Governor's Hoops Classic will be a holiday gift for state basketball fans

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RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell will never match predecessors Mark Warner and Doug Wilder for impact on sports, but the college basketball initiative he unveiled Wednesday carries exceptional promise for fans in Virginia.

The Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic will showcase eight state programs, four each in December 2012 and '13, in one-night doubleheaders at the Richmond Coliseum. The event's fruition comes in the wake of a record five Virginia teams earning NCAA tournament bids last season.

Those five — Hampton, Old Dominion, VCU, George Mason and Richmond — plus Virginia Tech, Virginia and James Madison are the contestants. The 2012 games are Richmond-Mason and ODU-Virginia, with JMU-HU and VCU-Tech the following year.

"If we can get four conferences and eight schools to agree on a date for a basketball game," McDonnell said during a morning news conference at the Coliseum, "certainly we can get two parties and two houses in Washington to agree on a budget."

Glib line and almost accurate. Given each school's future scheduling obligations and preferences, making this happen was a chore.

Virginia and Virginia Tech were must-haves. They haven't been the state's most successful programs recently, but their ACC pedigree will enhance ticket sales and media coverage.

VCU of the Colonial Athletic Association and Richmond in the Atlantic 10 were givens, too. The Rams and Spiders not only reached the Final Four and Sweet 16, respectively, last season, but also sell the event in the city limits.

ODU, Mason and JMU, all from the CAA, were natural choices, if only for their rabid fans. Moreover, the Monarchs boast eight consecutive winning seasons and the Patriots a 2006 Final Four banner.

The wild card was Hampton. The Pirates' conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic, is more obscure, and their fan base is smaller, but they have reached more NCAA tournaments (four) since 2001 than Virginia (two) or Virginia Tech (one).

"I'd like to think what we did last season had something to do with it," HU coach Ed Joyner said of his team's MEAC championship, NCAA bid and 24-9 record.

What the Pirates accomplished in 2010-11 had everything to do with their inclusion, and props to the governor's staff for selecting them.

The Governor's Classic pairings are equally sage.

Richmond-Mason rekindles a former CAA rivalry that died when the Spiders bolted for the A-10 in 2001. Most intriguing, ODU-Virginia and VCU-Tech are rare CAA-ACC, neutral-site contests, opportunities the CAA always craves and the ACC often dreads.

"We're really excited to come to Richmond to play a neutral-court game against VCU," Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said with a wry smile, knowing full well the Coliseum is just down Broad Street from VCU.

"Scheduling can be very, very challenging, probably for all of us up here, but particularly all of us at the mid-major level," Rams coach Shaka Smart said. "For us to have an opportunity to play an ACC team, and Coach Greenberg's Hokies, on a neutral court, is just phenomenal for us."

In the last five years, VCU is 2-1 against the ACC at neutral venues. The Rams defeated Duke in the 2007 NCAA tournament, lost to Miami in the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip Off and beat Florida State last March in the NCAAs.

Similarly, ODU bested the ACC's Clemson last season in the Virgin Islands and fell to North Carolina in the 2007 Las Vegas Invitational.

"To get us all together is really a significant thing," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said of the eight programs.

Not as significant as Warner arm-twisting the ACC to invite Virginia Tech or Wilder granting clemency to Allen Iverson. But a cool deal for fans, and a worthy cause, with proceeds benefiting Virginia Food Banks.

"We're expecting the place to be packed," Smart said.

And if it is, the event should extend beyond two years.

"It depends on the fans embracing it and the support of the students and the universities," McDonnell said. "Assuming we fill this place up and it's warmly embraced by the city of Richmond, I'd love to continue it."

Was there any thought of coercing the schools into a two-day tournament?

"That," McDonnell said, "was probably a bridge too far."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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