The SEC/Big East Invitational does things a bit differently than the other conference challenges. Games aren’t played on campus, they’re played as neutral site showcases. Since the Big East has 16 members and the SEC has 12, the two leagues decided to not even bother trying to get the bulk of their members involved.
That means the event is two doubleheaders, one at a “neutral” site in the Big East footprint, the other in the Southeast.
Sometimes, this works. The SEC site in 2007 was Birmingham, and Alabama and Auburn played. Last year in Nashville, Tennessee and Vanderbilt served as hosts. Cincinnati played not far from their campus in 2008, and nearby Louisville joined them. In theory, last night’s doubleheader should have worked, but it seems like all of the Connecticut and Kentucky fans shut St. John’s supporters out of one of their own home arenas. Hence, the World’s Most Famous Arena was eerily quiet for a 7 p.m. tip.
This year, the SEC’s host site is Tampa. That made Florida, the only league member in the state, a natural choice to play in the event. Considering that there wasn’t a geographically convenient choice for the second SEC slot, Mississippi State filled it. And they played (drumroll) DePaul.
You can imagine that there wasn’t a ton of interest for that one. And as someone who watched just about every second of the Bulldogs’ 31-point triumph, I can tell you it would have been louder had they played it in an empty building.
This year’s scheduling reminded me a bit of the 2007 Big East doubleheader in Philadelphia, where Villanova got a home game, and they were joined by that famous Tri-State team, Providence.
The simple solution for this year would have been to put Tampa’s own Big East school, South Florida, in game one. Sure, it could have damaged the SEC’s homecourt advantage, but speaking as the brother of a USF grad, that would have required one of the league’s most football-focused fanbases to turn out for hoops.
Maybe it’s time for the SEC and Big East to scrap the “Invitational” concept and move this thing on campus. That would certainly be a great way to boost participation, as teams are always leery about giving up a home game for a non-exempt one-off neutral site event like this one.