By Chris McManes
GAINESVILLE, FLA. – Vast differences in resources, facilities and athletic ability exist between high-level Division I programs and those in Division III. But the men's basketball teams at Catholic University and the University of Florida share a common bond.
"Yes, there are differences – clearly in resources – but both programs share one very important thing, and that is we both dream of national championships," CUA Head Coach Steve Howes said. "Florida Coach Billy Donovan's got two; our program has one, and I know that both programs are in the hunt for another.
"When you're at a program that has reached the mountaintop, you like the view, and you also know that your school is capable of having that view again. And that's what we're working for on this trip – to get better for our regular season, as they are."
For the second consecutive season, the Cardinals will open the season with an exhibition game against a high-profile opponent. Last year, it was the University of Notre Dame, which eventually rose to fourth in the nation. Tonight it is the top 10 Gators.
Tip-off is 7 p.m. at the O'Connell Center.
The opportunity to compete with two of the best basketball teams in the country is a great experience for the Cardinals. CUA, which plays at the Division III (non-athletic scholarship) level, does not usually play in front of thousands of fans at major arenas.
"It's pretty cool because how many Division III players can say, 'Oh yeah, my team played Florida this year and the year before we played Notre Dame,'" Center Pete Schramm said. "And I'm sure next year we'll play another big game. Not many people can say that."
The games also aid in recruiting. When Howes tells recruits that they'll get the chance to play at Notre Dame and Florida, that can be another piece of the puzzle of getting a young man to commit to the Cardinals. Discussions are underway with schools in power conferences for future competitions.
"We've always prided ourselves on playing a tough schedule," Howes said. "And to put these types of games on that schedule is further confirmation for the recruits that, yes, 'coach will play anybody, anywhere. And he's willing to test us against the best in the country.'"
CUA sophomore guard Derek Puhalski was well aware of the game against the Fighting Irish when he was considering where he wanted to play college basketball.
"It definitely played somewhat of a role [in my decision]," Puhalski said. "As a kid, everyone wants to play for a Division I team or against them, if they can. So it you don't get recruited for Division I, you always want to play against teams like this.
"I definitely think it helps recruiting."
Schramm visited 65 schools before deciding that CUA was the right place. A sophomore mechanical engineering major, he said he really didn't know about the Notre Dame contest until the last two weeks before his made his decision.
"That was always in the back of my head," Schramm said. "It was, 'Oh they played American last year and next year we're going to play somebody else pretty good.' So it's not a big thing, but it is a small and very important aspect in the recruiting field."
Freshman wing Steve Limberiou agreed that the opportunity to play top-flight programs helped sway his decision to become a Cardinal.
"It definitely couldn't be a negative when you're deciding on where to go," Limberiou said. "I definitely knew that there was a possibility that we were going to come [to Florida] and, for years to come, play other possible marquee games. It played a little factor because I know that a lot of Division III teams don't have the opportunity to play these types of teams.
"So it did help."
CUA's big-time games aren't limited to the college ranks. In 2002, the year after the Cardinals won the National Championship, the club opened up with the competitive team of the Harlem Globetrotters. CUA also unveiled its national title banner.
"That was quite a memorable night, to drop the banner and to play against the Globetrotters, a team that I went to see as a child, and then here I was sitting as an assistant was pretty amazing," Howes said.
Strengthening Bonds with Alumni
National games also rally alumni to stay connected or reconnect to the university. The CUA Alumni Office put together a travel package for graduates last year that included bus transportation from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, hotel accommodations, Mass at Notre Dame, pre-game social and game ticket. School president John Garvey, a Notre Dame alumnus, joined the gathering.
The school will host another pre-game social prior to the Gators-Cardinals encounter. About 55 alumni are scheduled to attend.
"As a Division III school, we don't get as many headlines as the University of Florida," said Howes, a 1996 CUA graduate. "So games such as this really serve as a rallying point for our alumni, and are a great source of pride. Last year, the emails and letters I got before and after the [Notre Dame] game were inspiring. And this year, the emails and the calls and the letters are equally inspirational.
"I try to share with our players how unique and special the opportunity to put the uniform on is, and how many people, whether you're on ESPN or CBS or not, really do care about this university and our program."
Schramm thinks the contests have a positive effect on basketball alumni.
"I think it's a way for them to kind of boast and be proud of their school and say, "Yeah, my school's playing Notre Dame today, my school's playing Florida today,'" he said. "Just to make them proud of their program and know that all their hard work's paying off, and know that all the games they won for us is really paying off for them in the long run because they're able to reap the benefits.
"They can say, 'I was there, I did that, I built this program up.'"
Lights, Camera, Action
The media exposure is also a boon to the program and the school. Fans that follow Florida will learn more about CUA, and the coverage in print, online, and on radio and TV will enhance the university's visibility. This exposure can only help Howes' and the school's recruiting efforts. The same applied last year in northwest Indiana and Chicago, areas where the Fighting Irish have a major following.
"We can't buy this exposure," Howes said. "The more that Catholic U. is in the paper, whether it be for playing Notre Dame or playing Florida, or whether it be for [former Cardinal Coach] Mike Lonergan taking over at George Washington University, the coverage is invaluable. Catholic U's name is out there in a positive way, and that aids everybody – past and present – associated with the university."
Tonight's game, which features the return of sophomore shooting guard Billy Donovan to his hometown to take on his father's Gators, is garnering even more publicity than last year's tangle with the Fighting Irish. Donovan conducted a phone interview late Tuesday night after practice and two on Wednesday morning. He appreciates the interest in the father vs. son angle, but he's also looking at the big picture and the opportunity this provides for CUA.
"There have been some great players who have come out of Catholic, especially the 2001 National Championship team, so you know you've got a lot to look up to," Donovan said. "We've got a lot of alumni who are there to support us in every way. Drawing the difference between Division I and III, it's like it's all the same almost. People set cornerstones and they expect you to play and perform well and to carry the name of the school with it as well.
"I think it's awesome what Catholic has done in the past, and I think this game kind of builds on the tradition that Catholic has not only in Washington, D.C., but also in the national spotlight."
Chris McManes has been affiliated with CUA basketball since 1986.
High-profile games provide multiple benefits to CUA
By Chris McManes