Big South drops ball by moving tourney to Buies Creek

col-tbuzz-2It’s time for March Madness, and all eyes in this corner of the college basketball world turn to … Buies Creek, NC: Population 2,215 (Saall-ute!).

That’s right, Big South Conference basketball fans; the road to the NCAA Tournament leads through this wide spot on the road where the most exciting thing to do is go to the local barbershop and watch a haircut. But not this week, when the Big South Conference moves its biggest (and really only) national event to Campbell University’s Gore Arena/Pope Convocation Center – the 3,000-seat home of the Fighting Camels and now the host site of the Big South Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Big South was slated to hold its marquee event at perhaps its marquee venue and host city – Coastal Carolina’s new HTC Center and the Grand Strand – for the fourth consecutive year. The location was not only beneficial to the Chanticleers, who won the last two league’s tournament and automatic bid to the Big Dance in front of a home crowd; it was also great for the league’s profile and for the fans who spent their spring break at the tournament.

But Coastal Carolina’s decision to leave the Big South and join the Sun Belt Conference proved to be the deal-breaker. League by-laws say exiting members cannot host league championships, so the Chants had to give up the Big South basketball and baseball tournaments. Or more accurately, the Big South decided to uproot the events and relocate them to less attractive locations that will do more damage to the league’s second-rate image than it will come remotely close to hurting Coastal.

Sure, the Chants would love to play in front of a supportive home crowd and enjoy the benefits of sleeping in their own beds instead of the fine accommodations at the Microtel Inn & Suites in nearby Lillington, NC, the closest hotel to campus. The fans can enjoy a tour of the James Archibald Campbell House, the historic home of the school’s founder and the town’s No. 1 attraction according to TripAdvisor. There’s one golf course, about 99 fewer than on the Grand Strand, and dining options include a sandwich from Subway, or a sandwich from Quiznos. Decisions, decisions.

Fans and students of Big South schools had grown a little spoiled over the past three years by combining a trip to the tournament with a spring break getaway. The Grand Strand offers beaches, oceanfront resorts, and countless shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities. Now they will get to experience a Big South tourney that resembles the good old days when the league was forced to move the crowd on to one side of the cracker-box gym to make it look full for the TV cameras.

So the move wasn’t for the good of the conference, or its member schools, and definitely not for the fans. The switch was made for the sole purpose of trying to punish Coastal Carolina for its decision to leave the minor leagues for the next level. Why else would you choose to leave one of the country’s top vacation destinations for somewhere straight out of Mayberry RFD? It’s exactly the kind of thinking that has the Big South where it is today – near the bottom and sinking.

It’s a theme I wrote about two decades ago when Kyle Kallander took over as commissioner at a time when the Big South seemed to be losing members in droves. I said Captain Kallander was taking command just in time to oversee the demise of the league, a point he reminded me of the last time I saw him. While it’s true he has managed to keep the conference afloat, he has done so by expanding to some of the lowest levels of NCAA Division I, like Longwood, Gardner-Webb, and Presbyterian College.

Fine schools, but far from NCAA powerhouses. You can’t blame conference powers Coastal and Liberty for wanting to get out of a league that seems to be striving for mediocrity. And rather than allowing league members to vote on an exception for playing the tourney one more year in Conway, a move that would have benefited everyone involved with the possible exception of Campbell, the Big South decided to show its true colors and take another step back into sports shadows.

While the teams, fans and supporters will be the ones feeling the pinch during the tournament, the entire nation will get a look at the bush league event on Sunday when the championship game is aired live on ESPN2. It’s the Big South’s big chance each year to make a good impression, and the backdrop of Buie’s Creek will not help the league’s small-time image.

The good news for Coastal is it only has to deal with the Big South for a few more months. The rest of the sports world might not have to put up with it much longer either.

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