#rushthetrip: Wrapping Up 12 Games, 17 Days and 5,476 Miles on the Road

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 25th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and so is the case for my 17-day journey through college basketball’s Western lands. Large cities and small towns alike took turns as temporary homes, while the miles of passing scenery morphed from desert to snowy mountains and back to desert again, with plenty of change in between. The whirlwind ride reinforced the breadth of variety in the towns, arenas, and fan bases that stand behind Divison I’s basketball programs — only further mythologizing the notion of a “typical college town.” They make you work out West (note to future college basketball road trippers: the Heartland will be far kinder to your car’s odometer), but the payoff was worth every exhausting mile. By the numbers and some personal favorites, here’s the story of my trip.

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It's Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It’s Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

#rushthetrip, By The Numbers

  • Days: 17
  • States: 10
  • Games: 12
  • OT Games: 3
  • Miles Driven: 5,476
  • Distance from Tucson, AZ, to Spokane, WA: 1,494 miles
  • Tickets Received: 2
  • Biggest Arena: BYU (capacity of 20,900, sixth in D-I)
  • Smallest Arena: Sacramento State (capacity of 1,200, 348th in D-I)
  • Most Points (Individual): Stephen Madison, 42 (Idaho)
  • Smallest Margin Of Victory: 1, Boise State over New Mexico
  • Largest Margin Of Victory: 15, Gonzaga over Pepperdine
  • Best Team (by KenPom ranking): Arizona (#1)
  • Worst Team (by KenPom ranking): Southern Utah (#351)

#rushthetrip Favorites

Best Venues

  1. The Pit, Albuquerque, NM
  2. Marriott Center, Provo, UT
  3. McKale Center, Tucson, AZ

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#rushthetrip Day 16: Marriott Center Experience Uniquely Amazing

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 22nd, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

With Thursday night’s visit to Provo for Gonzaga vs. BYU, the trip was poised to wrap up much like it had started 16 days ago in The Pit – in one of college basketball’s loudest and greatest gymnasiums. BYU’s Marriott Center is the sixth largest home arena in the country and is oft-described as one of the toughest places to play out West. Still, though, I was unsure of what to expect. My curiosity/ignorance extended beyond the Marriott Center to both the university and Provo; the Mormon presence in town (98% LDS) would obviously be influential, but where exactly would the manifestations of faith appear in this college town – and college basketball atmosphere?

BYU's Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

BYU’s Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

Everyone was extremely nice in town. Provo is not the first place I’ve made this observation about, but the kindness here is ubiquitous enough to disarm someone unused to it (me). It didn’t matter if they were pumping gas or cleaning hotel rooms — everyone seemed legitimately happy with whatever it was they were doing at the time I ran across them. While it did feel a bit contrived at times, the friendliness was refreshing and welcomed by a weary traveler nearing the end of his journey.

After a day of familiarizing myself with the affable denizens of Provo, I entered the Marriott Center expecting 20,000 of the most genteel college basketball fans you could find. Boy, was I wrong. I don’t want to say that the BYU faithful offered the most aggressive display of ref-riding I’ve ever seen, but they didn’t miss the mark by much. There were a couple of shaky pro-Gonzaga calls early, but the Cougars wound up +5 in free throw attempts, and Gonzaga bigs Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski managed only 20 and 19 minutes, respectively, due to foul trouble. So while I didn’t find significant merit in the boisterous shouts of the fans, their relentlessness was both admirable and effective. More than anything else, home court advantage is for shifting close decisions from the referees in favor of your team; I cannot imagine an official being unaffected in the environment I witnessed there. I’m no Mormon, but I’m now pretty confident that LDS doctrines must not include any prohibition relating to the verbal treatment of basketball referees.

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#rushthetrip Day 15: Ute Revival Put On Hold in Salt Lake City

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 21st, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Wednesday brought me back into Utah (which is quickly becoming the official home state of #rushthetrip!) for a rendezvous between the Utes and #4 Arizona. As of Tuesday, few bracketologists (including our own Daniel Evans) had Utah in the field — or even in that first crop of teams missing out — but finding a way to nip the Cats would surely thrust Larry Krystkowiak’s group into the bubble discussion. And for the once-spoiled turned long-suffering Utes’ fans (just one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005 after making 10 of 11 trips from 1995-2005), the opportunity at hand had to make this one of the biggest college basketball games Salt Lake City has seen in the last decade.

