What makes the Battle of the Boulevard so special?

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NASHVILLE, TN – The last time that Belmont and Lipscomb played at Memorial Coliseum — the home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, a fellow Nashvillian institution of higher learning — they not only packed the house with 16,000 fans, they had to lock out ticket-holders in order to prevent the fire marshall from shutting down the game.

That was all the way back in 1990.

Now, Belmont and Lipscomb have a combined enrollment of about 9,000 students today. But 22 years ago, there were probably have as many enrolled students at the two universities. That fact alone goes to show you just how passionate these fan bases are that they were able to sell out Memorial Coliseum.

Now consider this: Belmont went Division I in 1997. Lipscomb followed suit a couple of years later in 2000.

Back in 1990, the two schools were members of the NAIA. Granted, they were both powerhouse programs competing for national titles year in and year out, but they were still NAIA schools.

Have you ever been to an NAIA game? Me neither. And more than 16,000 still showed up to see these two teams play.

That should give you an idea of what this rivalry is all about.

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What makes the intensity of this rivalry so unique is that both schools embody the lost philosophy of the student-athlete.

There are a couple of players that took the court at the Curb Center on Belmont’s campus on Friday night that may be able to play basketball professionally someday. There are a lot of leagues overseas, and there is a reason these kids were able to get their education paid for through hoops. They certainly aren’t bad basketball players.

But NBA scouts weren’t beating down the doors of the Curb Center trying to get one last credential for the game. John Calipari didn’t recruit any of these kids out of high school. The game wasn’t televised anywhere, let alone on ESPN.

In other words, even if one of the kids from Belmont or Lipscomb does play for pay when their collegiate career comes to a close, they won’t be making a life-changing amount of money. Eventually, they are all going to go pro in something other than sports.

“Its just two programs that are trying to do things the right way,” Lipscomb head coach Scott Sanderson said after the game. “A lot of times people cut corners trying to do a lot of stuff, trying to recruit good kids. Everyone here is going to graduate, which is very important to both of us.”

Belmont is a school with very strong music and arts programs, and being located a stone’s throw from downtown Nashville — the Music City — makes it difficult to get a casual fan base to make time in a busy schedule to come see a game. Lipscomb has similar issues with their athletics programs. Their school is affiliated with the Church of Christ, which means that things like drinking and partying and even staying out past 11 pm is not allowed. The Bison faithful aren’t exactly shotgunning beers outside of Allen Arena prior to the game.

The lack of interest in athletics as a whole is a negative and a positive.

Both the Bruins and the Bison have trouble selling tickets to the majority of their home games, and its understandable. I’m a basketball junkie and you’d have a tough time convincing me its worthwhile to pay for a ticket to the Florida-Gulf Coast come to town. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to convince an aspiring country music star to skip a gig at one of the local honky-tonks to see a game against 2-14 Jacksonville.

But it also helps to build up the intensity for the times that the two schools do share a court. The Battle of the Boulevard is more than just a basketball game; its an event. Its something that people look forward to, talk trash prior to and attend because it fills their social agenda.

“Its an event and everybody hypes it up and talks trash on facebook and everyone promotes the game and comes out,” Belmont senior forward Mick Hedgepeth said. “The news comes to our practice the day of the game and I’m sure it goes to their’s. To see what the coaches and players have to say. Its a blast.”

Case in point: Belmont SID Greg Sage said that even though Belmont’s basketball team has been relevant nationally for the past few years, he still has a tough time convincing some of the local media to come cover a game. That will happen when you’re team is far from the only game in town.

But on Friday afternoon, both of the FM sports radio stations in Nashville were broadcasting their afternoon drive-time shows live from the student center right outside the doors to Belmont’s arena.

That doesn’t happen unless Lipscomb is visiting.

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The Battle of the Boulevard dates all the way back to 1953.

This year’s first installment, an 85-74 come from behind victory on the road for Lipscomb in front of a Curb Center record crowd of 5,227, was the 129th in the history of the series. The Bison improved to 73-56 all-time vs. Belmont with the win. They’ve played as NAIA teams and as members of Division II. They’ve shared conference affiliations in the Volunteer State Athletic Conference and the TransSouth before the Atlantic Sun. And while Belmont is currently the stronger hoops program, it wasn’t always that way.

