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Students head to NYC for Big East

Peter Leahy | Friday, March 4, 2005

As spring break looms closer and closer, many students are looking forward to a period of rest and relaxation. This is far from true for members of the Notre Dame men’s and women’s basketball teams, who will find high levels of stress and excitement while the rest of students enjoy a must needed off season.

The reason? Both teams are headed to the Big East Tournament, and students are on their heels to watch the action.

The tournament is played in Madison Square Garden for the men and in the Hartford Civic Center for the women. The women’s tournament will run from Saturday, March 5 to Tuesday, March 8. The men’s tournament will start on Wednesday, March 9 and end on Saturday, March 12.

Anthony Travel vice president of business operations Pat Walsh has been to the men’s tournament the past five years. However, he said efforts to start a school-organized student trip has not gained enough support.

Walsh said the draw to the tournament is mostly to students and fans local to the respective locations.

“We’ve tried a couple things over the years,” he said. “It seems not to catch with a national fan base like football.”

Walsh pointed to the tournament scheduling as a major deterrent for students. Because there is a possibility that the team will get knocked out on the first day, he said it does not make sense financially for students and fans that live outside of the area to make the trip to the tournament.

But for teams closer to the tournament area – like Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse – the location provides an opportunity to make the tournament sites more like home games than neutral ones. This creates a more hostile environment for other teams, such as Notre Dame.

“It’s a definite disadvantage,” Walsh said.

Keough sophomore Tim Wyne shares Walsh’s feelings. Wyne lives in New Jersey and went to the men’s tournament last year. He says the fan bases the local teams draw are intimidating.

“UConn is the worst – they do the UConn chant,” he said. “I think it hurts. It’s not like a road game but more than a neutral site [for teams with large fan bases].”

Wyne, who obtained tickets from his father, an ND alum, said Notre Dame fans still make their presence felt at the tournament.

“We’re probably in the middle,” he said. “Nowhere near as loud as the UConn or Pitt fans.”

Walsh said that ND alumni and fans from the northeast are the reason there has been a significant showing at the men’s tournament in the past.

“It seems like the big contingent is local,” he said.

Brian Lee, a freshman from Keenan who lives in Beckonridge, N.J., said he noticed the local fan base when he went to the Navy football game earlier this year. He said about five Notre Dame fans were there for every one Navy fan. He explained Notre Dame has a tremendous appeal even to people without University ties.

“They call [local fans] the subway alumni,” Lee said.

For this reason, Stanford freshman Alex Wulz said he thinks Notre Dame will not be at a total disadvantage at either the men’s or women’s tournament. He noted the Notre Dame fan base is not limited to any area of the country, but fans from all over the world love to cheer for the Irish.

“The local schools are definitely going to have the home crowd advantage, but Notre Dame will have the Notre Dame advantage,” he said.

Lee echoed Wulz’s opinion.

“The power of the ND fan base is so much greater than any other school,” he said.

Unlike Wulz, who bought his tickets through Ticketmaster, Lee bought his tickets to the men’s tournament through the University. He paid $40 for four rounds. If the men are knocked out in the first round – their first game – Notre Dame refunds students for the final three rounds.

Wulz said he would have bought his tickets through the school as well, but they are only available to students.

Unlike Wyne, Lee and Walsh, Wulz is planning on attending the women’s tournament, as well.

“I love the women’s team, and I think our women have a shot at winning,” he said.

The women have a bye in the first round and play either West Virginia or Pittsburgh at 6 p.m. Sunday. The future is not so certain for the men. Their seeding depends on their final regular season game, set to tip off at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Unfortunately, a majority of students will not get to see the Irish battle Pitt for seeding in the tournament. With a win, the Irish would earn the fifth seed in the tournament and a first round bye. If they lose, the Irish get the sixth seed and will play on the first day of the tournament. This uncertainty is another reason Walsh said it is hard for non-local students to attend the tournaments.

However, Walsh also said the success of both the men’s and women’s teams in recent years has caused the fan base to grow.

“I think the general student interest in basketball has picked up in the last four years,” he said.

A sign of the basketball program’s recent success can be seen in the quality of opponents that line both teams’ schedules, Walsh said.

“Seeing the schedule the Big East assigns you every year is a great testament to the programs because they want us on national television,” he said.

Although this prominence may not translate into student attendance at the tournaments, Walsh said he recommends the trip.

“It’s a basketball junkie’s dream,” he said.