Cardinals Reap Many Benefits from Playing Division I Opponents

By Chris McManes

Among Steve Howes’ emails Tuesday was one from Johnny Holliday, the University of Maryland’s longtime radio play-by-play announcer. Holliday was writing to see if the Catholic University men’s basketball coach would be available Sunday for a pre-game interview.

The enhanced visibility CUA receives when it plays a Division I team like Maryland is one of the key perks the Cardinals enjoy when they step up in class. CUA plays the Terps in an exhibition game at Comcast Center on Sunday at 1 p.m.

“It’s always great when the university’s name is talked about as much as it is when we play teams like Notre Dame, Florida and Maryland,” Howes said. “It’s priceless exposure not only for our university, but for our program.”

Matt Donohue, the Cardinals’ women’s basketball coach, also enjoys the spotlight that shines on his team when it plays a top-level opponent. The CUA women, ranked No. 23 and coming off their best season ever (27-2), played the preseason No. 5 Terrapins on Tuesday night.

Donohue sees not only enhanced coverage from the traditional media, but also from social media. Plus, photos of his players competing against Maryland will look good online and lining the walls of the DuFour Center.

“We’ll have some great video to put on our Website and, with everything from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook, those are the neat promotional things that we’ll share with recruits and families and supporters of our program,” Donohue said. “The feedback has been unbelievably positive.

“The exposure that you get is hard to even articulate.”

Playing Division I opponents is something both Howes and Donohue tout to the players their recruiting. After all, what player wouldn’t like to play at Comcast Center, if only for one night?

Howes thinks the opportunity to play teams from big-time conferences, as his team did at Notre Dame (Big East) in 2010, George Washington (Atlantic 10) last year and Florida (SEC) in 2011, has helped sway some recruits to head to Brookland.

“I’m sure it absolutely has,” he said. “I’m not afraid to play anybody, anywhere, any time. These games are proof of that. … My young men, they have pride and they have egos, and some of them feel like low Division I schools overlooked them, and this is their chance to prove they can play on a stage like this. So absolutely, it’s helpful for recruiting.

“Who wouldn’t want to walk into the O’Dome (Florida) or into the Joyce Center (Notre Dame) or the Comcast Center – which is an NBA-like arena – and play a game?”

Donohue talked about how fortunate both CUA squads are to have the opportunity to play on the Terps’ home floor.

“How many Division III institutions can say our men’s and women’s teams played against two of the top teams in the country, top-25 programs, perennial powers, teams that have won national championships at the Division I level?” Donohue said. “It’s an exciting thing. Anytime we share it with recruits and their families, they think it’s a pretty cool thing. And they all remark about what an amazing life experience it is.

“And certainly that’s a major goal for us at whatever we’re doing. Whether it’s our travel opportunities or our competition opportunities, it’s important for us as a staff to provide those life moments that our kids will take with them forever.”

Lessons Learned

The Cardinal women lost at Maryland in 2009, 101-43. It was worse on Tuesday night. The Terps jumped to a 30-0 lead and cruised to a 110-34 victory. CUA was scheduled to play Maryland last year but snows from Superstorm Sandy caused the game to be cancelled. The Terrapins hosted Division II Holy Family on Saturday afternoon.

Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said it means a lot to her program to bring local and regional teams in to play at Comcast Center.

“That’s been a strong philosophy for us and one that we want to continue,” Frese said. “And obviously with Catholic last year, we were snowed out, so it was terrific to be able to bring them in this season.

“But for us, I’ve found through the years whether you go closed scrimmage or bring in another team, to me nothing beats when you open things up and have your fans in the stands and you put on the uniform. I think [this] is a whole different element, and I think it helps us get prepared for regular play.”

Donohue gave his team mixed grades on its ability to maintain composure against the Terps. 

“What I really wanted to see was us execute, move the ball and get good shot opportunities,” he said. “I thought we had a quite a few times when we did a pretty good at it.  I think unfortunately there were times – with a young team, which you’ll see – where we weren’t as poised and composed as we needed to be.

“The trick for us is to take this experience and grow from it.”

Games Reveal Strong Points

The Cardinal men played well in their 2010 loss to the Fighting Irish, 72-47, and their 72-46 setback at GW a year ago. Facing Florida two seasons ago when Coach Billy Donovan’s son by the same name played for the Cards was a different story.

The Gators, featuring the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal, dominated CUA from the outset and won handily, 114-57.

Howes said each of the contests have given him a good indication of his club’s strong suit. So instead of looking at the weaknesses the bigger, faster, stronger teams exposed, he looks at what his team did well.

“These games have accentuated our positives,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing what strengths we show Sunday. For instance, last year at GW, I thought we played really good halfcourt defense. We looked at the film and said, ‘we can build upon this,’ and that certainly held true the whole year.

“Against Notre Dame, we had a pretty good feeling about our backcourt and that held true in that game as well. And that backcourt (starters R.J. Dixon and Shawn Holmes) led us to 21 wins that year. And against Florida, we actually rebounded pretty well, and that was one of our strengths that year.

“So I think what you can do well in these games will many times tip you off as to where you’re going to be solid as a group.”

Both Cardinal teams have benefitted tremendously from the NCAA’s 2004 ruling that Division I teams could only play exhibition games against other NCAA institutions. Prior to that, they tended to play foreign national squads or non-collegiate teams. This has also helped transfer wealth because lower-division schools like CUA are paid to play these games.

“The [Maryland women] were an Elite Eight tournament team last year, and they’re going to be a team that has the chance to win a Division I national title this season,” Donohue said. “And for our young women to have had the chance to test their skill against that level of competition was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up.

“It’s something that they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”

Chris McManes is a public relations consultant to the Catholic University athletic department.

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