania, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova) no longer play one another each year.

Money ball

All of the Big 4 schools are satisfied with their home venues. Three of the facilities -- excluding Bona's Reilly Center, which has had minor upgrades -- have undergone major renovations in the last seven years.

"These are big games on our own campuses," Niagara Athletics Director Mike Hermann said. "These are major events. When we're playing (a Big 4 school) here, there is a hum on this campus that is hard to replace. Those events are so valued here that it's hard really to move them downtown, off campus, when you can have them here."

Even with the new facilities, though, the money to be made at the schools' home events is limited -- UB has the largest arena with 6,100 seats. The average attendance for the three Big 4 doubleheaders (two in 1996, one in '97) in the arena was nearly 10,000, though some believe the figures were inflated.

Quinn has said that the plan he would offer would split the profits from any event three ways -- with the arena and two of the teams (rotating each year) making money.

It should be noted that all four schools complained after the 1996-97 season that they received no revenue at all from playing downtown.

"It's got to be bought into at all levels, from the administration on down," Bertovich said. "The schools would need to say, 'We're going to do what we think is good for Western New York . . . and we're going to commit to playing at the arena.' "

Bringing it together

No question, the Big 4 at HSBC Arena revival seems to be a long shot. But there are positive signs. The schools this year played the Big 4 Baseball Classic in Dunn Tire Park.

And for St. Bonaventure basketball coach Anthony Solomon and Ron Zwierlein, the school's new director of athletics, this month's game in the arena can serve as a selling point.

"I think there are benefits for everybody to do this," Quinn said. "We'll walk very slowly this time and build it the right way. Look, if the numbers are there and the people are there and the excitement is there, why wouldn't somebody do it?"

But there are a couple of big reasons. Whether those hurdles can be overcome remains to be seen.

"There's a price in establishing a tradition," MacDonald said. "There's going to be some bumps in the road early on. But people have to be willing to do it. Unfortunately, I don't know if that will be the case."

FOUR ON THE FLOOR
The three Big 4 doubleheaders
in HSBC Arena (then Marine Midland Arena)
Nov. 30, 1996 - Attendance: 12,508
UB 78, Niagara 77 (OT)
St. Bonaventure 65, Canisius 53
Dec. 7, 1996 -Attendance: 8,779
UB 69, St. Bonaventure 67
Niagara 68, Canisius 59
Nov. 29, 1997 - Attendance: 8,695
Canisius 71, St. Bonaventure 64
UB 62, Niagara 58

e-mail: gnason@buffnews.com

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