“They had the upper hand, they were a phenomenal NAIA powerhouse,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd told Kyle Whelliston of the Mid-Majority in his book “One Beautiful Season”, which chronicled his travels during the 2009-2010 season. “But we challenged them, and by 1994-95 we beat them six times in a roe. For the first ten years, I was just trying to get us to the point when we were good enough for us to beat Lipscomb. At the beginning, everyone at the school was saying ‘We’ve got to be Lipscomb, we’ve got to beat Lipscomb’. My thought was that we had to get good enough to beat the other teams in the league, and then we could start thinking about beating the best. That’s how good Lipscomb was.”

When Byrd first took the Belmont job back in the mid-1980’s, Lipscomb was being led by Don Meyer, who just so happens to be the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history. Of the 923 wins he had in his career, 665 of them came with the Bison. He built Lipscomb from a team that won just 11 games in his first season into the 1986 NAIA champions, but it was a game that took place at the end of the 1989 season that will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the rivalry.

Meyer had perhaps his best team in his tenure with the Bison. Lipscomb was 38-1 heading into the league playoffs, but Byrd’s scrappy group of underdogs knocked off the Bison and kept them from advancing to the National Tournament. With the majority of both rosters returning for the 1989-1990, it set the stage for the game in 1990 when, the Bruins opted to move their home game to Memorial Coliseum.

The 16,000 people that were in attendance is still a record for an NAIA game.

Byrd’s program eventually eclipsed that of Meyer so much so that, in 1997, the Bruins decided to move their athletics to the Division I level. They did so in 1997, and after four years as an independent, Belmont landed safely in the Atlantic Sun. Not to be upstaged by their intercity rivals, Lipscomb did the same in 2000. Their tortuous stint as a Divison I independent lasted only three years before they, too, ended up in the Atlantic Sun.

After an eight year hiatus, Belmont and Lipscomb reignited their rivalry. The Battle of the Boulevard was, once again, a conference clash.

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The athletes aren’t the only members of the schools that take this rivalry incredibly seriously.

The students do as well.

“You gotta beat them,” TJ Ojehomon, a sophomore an Lipscomb and the school’s athletics hype man said. “Its bragging rights. There’s a lot of pride. Having a successful season kind of rides on beating this team.”

Ojehomon is at every single Lipscomb home game, be it women’s basketball, men’s basketball, volleyball. You name it. He has his seat reserved at the end of the front row, and he spends the majority of the game working up a sweat trying to get the fans of his team into the game. As he describes it, he has “a big responsibility with getting the fans a little rowdy at our games and our athletic events.”

Ojehomon made the trek down the Boulevard to attend the game at Belmont. The way he explains it, the rivalry has more to it than just athletics.

“You don’t have to many schools of equal competition that’s right down the street from each other,” he said. “So when you do get two Division I schools who try to pride themselves on the same morals and try to compete with each other with the students they select and not just the athletics they’re performing? This is a huge game.”

Its not just basketball, either. The attendance at the Belmont’s soccer games increases five-fold when Lipscomb visits. Belmont students head over to Allen Arena to take in the women’s volleyball games with regularity. And all the energy and trash talk that we saw from the 5,227 people in the crowd for Friday’s basketball game?

Its present for the other sports as well.

“Its not one of those love-hate rivalries. We don’t like Belmont, Belmont don’t like us,” Ojehomon said. “They came over to our house for Battle of the Boulevard volleyball. We were doing the same thing, kind of heckling each other and talking a lot of trash, and at the end they came over and shook hands and said ‘Hey man, we had a great time.’ So it is friendly, but when we’re in the heat of it, I don’t like them.”

Braxton Wilson is a fifth-year senior at Belmont and a brother in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Belmont. Playing the role Belmont’s Van Wilder, he’s been to every single Battle of the Boulevard basketball game, home and away, in his time at the school.

But for Wilson, the tone of the rivalry was set the first time he attended a game. As a freshman back in 2007-2008, Lipscomb hosted the first game. Wilson went over with a group of his frat brothers, but the Lipscomb athletic department stuck them up in a corner where their view was blocked by the basket.

“We ended up being so loud and so obnoxious that they never gave us a bad seat again,” Wilson said.

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It would be impossible to recap all of the legendary battles waged between these two schools over the past 59 years, but in the mind of John Langdon, a member of Belmont’s athletic department for 14 years and a big enough Bruin supporter that he’s stopped attending the Battle of the Boulevard games in Allen Arena because he can’t handle seeing Belmont losing to their rivals, one game in particular sticks out.

Belmont’s 74-69 overtime win over Lipscomb in the 2006 Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament title game.

“That win kind of sent the two programs on their divergent paths,” Langdon said. Belmont to the top of the league and Lipscomb back to the middle of the pack.