The Young Utes Have Yet To Fully Arrive, But The Huntsman Center Offered One Of The Best Atmospheres This Trip Has Seen

The Young Utes Have Yet To Fully Arrive, But The Huntsman Center Offered One Of The Best Atmospheres This Trip Has Seen

The Huntsman Center atmosphere supported that thesis. Fans filled the sizable gym (a listed attendance of 14,266 fell a few seats short of capacity), and despite a first half that featured little in the way of positive developments for the Utes, stayed involved throughout. The student section was amazing, nearly stretching all the way from floor to rafters, a sea of red fully prepped to swallow up the Wildcats. Their consistent engagement would pay off in the latter portions of the second half, as the Utes scrapped their way back into a game that they had trailed by 12 with 13 minutes to play. I was more than happy to be forced to spend most of the final 10 minutes (plus overtime) standing behind the Huntsman Center masses. Once that Ute surge began in earnest, there was nary a seated fanny in the building; I can’t recall too many games where I’ve seen seats used less frequently. Clearly, Utah fans wanted this game.

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#rushthetrip Day 14: A Year Late to Fort Collins

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 20th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Rarely had it been as fun to be a Colorado State basketball fan as it was in 2013. The Rams won 26 games a season ago, including their first in the NCAA Tournament since 1989, and Moby Arena transformed into one of the most impenetrable – and unlikely — home fortresses in all of college basketball. With Fort Collins rallying behind them, CSU sold out three consecutive home games for the first time in program history, and despite a decisive loss in the round of 32 to eventual champion Louisville, the program may never have posted a finer season. Fun times, indeed. But for all the fanfare surrounding that team, my visit to peek in on this year’s team felt doomed to banality from the start. The state of Colorado has never exactly been a haven for college basketball, and with Larry Eustachy now guiding Colorado State through a rebuilding season after that banner 2012-13 campaign, things figured to be pretty quiet in Fort Collins.

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

And they were. Moby Arena was easily less than half-full for a visit from Boise State on Tuesday night, and a steady onslaught of Broncos’ three-pointers prevented the sparse crowd (and the Rams) from ever feeling a part of this game. While I could envision 9,000 fans fleeing the cold winter nights for the comfort of Moby’s Ram-green seats, the apathy of the scene stood in stark contrast to the home floor that we witnessed in Fort Collins a season ago. In all but the most basketball-crazed regions of the country, it’s an expected drop-off in support when 26-9 transforms into 14-13, which is where the Rams find themselves after Boise rolled to a 12-point victory. This doesn’t mean Colorado State – and its fan base – won’t be back in the near future (Larry Eustachy has proven more than capable of building a program), but here in 2014, Fort Collins has slipped off the college basketball radar.

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#rushthetrip Day 11 (Continued): Unlikely WAC Leaders Enjoying the Ride

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 18th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

No conference has been decimated by conference expansion like the WAC. Perennially one of the better mid-major conferences for much of the last two decades – even sending a team (Utah) to the national title game in 1998 – the current iteration probably looks nothing like how you remember it. Good luck figuring out who is in this new WAC, because only two schools have been conference members for more than a full season (New Mexico State and Idaho), and many of the newbies emphatically fail to fit the geographic profile of the conference. After beginning my Saturday with a signature member of WAC’s past (Utah State), the second half of the weekend two-fer had me paying a visit to the unlikely leader of this new and (un)improved league: Utah Valley University. I think my sanity might be called into question if I had any idea of what to expect out of the trip to Orem, so suffice it to say, I headed in there ready for anything.

After An 89-88 Victory Over Idaho Saturday Night, Utah Valley Is Still Your WAC Leaders -- Try Processing That Information!

After An 89-88 Victory Over Idaho Saturday Night, Utah Valley Is Still Your WAC Leader — Try Processing That Information!

