For years now — too many for my comfort — the Baltimore college basketball scene has played second fiddle to the likes of neighboring Philadelphia and Washington DC.
Philly, of course, has the famed “Big Five” that has morphed into more like the “Sexy Six” with the emergence of Drexel over the last decade or so.
If you’ve never been to The Palestra, you don’t know what you’re missing.
And Washington DC boasts Georgetown, George Washington, American U and, on the outskirts, you can arguably add Maryland and George Mason. All five of those schools have experienced the excitement of the NCAA tournament and have won championships in their respective conferences.
Baltimore, meanwhile, hasn’t had much national success over the last 15 years, with only UMBC and Morgan State earning tickets to the Big Dance in each of the last two years.
But that doesn’t mean Baltimore’s college basketball scene is without a representative force in the college game.
There IS a new sheriff in town: and his name is Morgan State University.
Monday night at Hill Field House, the Bears spanked UMES, 91-54 in front of 3,100 fans. And as much as it pains me to say this and give a nod to those scallywags up I-95, Monday night “felt like Philadelphia”.
Todd Bozeman’s roster is filled with Baltimore-born players and his top performer, Reggie Holmes, has a near-cult-following at home games…and rightfully so. Holmes is a flashy, athletic, tireless player on the court and best of all, he can shoot the basketball. That means he scores points. And that means people like to watch him play. And because he’s from Baltimore – along with the others – you can almost hear the swelling level of pride as the game goes on and Holmes takes over the court. At halftime last night, Holmes (St. Frances) and Troy Smith (Douglass) had combined for 29 points. They outscored the entire UMES team by seven.
Morgan State’s season to date includes a perfect 6-0 MEAC record and a 14-7 record overall. I’ll be the first to admit that the Bears are dominating a generally weak basketball conference — the MEAC’s conference RPI is always one of the lowest in the country. But the Bears aren’t 6-15 overall with a 6-0 MEAC mark and an 0-15 record against the rest of their competition. They’re a legitimate program with very good division one players on their roster. They certainly wouldn’t finish last in the CAA or America East or the MAAC…that’s for sure.
I’ve often said that part of the allure of attending local basketball games is to see players, either on the home or visiting team, who are “worth the price of admission”. Morgan State basketball and Reggie Holmes in particular…they’re worth the price of the ticket.
And notwithstanding how entertaining Todd Bozeman’s basketball team is, the Morgan State Band, long heralded as one of the best in the country, jazz’s up the crowd from start to finish. They’re Earth, Wind and Fire x 20 without Phillip Bailey at the microphone. One thing for sure…they put out as much effort as anyone on the court and they’re a big part of the atmosphere at Hill Field House.
Speaking of Hill Field House, have you been there recently?
If not, that’s your fault and your loss.
Parking? Not an issue at all. They have a brand new, state-of-the-art, well-lit parking garage with 100 yards of the front door to the gym. Seating? Not a bad seat in the house. The building itself is spotless, the lighting in the gym is superb and it has become – almost without question – the best venue to watch college basketball in Baltimore right now.
And then there’s the coach. When Morgan State hired Todd Bozeman in April of 2006, they took a huge gamble and inherited a lightning rod for local and national discussion.
As S.E. Hinton wrote, “That was then, This is now”.
The whispers about the coach who got “the death penalty” have been replaced by loud, appropriate applause for a man who pledged to come back and atone for his wrong-doings and in four short years on Hillen Road, he’s delivered on that promise — and then some.
Bozeman’s product at Morgan State is all Baltimore. His players are Charm City’s working class performers — they might not have the glitz and glitter of, say, Carmelo Anthony or Rudy Gay, but they sure as hell can play basketball. Just ask Gary Williams…or Louisville…or Arkansas…or anyone in the MEAC.
And make no mistake about it — Todd Bozeman has revitalized basketball at Morgan State. Kids in Baltimore want to play for him. Kids in Baltimore want to go to Morgan State just for the sake of “going to Morgan”. Kids in Baltimore are now going to Hill Field House and watching “grown ups” from their neighborhood play basketball and aspiring to be like them someday.
I went to Hill Field House in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to watch college basketball and it was drab, dreary and lifeless. Other than the band, the loudest noise of the night might have the bouncing of the ball on the floor or the referee’s whistle.
Now, you have to strain to hear the whistle, what with the packed building and the buzz of the crowd.
I’d love to see Baltimore someday rival Philadelphia and Washington DC for college basketball quality. If the rest of the schools in Charm City would follow Morgan State’s footprints – both on and off the court – that day might arrive sooner than we all think.