In just their third season in the Division I ranks, Lipscomb had managed a tie with the Bruins for the league’s regular season title. The two teams had split during the regular season, meaning that not only were bragging rights in the city on the line, a first-ever NCAA Tournament bid for either school was up for grabs. The importance of the game for the two programs could not have been overstated.

The excitement of the game didn’t let the crowd down, either. With less than 30 seconds left in regulation, Jordan Hare drove for an and-one layup, hitting the free throw to tie the game and force overtime, where the Bruins would eventually win and advance to their first of four NCAA Tournament. In 2008, Belmont lost to Duke by one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when Gerald Henderson scored on a driving layup with 11.9 seconds left and the Bruins came up short on two opportunities in the final ten seconds.

Last season, the Bruins won 30 games and earned a 13 seed in the Big Dance, where they lost to Wisconsin by 14 in the first round. With the majority of their roster returning, Belmont was once again considered the favorite in the Atlantic Sun and one of the few mid-majors to get consideration for the top 25 prior to the season. Lipscomb has yet to make another serious run at getting an NCAA Tournament bid.

And if you believe the folks at Belmont, it was that win in 2006 that made all the difference.

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The other unique part of this rivalry is that for all the hatred on the court and the vitriol spewed from the stands during the games, the majority of the players are friends.

Or, the very least, friendly.

“I know some of their older guys being a senior,” Hedgepeth said. “I see them around, I like a couple of those guys. I’m friendly with them. But once you cross those lines, their is no friends.”

The way the Atlantic Sun is set up, every team in the league has a travel partner, and, obviously, Belmont and Lipscomb are travel partners. When Belmont plays at Jacksonville, Lipscomb plays at North Florida. Two days later, when Lipscomb is playing at Jacksonville, Belmont is playing at North Florida. Its like that every time they travel.

And it can set up some awkward situations.

“We flew back from Jacksonville Thursday, [a day before the Battle of the Boulevard], and we were on the same plane,” Sanderson said. “[Coach Byrd] was on one side of the aisle watching film and I was on the other side of the aisle watching film.”

Can you imagine Coach K and Roy Williams watching tape of each other’s teams sitting across the aisle from each other on a plane the day before UNC played Duke? I can’t.

“We’re friends. We don’t talk all the time, but we’re nice to one another and we respect one another,” Sanderson said.

Players at this level are no different than players are the high-major programs. They know that they shouldn’t tell members of the press anything that would make it up onto the wall of an opponent’s locker room, even if those members of the press are simply a pair of bloggers on a cross-country trip. That said, you could still get a sense of the intensity of this rivalry through the sugar-coated quotes from members of both teams.

“I do think that it’s not any fun to lose this game. It’s not any fun to lose any game, but it’s been a long, long time since we’ve been upset,” Byrd said after his team’s loss on Friday night. “If you want to say that last year’s loss at their place was an upset, you can, but they were picked to win the league and it was on their home floor. I don’t remember when we’ve been upset before that. It’s a long, long stretch, so I’m proud of what our team has accomplished. There aren’t many people who can go back over a year and a half and say that they haven’t been upset. This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”

“The games haven’t been as close here recently. When Scott first got in the league, it seemed like we had overtime games every time. They haven’t been as good recently, but it’s the toughest game for us to lose … a Lipscomb game on our floor.”

Its not just the coaches, either.

“We do play some pickup in the summer and we do have some friends on the other team,” Jacob Arnett, a redshirt junior at Lipscomb, said after Friday’s win. “We’ll hang out and stuff like that. Its not all hatred except on the court.”

“And maybe a little bit off it.”

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Last year, Belmont hosted the Battle of the Boulevard on January 13th. It was a Thursday and came just one day after Belmont started classes for the spring semester. In 2009-2010, the game was held at Belmont on January 26th, a full two weeks into the semester. In 2008-2009, Belmont hosted the game on January 12th. It was a Monday and while classes had yet to start — they were beginning the Wednesday of that week — the dorms had opened on the 11th, meaning that the students were back on campus.

This season, the Curb Center played host to the Battle of the Boulevard on January 6th, which is the earliest that this rivalry has taken place since both school became members of the Atlantic Sun back in the 2003-2004 season.

This year, Belmont’s dorms opened up on New Year’s Day. Their classes started on Wednesday, January 4th. Every Belmont student was back on campus for the game.

Coincidence?

“We don’t start school until Monday,” Sanderson said. “We usually have a whole section full with our people. That’s what the rivalry is about, to have that environment in here.”

Does that make this win feel that much better?

With a smile as he walked away, Sanderson simply said “It does.”

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.