NCAA

Catholic conference offers challenge, opportunity

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Catholic conference offers challenge, opportunity

As a chunk of the Big East transforms itself into a mostly or even all-Catholic basketball league, the conference faces a choice: play up or play down its faith-based roots?

With Catholic higher education already struggling to strike a balance between faith and financial security, either course carries both challenges and opportunities.

On the one hand, the seven schools that announced Saturday they'll set off on their own - St. John's, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova - have already made clear they'll look to non-denominational institutions that otherwise fit their profile, such as Butler, to expand.

But even if they do so, the conference's identity will likely lie with its core of Catholic-rooted schools. To be sure, going overboard with that identity could harm recruiting of non-Catholic students - both athletes and non-athletes - and limit expansion. But a moderate embrace could help institutions reconnect their sports programs to their missions, and reinvigorate their religious identities at a time when important groups on campus fear it's slipping away.

Think of a non-secular Ivy League, but with much better basketball. It might take a leap of faith to believe these days, but the NCAA's musical chairs game of conference realignment isn't always just about money.

``Its' not all about revenue,'' said Warren Zola, an assistant dean at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, who follows college sports business issues closely. ``It's partly about brand. I think the Catholic schools are looking at that and thinking, `What do we have in common with the existing Big East and the future Big East?'''

It's not a coincidence that the seven schools that announced Saturday they're separating from the Big East are all Catholic. They're each part of a tradition that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - church institutions that sprang up to serve urban immigrant communities. Neither their demographics nor tightly-packed city campuses lent themselves to football players and stadiums (Notre Dame, with space to grow in Indiana, proved the exception to the pattern).

Basketball was a better fit for city schools, and each has done well with it.

The problem today is that college athletics revolves around big-time football dollars. That's left behind the niche these Catholic schools inhabit - basketball powers where football is either second-fiddle (Georgetown, Villanova) or not played at all (the others). So they're setting off on their own.

``If it ends up as all Catholic schools, that's the way we're going to talk about them,'' said Linda Bruno, a former associate commissioner of the Big East and former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference, who now leads the Division III Skyline conference. But while it will be up to the school presidents to decide whether to market the conference that way, she's not sure that's the best course.

``Why box yourself in?'' she said. ``They're so much more than a Catholic basketball league. They're going to be a national basketball league.''

So far, that seems to be the marketing plan.

``The criteria that we'll set forth will be non-denominational,'' Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said Sunday, adding the group will be looking for schools that are committed to top-tier competition, are ``attractive media entities,'' and ``care about the holistic development of their student athletes.''

``When you start to populate that matrix, you'll probably see some Catholic schools in there and see some schools that aren't Catholic,'' he said.

Still, it's also worth noting that five of the seven institutions now leaving the Big East are led by priests or members of religious orders. Seton Hall installed its first lay president in 2010, and it's widely believed that many such schools will soon follow, given the dwindling pool of academics from the clergy or religious orders.

That could encourage the current presidents to try to put a mission-related stamp on the conference, a way to distinguish the schools in this particular league.

What kind of stamp? One model is the Ivy League, which prohibits athletic scholarships (but awards them for financial need), and schedules league basketball games only on weekends (the Ivy League also doesn't allow football teams to play in the post-season).

The soon-to-be former Big East schools probably wouldn't go that route. But they could impose their own mission-related choices like public service requirements and higher ethical standards - practices that could be cast in non-sectarian terms that the likes of Butler might embrace.

And while Butler's two recent runs to the national title game make it especially appealing, there's no shortage of Catholic colleges with creditable basketball programs that might aspire to such company, and where the played-up Catholic identity would be part of the appeal. Gonzaga and St. Mary's on the West Coast may prove too far away, but Creighton, Dayton, Xavier, Canisius and St. Bonaventure could all be potential candidates (as might Saint Joseph's and LaSalle in Philadelphia, but for the fact nearby Villanova would be unlikely to accept expansion in its own market).

At the far end, one could even imagine a conference decision not to play games on Sundays - and a dramatic showdown with the NCAA over a request to be assigned only to Thursday-Saturday brackets in the NCAA basketball tournament.

``That would definitely be something meaningful,'' said Rev. John Piderit, president of the New York-based Catholic Education Institute, mulling the Sunday idea.

A few of Piderit's other suggestions, like ``name that hymn'' contests and saints trivia on the scoreboard of basketball games, likely wouldn't get past the schools' marketing teams.

But they speak to the kind of branding opportunity only Notre Dame routinely gets among America's Catholic schools. Notre Dame's slick ``What Would You Fight For'' campaign, boosted by this year's run to the BCS national championship, has become a marketing engine for the university and, arguably, the faith in the United States.

Another possible upshot of the new league: at a time when conference realignment has torn asunder so many natural rivalries that percolated for decades - Duke-Maryland, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Oklahoma-Nebraska - a conference embracing its Catholic identity could reinvigorate some natural ones. Imagine the intensity of Catholic high school basketball rivalries, but with 15,000 spectators instead of 1,500.