What I got was a highly entertaining basketball game. There wasn’t much defense to be found (that’s usually what happens when teams ranked 210th and 304th nationally in defensive efficiency meet), but Utah Valley and Idaho submitted a tidy offensive display, combining to score 177 points on 58 percent shooting from the floor. The Vandals’ leading scorer, 6’5” forward Stephen Madison, poured in 42 points (16-of-21 FG), but UVU forced the ball out of the crafty senior’s hands on the game’s final possession, and two misses later, the Wolverines had escaped with a one-point victory. In doing so, Utah Valley hardly conjured up memories of ’98 Utah or ’04 Nevada, but at least for a few more days, the road to the WAC title still runs through Orem.

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#rushthetrip Day 11: Logan’s Hidden Gem Left With Little To Cheer About

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 17th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Saturday featured a Utah double-dip. My day began with an afternoon matinee in Logan (Utah State-UNLV) and would close up some 120 miles South in Orem, where WAC leader Utah Valley (yup…) was hosting Idaho. To be fair, my day actually began at 7:30 AM in Butte, MT, where some inclement weather had me holed up for the night. I wasn’t sure if my Chevy Malibu, replete with Arizona plates, would have the juice to push through the snowy conditions, but I somehow arrived in Logan just as the Aggies and Rebels were tipping off. Regrettably, I found myself walking through the front doors of The Spectrum just as the “I Believe” chant was dying off, but I figured forty minutes of basketball would provide the boisterous student section ample opportunity to show off.

Saturday Didn't Showcase The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum In It's Brightest Light, But Utah State's Home Floor Is Truly One Of A Kind

Saturday Didn’t Showcase The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum In It’s Brightest Light, But Utah State’s Home Floor Is Truly One Of A Kind

Logan is immediately striking. For one, if you are arriving from the North, there is almost no evidence of the town from 15 (the major freeway that runs North-South through Utah). Imposing mountains frame a valley well off into the distance, but it’s not until you climb a smaller hill in the middle of 15 and Logan that you actually catch sight of the town. From a distance, it’s a looker. Downtown and the University sit directly in the shadows of the mountain range visible from the freeway, but snow-capped peaks can be found in any direction you look. It was obvious before I reached town that Logan’s buildings were older, but the full antiquation of the scene didn’t hit home until I was in the midst of it. The combination of the cloudy day, dated architecture and snowy mountains evoked fairy-tales from decades past, and in a very monochromatic way. Logan is definitely not your classic college town – that was obvious after spending just three hours there.

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#rushthetrip Day Nine: The Gonzaga Machine Keeps On Rolling

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 16th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Gonzaga has long held a niche all their own in college basketball. Sure, other “mid-majors” have found national relevance since Casey Calvary, Richie Frahm and the Zags rose to prominence in the late 90’s, but none of those programs have been able to match Gonzaga when it comes to year-in, year-out consistency. The Bulldogs may still be seeking the Final Four run that would put an exclamation point on the era, but their run of WCC regular season dominance — titles in 12 of the last 13 seasons – demands respect, even if their recent Tournament struggles have many believing the Zags to be overvalued annually. That transformation from underrated to overrated is bound to happen when you make winning look as routine as Mark Few and the gang have over the years, especially when new seasons provide little in the way of statement opportunities. The arrival of the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday night was surely not one of those rare chances for a Zag proclamation, but I was just excited to get a look at The Kennel, no matter the opponent.

The McCarthey Athletics Center Atmosphere Is Intimate, Enlivened, And As Good As It Gets In College Basketball

The McCarthey Athletics Center Atmosphere Is Intimate, Enlivened, And As Good As It Gets In College Basketball

Admittedly, I have only watched 40 minutes of basketball in my entire life at the McCarthey Athletic Center, but it was easy to get the impression that the arena atmosphere is as consistent as the program it propels. The student section, cloaked in red, was full well before tipoff, and their energetic pregame rendition of “Zombie Nation” had me double-checking my program to make sure Pepperdine really had only won 14 games. The rest of the McCarthey Center was slightly more restrained than their younger cohorts, but not for any lack of caring. If you are not fortunate enough to be a Gonzaga season ticket-holder, you are likely not fortunate enough to attend a Gonzaga home game. As of 48 hours before tipoff, there were only two tickets available anywhere on the internet (and they predictably ran a pretty penny). There are more expensive, “exclusive” college basketball tickets out there, but almost never will you find a game with such a dearth of ticket listings. Even the biggest games at Cameron Indoor, Phog Allen Fieldhouse, or Rupp Arena will have more than two tickets available for those whom cost is no object. But up in Spokane, good luck to any outsider trying to find their way into the McCarthey Center, because it is very much a Zag-loving coterie that congregates at The Kennel some 15 times a year.

