By Chris McManes
How fitting that as Catholic University's 100th-anniversary basketball season is winding down that the Cardinals would play a home game against nearby Gallaudet University. The Bison were the Cardinals' opponent when they played their first varsity game in 1911.
CUA Head Coach Steve Howes, with a nod to history, tried to schedule a game with Gallaudet this season but was unsuccessful. What the two longtime rivals couldn't accomplish, Eastern College Athletic Conference officials could.
The Cardinals and Bison will meet tonight at DuFour Center in the first-round of the eight-team ECAC Division III South Men's Basketball Championship. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
"It's certainly a unique opportunity to play them here in the postseason" said Howes, the fourth-winningest coach in school history. "It's a great opportunity for us to try to achieve postseason success."
CUA, denied a spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament with its loss at the University of Scranton on Saturday in the Landmark Conference championship game, still has plenty of motivation. At 19-7, seniors Jason Banzhaf, R.J. Dixon, Ryan Hyland, Spencer Reed, Ryan Horka and Brian Baker have already this season won the most games of their four-year careers. Now they will be trying to achieve the program's first 20-win campaign since 2007.
"I think it's vitally important here that we have the expectation to win 20 games and go to the NCAA Tournament," Howes said. "That's our goal each year, but we fell short of one of those goals this season. It would be a big accomplishment to get to 20 wins. It would be the 11th time in the last 14 years that we would reach that plateau, if we're fortunate enough to win this game.
"I think that's a significant milestone. It shows where our program is nationally."
Howes' 2006-07 squad finished 23-6 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after winning back-to-back Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) championships. CUA joined the newly formed Landmark Conference the next season.
The Bison (17-10), with their highest win total ever, will be making their first postseason appearance, dating to 1904. The Cardinals have played Gallaudet more than any other opponent and hold a 97-18 series advantage. Both schools were charter members of the CAC in 1990 and last met four years ago.
"Gallaudet's a very good basketball team," Howes said. "They're going to be very excited to play in the postseason, and Coach [Jeb] Barber's done a tremendous job. They play hard and they're well-disciplined."
With a victory tonight, the Cards would become the 13th team in school history to win 20 or more games. Its first came under Bob Valvano in 1991-92. The next season, Mike Lonergan's first at the helm, CUA went 21-6 and advanced to the first of 11 NCAA Division III Tournaments. Cardinal teams also appeared in the NCAA playoffs in 1944 and 1964.
As much as it would be historically symmetrical for CUA to conclude its centennial season with a home game against the Bison, Howes is not interested in bookending a century of Cardinal basketball with a loss. He's looking for his club to advance to the ECAC semifinals but knows Gallaudet will be tough.
"This is probably the best team they've had since my former assistant John Becker – [who's now at the University of Vermont under Lonergan] – had Mike Kent and Anthony Jones," he said. "They had a really good team back in the CAC in the late '90s."
"This is a big challenge for us."
Here's a look at the early history of CUA basketball, taken from "Flight of the Cardinals: A 100-Year History of Catholic University Men's Basketball."
The Seed is Planted
Cardinal basketball began as a club sport in the 1909-10 season. Its first opponent was Georgetown. CUA, or the "Red and Black," fielded a varsity team the following year without an official head coach. Joseph Bollin was listed as the team's "manager."
On Jan. 7, 1911 – nearly 20 years after Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in Springfield, Mass. – the Cardinals played their first official game, a 42-33 home victory over Gallaudet. Later in the season, the Bison wiped out visiting CUA, 45-17. The Cards' second home game also resulted in triumph, 37-34 over St. John's (Md.). CUA first season closed with a 2-6 record. Georgetown won the Inter-Collegiate Championship of the District of Columbia.
The Cardinals had their first official coach the following season. Fred Rice, after earning his law degree from Georgetown in 1910, became player-coach in time for the 1911-12 season while attending graduate school at CUA.
According to the Georgetown Libraries' special collection, "Georgetown Men's Basketball, 1906-1907 to 2006-2007: A Spotlight on Ten Coaches, Ten Players, and Ten Decades of Hoops," Rice had played forward for the Hoyas for three seasons (1907-10) and "was the university's first basketball star."
