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Local college hoops to return to First Niagara Center

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Dec. 11 will be a special day for Western New York college basketball fans.

The season’s non-conference slate will be in full swing, and the pinnacle will be Canisius against the University at Buffalo at the First Niagara Center, a press release from Canisius Athletics detailed today.

While the two Western New York foes face each other on an annual basis, the contests have typically been held at campus sites rather than a neutral location.

Perhaps the most appealing storyline of the match-up is new UB head coach Bobby Hurley’s first match-up against sage Canisius head coach Jim Baron, a Western New York coaching legend. If anything will test the mettle of Hurley’s coaching development, it’s the grizzled Baron.

In addition to the rivalry match between the Griffs and the Bulls, the Niagara Purple Eagles will host the Davidson Wildcats on the same night.

With the exception of St. Bonaventure, local college basketball fans will be able to check out three of the four WNY-based Division I basketball programs on one night at a major venue.

Basketball isn’t totally foreign to the First Niagara Center—formerly HSBC Arena—as the Sabres’ home also played host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Division I College Basketball Tournament, and it will do so for a fifth time in March 2014 (find ticket information here).

Given the popularity of the NCAA Tournament in Western New York—even if the general public’s interest doesn’t fully translate into support for local lower-level schools—it’s not shocking that the regionals have sold out every year downtown.

The dearth of local college basketball teams scheduling games at the First Niagara Center—which seats 18,690—can be easily explained by the fact that rivalry contests typically pack college gymnasiums, present an intense home-court advantage and, presumably, the cost of renting out the massive venue seems unnecessary when your own college gym is an alternative.

Look back at former Niagara Gazette writer Jonah Bronstein’s piece from December 2007, which includes an interview with former UB coach Reggie Witherspoon on the sticking points of a rivalry game at a neutral location.

To get the local teams into the arena took more convincing, said Witherspoon, now the head coach at UB. That Canisius and Niagara being members of the same conference meant the four teams involved had, at minimum, four different agendas, Witherspoon said.

“The struggle for every college basketball team now is to get as many games at home as you possibly can,” Witherspoon said. “Canisius can kind of consider the arena to be their home.”

The other schools, particularly St. Bonaventure and Niagara, felt they were going on the road to play in downtown Buffalo.

“Those were the sentiments expressed to me because I had to talk to these coaches on the phone,” Witherspoon said. “Getting them to want to move games off their campus was hard. This became something that you couldn’t get past and there wasn’t a great argument for the games.”

Still, there’s value in scheduling college rivalry games or other widely anticipated affairs in major off-campus venues—St. Bonaventure drew an impressive crowd when hosting North Carolina State in Andrew Nicholson’s senior year—and the on-campus vs. off-campus is a debate that’s raged for years.

Here’s an in-depth take by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf that reveals the scheduling problem isn’t exclusive to mid-major programs in smaller basketball markets.

As for the December match-up, Canisius will boast a quartet of outstanding seniors in 2013-14, featuring point guard and All-MAAC First Team selection Billy Baron, burly center Chris Manhertz, long forward Jordan Heath and touted Stetson transfer Chris Perez.

Much like Canisius, UB will be senior laden as well, boasting forward Javon McCrea, a two-time All-Mid-American Conference First-Teamer, senior point guard Jarod Oldham, All-Freshmen selection Jarryn Skeete and junior forward Will Regan. Both local teams look poised to finish in the top half of their respective conferences, as the Griffs should vie for the MAAC title with preseason favorite Manhattan, while the Bulls will battle for the top in a wide open MAC.

We hope local college basketball fans will come out in droves for this local showcase, as Canisius and the University at Buffalo should both be very competitive in 2013-14.

(Photos courtesy of Robin David Brown—see the full gallery here).

TAGGED: big 4, billy baron, bobby hurley, canisius griffins, college basketball, downtown, first niagara center, javon mccrea, jim baron, ub bulls

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