Monday, December 17, 2012

Coming Up (Purple) Aces

By Andrew Hard

Saturday's Game: Evansville Purple Aces 80, Alabama State Hornets 67
(Ford Center, Evansville, IN)

(If you missed Part I -- the first installment of the Big Bottom 10 -- click here)

Saturday's trip took me to a place I didn't figure I would be able to cross off The Road to 592 while I was living in Nashville, and if I did, a place where I figured I would spend the night at the Casino Aztar riverboat-gambling the night away. This Southern Indiana city on the banks of the Ohio River fully embraces its gambling heritage, as depicted in its college nickname and mascot, Ace Purple (where can I get one of those purple tuxedos?). Purple Ace is a fictional depiction of a turn-of-the-century riverboat gambler, and legend has it he once went on a blackjack run so long that everyone in the casino grew one of his signature handlebar mustaches (I may or may not have made some of that up).

It would be remiss of me to mention Evansville basketball without a nod to one of the biggest tragedies in sports history -- in 1977, right after its move to Division I, the Evansville basketball team plane crashed en route to a game at MTSU, killing all coaches and players aboard (in a cruel twist, the one player who did not travel with the team that day was killed by a drunk driver two weeks later). Saturday's game marked roughly the 35th anniversary of that crash, and the team held a moment of silence before the game honoring the victims of both that tragedy and Friday's Newtown, Conn. massacre. After recovering and rebuilding the team, the Purple Aces joined the now-Horizon League and made 4 NCAA appearances in 15 years there, notching the program's lone tournament win in 1989 over Oregon State. The Aces moved up to the Missouri Valley Conference in 1994, where success has been slim: only 3 times in 18 seasons has Evansville finished conference play with a winning record in the MVC, the last time being in 1999 (the Aces' most recent NCAA appearance).

If you think conference realignment talk is limited to the Big East, ACC, and "Catholic 7," think again. Evansville has had to dispel rumors this week that it is on the way back to the Horizon League in order to remain more competitive in basketball, a league that is looking to expand after unexpectedly losing Butler to the A-10 prior to this season.

Evansville is not going anywhere, though, tied to a conference that regularly gets multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament and has a TV deal with ESPN. The Aces also moved off campus into the 10,000-seat Ford Center last season, a venue that screams hockey arena (it also houses the ECHL's Evansville IceMen) but has given Evansville the state-of-the-art facility it needs to continue attracting recruits to compete in the better MVC. It wasn't the best place to watch a basketball game, though -- the corner seats were a good distance back from the court to fit within the hockey alignment. Here was the view from my seat when the action was on the other side of the court:

The Road to 592, by nature, is going to be littered with second- and third-level opponents and low points in a team's schedule, and Saturday's game definitely felt like one. Evansville packed over 4,000 fans into the Ford Center on Saturday, an impressive feat considering a) The game tipped off at 1:00 PM; b) There didn't seem to be any students there -- I'm guessing that a lot of post-finals hangovers were not so conducive to a 2.5-mile trek from the campus to the arena; c) It wasn't exactly Indiana on the other sideline -- or even Murray State. So while it would have been a lot of fun and a great crowd to catch Creighton or Wichita State on upset alert, it turned out to be a high-Level 1 crowd for this Alabama State matchup. Evansville got up big early on a few 3s from sharpshooter Colt Ryan (24 points) and was never really threatened, taking a 17-point lead into the half and cruising to an 80-67 victory. Aces fans cheered loudly when they scored, and even louder for the 3s, but it didn't quite have the feel of a crowd that could have affected the game. Fortunately, Evansville didn't need it.

So my experience in the riverboat gambling haven of the lower Midwest was short-lived but worth the drive (those of you living in Nashville can easily make the 2.5-hour trek for a night at the casinos, and many of you already have). Good luck to the Aces in MVC play this season. I leave you with a picture of purple candy-cane warm-up pants:

(Thanks to Jonathan Lintner at the Evansville Courier Press, @ECP_Lintner, for providing tidbits and links)

College basketball count: 10/347; Total count: 39/592

Next One Up: Tuesday, 12/18 -- Lipscomb @ Austin Peay

--The Road to 592 is a pipe dream started by a diehard Atlanta fan with a sparse history of truly great sports atmospheres (being Atlanta and all). Read up on my unending pursuit here and check out the full list of venues here. For those sick of conference realignment, you can also relish in another pipe dream of mine -- the 28-team SEC. Follow me on Twitter @andrewhhard.

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