Sharing the wealth

Smaller D-I basketball programs like SFU rely heavily on ‘money’ games

Saint Francis’ players will get a lifetime of memories tonight when they play at No. 1 Duke. The school itself will get $85,000.

That’s what you call a win-win, even though a blowout loss on the court is pretty much inevitable for the Red Flash.

College basketball is a wonderful game. My favorite, actually.

It’s also big business, and it doesn’t matter what size school you’re at.

David vs. Goliath matchups happen early each season across the country, and if you think the little guys that are almost always on the losing end of the scoreboard are getting nothing to show for it, think again.

“Number one, just flat out the facts, what we get out of it the most is just financially,” Saint Francis athletic director Susan Robinson Fruchtl said. “It helps fund our men’s basketball program, it helps fund some other things in the athletic department and even on campus.”

Saint Francis, one of the smallest Division I programs in the country with an enrollment of just 2,400, is playing a juggernaut non-conference schedule this season, including tonight’s game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It will be just the second time in program history to face the No. 1 team in the nation, and Vegas has Duke favored by 26 points.

The Red Flash played at No. 19 Louisville two weeks ago and put up a strong showing in an 84-72 loss, the program’s smallest margin of defeat against a top 25 team since 1990.

They also played at No. 22 St. Mary’s to open the season, followed by a game at San Francisco.

Those three contests and tonight’s visit to Duke are all “money games,” in which the bigger school pays the little school a hefty sum to come play and, usually, leave with a loss.

Saint Francis officials wouldn’t reveal publicly what the school gets for a money game, but sources told the Mirror the going rate for the men’s basketball team is between $80,000-100,000.

For the four money games this season, the school will receive about $350,000, according to a source.

That may not be huge money for the big boys of college basketball, but it’s an enormous amount for a small school such as Saint Francis.

We’re all used to major college football, where programs such as Penn State make a ton of money that helps pay for the entire athletic department. When you see a Saint Francis play a Duke in men’s basketball, always remember the money going to the small school is put to great use.

“Across campus, maybe it allows us to paint a building or to build something,” Red Flash coach Rob Krimmel said. “That money goes into a pot, and the powers that be that are way above my pay grade figure out where the budgets need to go, and it helps the entire university.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to play these games. They do allow us to use some things within the athletic department and within the basketball program, but there’s an expectation that that’s for the university. It benefits not just the athletic side of it, but the academic component.”

Robinson Fruchtl said some of the money goes to providing snacks for all of SFU’s athletes, and at a small school that doesn’t have training table available for everyone, that’s a big plus.

“It just helps the whole athletic department budget, and not only that, but it helps the institutional budget,” the AD said. “A lot of colleges at this level, they count on that money.”

Money aside, tonight’s game presents a wonderful opportunity for the Saint Francis players.

“It’s one of the things that makes college basketball so unique and so special is that you get to see a school like Saint Francis, one of the smallest Division I programs, go up against a team that has won a ton of national championships, that has a storied history, against arguably the best coach that ever coached college basketball (Mike Krzyzewski),” Krimmel said.

“I think it’s great for schools our size.”

Jay Bilas doesn’t.

A few weeks ago, Bilas, ESPN’s lead college basketball analyst, wrote a terribly misguided piece in which he pointed out ways “to rescue college basketball.” A Duke alum, Bilas showed an appalling amount of arrogance when it came to the sport’s big vs. small schools.

One of his primary suggestions was to contract Division I from 351 teams down to 120. Here’s his reasoning:

“No reasonable person can possibly believe that Division I is notfar too big. There are 351 Division I teams in men’s college basketball, and that is ridiculous. Division I should be reduced to approximately 120 teams. With a smaller number of Division I teams, there will be more quality players spread out over fewer units. Teams will have greater depth, talent and roster and lineup flexibility.

“With more talent spread out over fewer units, there will be more money spread out over fewer units, too. It is a no-brainer. Those not making the cut may certainly play in their own division and govern it the way they want. Division I can still invite lower-division teams to participate in its postseason tournament, but they would not play during the regular season.”

I am a reasonable person. I love college basketball every bit as much as Bilas. And I can tell you he’s 1 million percent dead wrong here.

Some background: I graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a mid-major that plays in the Sun Belt Conference. I’ve covered Saint Francis, a low major, for 19 years. So the bulk of my adult life has been spent around smaller college basketball.

Which is a lot of fun.

If Bilas got his wish, both my alma mater and Saint Francis would no longer be Division I. They would be playing in the wilderness of college basketball, where no one would care one bit about them.

If the smaller teams couldn’t play the big boys in money games, it would rob those programs and schools of much-needed exposure and funds that help pay a whole lot of bills and provide opportunities for students across campus.

Let’s also consider competition. It is by no means a given that the small school always loses when it goes on the road to play a money game against a big program. You’ll see several such upsets each season.

One thing you’ll rarely see is a blue blood program go on the road to take on a smaller team in its own gym. That’s too risky.

North Carolina went to Northern Iowa two years ago. And lost. Same for Indiana last year at Fort Wayne.

And how about this one, which is a doozy of a connection to Bilas: His alma mater, Duke, lost a 2-15 game in the NCAA Tournament in 2012 to Lehigh, led by C.J. McCollum. The same McCollum who told me the following year after a game at SFU that he had considered going to Saint Francis because he liked then-coach Bobby Jones.

I’ve said for years that the deck is stacked so badly against smaller schools in college basketball because the major programs have all the money, can schedule all the home games they want and almost never play a true road game at a small program.

It’s too dangerous. The big boys might actually lose. And if you don’t believe that’s the case, then watch the first couple days of the NCAA Tournament every year, when the little guys frequently pull off upsets on neutral courts.

There’s no way a major program will ever come to Loretto to play Saint Francis, so to get that kind of opponent, the Red Flash have to go on the road.

“As a kid, you see all the Dukes and big programs on TV, and just to be able to play against one of those programs in real life ie amazing,” SFU guard Keith Braxton said. “I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

“It will be very fun,” guard Andre Wolford said of tonight’s game. “As a child growing up, you always saw Duke and Kentucky and Louisville and teams like that. … I’m excited for us to go out and make a statement. I feel like we made a statement (in the close loss at Louisville).”

Robinson Fruchtl was a star at Penn State in the early 1990s and played on a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for a few weeks. She knows what it’s like for the players when they get to face the best of the best.

“If you’re a kid that’s playing college basketball at any level, you dream of playing in these great arenas and playing against a program like Duke, and at Cameron Indoor, one of the iconic basketball facilities in the country,” she said.

“We know it’s tough to play in. We know it’s going to be quiiiite difficult. The atmosphere is going to be unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. But they’ll be talking about that for the rest of their lives.”

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays form 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

COMMENTS