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#rushthetrip Day Eight: In Every Regard, Boise State’s Potential On Full Display

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 13th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

It’s been a tough year on the hardwood in Boise. A series of close defeats – many littered with critical late-game Bronco mistakes – has derailed a season that began with unusually high expectations. As protectors of the famed blue turf, the Boise faithful aren’t strangers to their school beginning an athletic season with grand aspirations, but rarely has such hope accompanied the basketball program. When I planned my trip a month ago, Wednesday’s matchup with New Mexico looked to have both MW title and NCAA Tournament implications. Unfortunately, upon arrival at Taco Bell Arena last night, said implications existed only for the visiting Lobos.

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

I should admit here to being a Boise apologist. I have long been fascinated with the school’s football program (like many across the country), and was also probably higher than most on the potential for this year’s basketball team. Leon Rice has the program heading in the right direction, and it seemed possible that the football team’s success could help propel the basketball team into a more regular relationship with the Big Dance. But for now, that notion remains a fantasy. The Broncos have never won an NCAA Tournament game (San Jose State is the only other MW team to share this distinction), and rarely (if ever) generate the fan support to sell out the 13,000 seat Taco Bell Arena.

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#rushthetrip Day Six: Division I Basketball, Off the Beaten Path

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 12th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Last Thursday night, I was able to see the second best team in the country play – on their famed, raucous home floor, no less. Monday night I had a date with the second worst team in all the land, and we met up in the fourth smallest gymnasium in Division-1. This Southern Utah-Sacramento State matchup did stand out from all others on my itinerary (and probably not in the most flattering of ways), but games like this one cut to the core of why this trip exists. On their own, small-conference programs rarely find the spotlight (although Sacramento State can tell you that when they do, it’s kind of fun…), but college basketball would not be the same without them. The Tournament wouldn’t be the Tournament without 1991 Richmond, 2001 Hampton, or 2013 Florida Gulf Coast; consider college hoops without its flagship event, and the sport would certainly need some redefining.

Welcome To The Hornet's Nest, Home Of Sacramento State And Full-Court Buzzer Beaters

Welcome To The Hornet’s Nest, Home Of Sacramento State And, At Least For The First Night Of February, Full-Court Buzzer Beaters

My focus typically lies with the home team when I’m visiting a new venue, but the host Hornets had to share my attention with their visitors from Southern Utah last night. Yes, Rush the Court is fast becoming the Thunderbird Times, but don’t pretend that you could avert your eyes from a train-wreck in progress, either. Nick Robinson’s team entered Monday night with a Ken Pom ranking of 350 (out of 351), still seeking their first D-I victory of the season. When #351 Grambling snapped a 45-game D-I losing streak midway through the action in Sacramento, Southern Utah was suddenly facing a must-win if they sought to avoid the true basement of the rankings.

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#rushthetrip Day Four (Continued): Inventive If Nothing Else, Enfield Takes Aim at LA

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 11th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Malibu made for a relaxing Saturday afternoon, but I was hoping the evening’s Galen Center visit would provide a little more in the way of energy and passion. After all, LA’s two biggest programs were set to renew pleasantries, with the new shine of the offseason coaching hires not yet worn off. UCLA had pounded USC at Pauley Pavilion a month earlier, but a recent string of competitive USC efforts and a supportive home crowd (I hoped) offered a chance for a closer result this time around. That hope found a basis on the floor in the first half when USC, one of the worst three-point shooting teams in Division I basketball, uncharacteristically connected on five of its 10 attempts from long range, propelling them to a six-point halftime lead. That cushion quickly disappeared after intermission, however, as crisp UCLA offense and a more typical Trojans’ shooting performance led to a 24-5 Bruin run to open the half. USC never really threatened after that, ultimately falling to their crosstown rivals by 10.