``A Catholic basketball conference could be a way back to the roots of why conferences came together initially,'' Zola said. ``I think it's fantastic if some leaders in intercollegiate athletics can put the brakes on chasing every dollar out of their potential in athletics and refocus on their purpose as an institution.''

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AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report from Villanova, Pa.

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Follow Justin Pope athttp://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP

Mercer @ North Carolina: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

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Mercer @ North Carolina: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

Mercer (4-7) heads to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels (4-6) for an afternoon matchup live on NBC Sports Washington.

How to watch Mercer vs. North Carolina

Who: Mercer vs. North Carolina

When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC.

TV Channel: NBC Sports Washington

Live Stream: NBC Sports Washington

Weather: 59 degrees, rain.

UNC full 2019 football schedule

Week 1: Sat Aug. 31 vs South Carolina: W 24-20

Week 2: Fri, Sep 13 @ Wake Forest: L 24-18

Week 3: Sat, Sep 21 vs Appalachian State: L 34-31 

Week 4: Sat, Sep 28 vs Clemson: L 21-20 

Week 5: Sat, Oct 5 @ Georgia Tech: W 38-22 

Week 6: Sat, Oct 19 @ Virginia Tech: L 43-41 

Week 7: Sat, Oct 26 vs Duke: W 20-17 

Week 8: Sat, Nov 2 vs Virginia: L 38-31

Week 9: Thu, Nov 14 @ Pittsburgh: L 34-27 OT 

Week 11: Sat, Nov 23 vs Mercer 3:30 PM 

Week 12: Sat, Nov 30 @ NC State 7:00 PM

Hokies sink record 21 3-pointers in win over Delaware State

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Hokies sink record 21 3-pointers in win over Delaware State

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young offered a simple explanation for his team’s record-setting performance Wednesday.

“All coaching,” he said, jokingly. “All coaching."

Nahiem Alleyne scored 20 points and the Hokies hit a school-record 21 3-pointers en route to an easy 100-64 victory over Delaware State on Wednesday.

Alleyne hit 7 of 11 from the floor, including five 3-pointers, and Jalen Cone added 17 points to help the Hokies (5-0) extend their home nonconference winning streak to 28 consecutive games. The freshmen guards led a balanced Virginia Tech attack in which nine players scored – and seven of them hit at least one 3-pointer.

“This offense is built on making 3s, but also they want us to drive more and get to the paint and get to the foul line more,” Alleyne said. ???But if we’re open, we’re going to take it.”

John Crosby led Delaware State (0-5) with 19 points.

The Hornets jumped out to a 7-0 lead, hitting three of their first five shots from the floor. But the Hokies found their shooting stroke and scored the next 11 points, never trailing again. The Hokies hit eight 3-pointers in the first half in grabbing a 45-27 halftime lead, and then they blew the game wide open in the second half, hitting 13 3s and scoring 55 points.

“We have a number of kids that can shoot the ball,” Young said. “I empower them. When the leather hits your hands, let ’er rip. If you’re open and in rhythm, and it’s a practice shot … we have a number of kids that shoot the ball well. I didn’t think we took a bad shot. I thought they were rhythm shots and good shots.”

Virginia Tech also set an ACC record with its 21 3-pointers. The Hokies hit 21 of their 37 3-point attempts, with Alleyne, Cone and Isaiah Wilkins hitting five each. Virginia Tech shot a season-best 56.5% (35 of 62) from the floor.

“They shot the cover off the ball,” Delaware State head coach Eric Skeeters said. “You think you did a good job of guard and rotate and switch and getting out to them, and then ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ … They played like an ACC team to their credit.”

TIP-INS

Delaware State: The Hornets could have one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's better players in Crosby, who transferred from Dayton and sat out last season. The senior, who has scored in double figures in every game, wasn't intimidated at playing against an ACC opponent and showed an ability to create his own shot. If he continues to play well, he could lead the Hornets to a better finish than many expect. They were picked to finish 10th in the 11-team MEAC.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies finally were able to get Wilkins going after a slow start to the season. Wilkins, one of their more experienced players, was shooting just 34.8% (24 of 69) and had made just two 3-pointers coming into the game, but he scored 15 points in what marked his best outing of the season by far.

HOKIES READY FOR STEP UP

Virginia Tech hasn’t played a Power 5 school since its season-opening win over Clemson, and two of its past four games have been against teams picked in the bottom half of the MEAC (Delaware State and Coppin State). But the young Hokies – with just one senior on the roster – take a serious step up on the competition ladder when they face No. 3 Michigan State on Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

“We go out there with a good basketball team,” Young said. “We’re going to improve. It’ll be a far different scout, a far different prep than what we’re accustomed to. They’re unlike anything that we’ve played to this point, but the time has come. The time has come to play somebody really, really good. It will test everything we have done with them through this point in the season, and I look forward to seeing them compete again.”

UP NEXT

Delaware State: The Hornets play at East Tennessee State on Saturday.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies play No. 3 Michigan State in Hawaii as part of the Maui Invitational on Monday.

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