A native Washingtonian who transferred to Georgetown after George Washington discontinued basketball in 1907, Rice excelled as a scorer for the Hoyas in an era of low scoring. (In the early days of the sport, a jump ball was held after each basket.) Rice scored at least 20 points in four of his first seven games in a Georgetown uniform and his 14.9 scoring average in 1907-08 tied for the highest season average in the first 35 years of Hoya basketball. Hampered by injuries his final season, he played in just seven games. His 8.8 career scoring average ranks fifth all-time among Hoyas who competed prior to World War II.
Rice played for the Cardinals until midseason and guided the 1911-12 squad to a 10-7 record. CUA was 13-3 the next season and was described in a photo collage as "Southern Atlantic Champion." A 15-4 season followed and included victories over Virginia, St. John's (N.Y.), Virginia Tech and Maryland. Rice was praised in The Catholic University Bulletin, December 1916 edition:
"He it is, who in the practical upbuilding and strengthening of basketball at Catholic University, has brought our school up to every other college interested in the sport.
"Mr. Rice's coming, and the extraordinary increase of the student registration, were natural factors combining to achieve for the University ever fresh laurels in basketball. Our three latest seasons have been records of accomplishment and victory. Schools of much greater prominence have been conquered, and even the acknowledged college champions of the North have bowed in defeat to us. The fastest Southern teams have been unable to best us, and, as a result, the South Atlantic Championship has been awarded to us two times."
CUA's first on-campus arena, Brookland Gymnasium, opened in 1924, and the Cards won their first two home games. From 1925-28, a group of Rice's players known as the "Reindeer" went 38-15.
In his 19 years at the helm (1911-1930), Rice guided the Cardinals to 15 winning seasons. He had an overall record of 176-137 (.562) and was the winningest coach in CUA basketball history until Lonergan eclipsed him in 2001.
Forrest Cotton coached the Cards from 1931-41 and posted four straight winning seasons (1932-36). His 1940-41 club was 0-12, the only winless team in CUA history. Three coaches and three years later, the Cardinals would enjoy unprecedented success.
CUA's First NCAA Tournament Team
The Mason-Dixon Conference formed in 1936 when Waldo Hamilton of Johns Hopkins and Dorsey Griffith of CUA conceived the idea of a track and field-only association. The league included teams from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia and expanded to sponsor basketball in 1940.
The NCAA men's basketball tournament began in 1939. The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) had started the year before, and for years was more prestigious than the NCAA's national tourney.
By the time the 1943-44 campaign rolled around, the Cardinals had not posted a winning season in eight years. John Long, a star forward for the Cards in the late 1920s, had been hired to coach the team, and he made the most of his only season at the helm.
Games ran for about an hour and 15 minutes and CUA won seven of its first eight. The starters for the Cardinals' 62-39 victory at Johns Hopkins were Dick Scanlon (right guard), Ed Carlin (left guard), John Mercak (right forward), Gene Szklarz (left forward) and Rice's son, Fred Rice, Jr. (center).
CUA continued to roll and hung a 24-point defeat on Delaware, a 20-point loss on Maryland and a 30-point shellacking on Johns Hopkins. The Cards entered the Mason-Dixon Conference Tournament with a 16-4 record and defeated host Delaware, 64-37, in the opening round. CUA's hopes of winning the event were dashed with a 48-45 loss at Loyola (Md.). The Greyhounds lost the championship game to Mount St. Mary's.
Despite the conference setback, the Cardinals were invited to the eight-team NCAA Tournament for the first time. They traveled to Madison Square Garden in New York and got pounded by Dartmouth, 63-38, on March 25, 1944. The regional third-place game the following night didn't end any better as the Cards fell to Temple, 55-35.
With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific and male enrollment down, the basketball program was suspended in 1944–45. The school's longtime equipment manager Franny Murray fought in the war and used the G.I. Bill to enroll at CUA in 1946. He began working for the athletic department in 1947 and has attended every men's basketball and football home game since.
Murray also traveled with the basketball team until the 1970s. Nowadays, if you ask him about going to a road game, he says, "I wouldn't go across the street to see Notre Dame play the Twelve Apostles."
Chris McManes was Catholic University's sports information director when the basketball team won the 2001 National Championship.