The Galen Center's Aesthetics Stand Out, But The Overall Atmosphere At USC Lags Well Behind The Alluring Facility

The Galen Center’s Aesthetics Stand Out, But The Overall Atmosphere At USC Lags Well Behind The Alluring Facility

In its totality, the Galen Center experience was an odd one. The crowd was about 75 percent pro-USC, but they were never totally engaged, even during a first-half that should have given them plenty to cheer about. USC writers told me that this was the loudest the building had been all season, which, given the Trojans’ struggles in Andy Enfield’s first season, isn’t too surprising. Another strange, random observation: The student section was almost entirely male. I don’t typically calculate the student section gender ratio (although I’d assume there are usually more men than women), but it was that striking Saturday night. It may not really matter who comes to games, but the dearth of female students hints at basketball’s lowered place within USC’s extracurricular hierarchy. Any power conference program will attract its share of sports fans (a male-dominated population), but the consistently successful ones have students attending games as a result of school spirit. Right now, USC basketball has little to do with the typical USC undergraduate’s college experience.

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#rushthetrip Day Four: Waves Rising in Paradise?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 10th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

After three days spent traversing the deserts of the Southwestern US, I arrived in sunny Southern California for a Saturday double-header of hoops. By my count, the greater Los Angeles lays claim to nine D-1 hoops programs, including one of the greatest of all-time in UCLA, but the city is hardly considered a college basketball hotbed. My appetizer for the day, Saint Mary’s vs. Pepperdine, didn’t figure to offer much in the way of evidence for a larger conception of LA-area college hoops, but the UCLA vs. USC nightcap seemed like the perfect ticket for gaining a sense of college basketball’s present and future in the City of Angels.

The Fieldhouse's Parking Lot's Courts (Replete With A Pacific Ocean Backdrop) May Have Been More Inviting Than Firestone Itself

The Fieldhouse’s Parking Lot’s Courts (Replete With A Pacific Ocean Backdrop) May Have Been More Inviting Than Firestone Itself

Saturday afternoon clouds didn’t serve up Malibu in all of its glory, but Pepperdine’s cliff-side campus still possessed the power to stun the senses. Cozy Firestone Fieldhouse won’t soon be featured on any list of college hoops’ must-see venues, but I dare you to find a prettier backdrop for an arena exterior. I do not believe it exists. Moving inside, the sweeping views give way to a glorified high-school gym upon entrance to the fieldhouse, and if not for Jarron Collins’ imposing presence to my immediate left (doing color commentary for the WCC Game of the Week), I could have been tricked into believing I stumbled into a high-level high school game. Recent nights spent at The Pit and McKale Center didn’t help in de-emphasizing Firestone’s diminutive layout.

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#rushthetrip Day Two: Exhilaration and Apprehension as McKale Center Watches Cats Escape

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 7th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

West of Lawrence, Kansas, there may be no better home court than either of the two I visited to start this trip. The folks at UCLA, Gonzaga and Utah State might all have reasonable gripes (especially Bruins fans) with that assertion, but back-to-back nights at The Pit and McKale Center is about as good as college basketball can get. Some 450 miles separate the two universities, so six hours of driving (which included a successful journey through Truth or Consequences, New Mexico) brought me to Tucson to watch Arizona host Oregon.

There's No Doubt About It -- Arizona's McKale Center Is One Of College Hoops' Grandest Stages

There’s No Doubt About It — Arizona’s McKale Center Is One Of College Hoops’ Grandest Stages

The obvious storyline entering last night’s game was how the Wildcats would bounce back from not only their first loss of the season, but also the season-ending injury suffered last weekend by Brandon Ashley. Not surprisingly, the hoops-savvy McKale faithful were keyed in on Ashley’s absence (and its impact) throughout the evening. It began in pregame warmups, when Ashley’s crutch-waving at midcourt fomented the student section into a moderate frenzy, and continued when his replacement in the starting lineup, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, received the loudest ovation of any Wildcat during introductions.

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