WORCESTER, Mass. — Did you know that when the Spartans beat the Wildcats last weekend, they made a little bit of NCAA history?
Wait a minute, you say — wasn’t it the Wildcats who beat the Spartans 5-3 in the CCHA semifinals?
Yes, but there were two sets of Spartans and Wildcats playing that weekend: one on ice, the other on wood. And Michigan State beat the Kentucky Wildcats to advance to the men’s basketball Final Four, giving two Big Ten schools teams playing in both the men’s ice hockey tourney and the men’s basketball tourney.
While there are technically no Big Ten ice hockey teams playing in the hockey tournament, there are three CCHA teams that compete in the Big Ten in all other sports, and both Michigan State and Ohio State have roundball and puck teams playing this weekend.
In fact, it’s the first time in NCAA history that teams from two schools have competed simultaneously in both tournaments. Prior to this season, Michigan was the only school to send teams to both NCAA tournaments, something the Wolverines accomplished in 1964, 1992, and 1993.
It’s a ready-made story, but you won’t hear much about it in either East Lansing or Columbus. The local media in each city has eyes for the net only — the net 10 feet above the field of play.
But that’s all right with Spartan head coach Ron Mason. “The nice thing about being at a school where basketball is having worldwide exposure is the positives you get, sort of riding on their press coattails.”
Mason says the exposure for Spartan and Buckeye basketball “can only be good for their respective hockey teams, and for college hockey in general.”
Senior Michigan State defenseman Chris Bogas agrees that it’s a good time to be wearing the green and white. “Everyone is proud to be a Spartan right now. We’ve been to a few games, and it’s fun to watch them play. A lot of people are Michigan State fans, not just fans of a particular sport. It’s a pretty good time to be a Michigan State fan. It’s a fun time to be a Spartan.”
“We see those guys a lot in the summer in the weight room. They’re great guys, and I love to see them doing well,” adds Spartan Mike York. “There’s an electricity on campus — you can feel it just walking around.”
“We might be overshadowed some,” says Mason, “but college hockey in general is overshadowed by basketball this time of year. All the hockey schools, whether you’ve got somebody in the basketball tournament or not, take a back seat this time of year.”
But, Mason says, that changes next week, when the only NCAA tourney to watch will be college hockey, thanks to a scheduling change that no longer forces the puck and roundball finals face off on the same weekend.
“Next weekend, all eyes will be on Anaheim,” says Mason.
OSU head coach John Markell agrees. “I think it’s wonderful that the basketball team is doing what they’re doing. [Head coach] Jim O’Brien and those guys are great guys. They’re going to the Final Four, and we’ll have our turn in the spotlight if we get to the final four.
“As teams, the players are real friendly, the basketball players with our players, the proximity down here [at the Schottenstein Center]. I think we’re all pulling for each other. We don’t really care who gets the media attention.
“Let’s get the job done and try to get some championships. It’s all for the good of the school and our programs. Our guys are really happy for them, and they’re happy for us. It’s part of being at a Big Ten program where you have teams that are capable of playing for those championships.”
It’s probably no coincidence that three of the four CCHA schools playing this weekend are Big Ten teams who finished one, two, and three in league standings. After all, the bigger schools in the league have bigger recruiting budgets. Two of the schools, Michigan State and Michigan, have longstanding hockey traditions, and the other Big Ten school — Ohio State — has a brand-new facility to help with recruiting.
But coaches like Ron Mason and Red Berenson would say that the presence of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State — and Northern Michigan — has less to do with the money three of these teams can throw around than the toughness of the league from top to bottom.
At one time or another this season, each of the top six teams in the league held a top-ten spot in the RPI, the PairWise, and the USCHO poll.
“When you say we’ve got such a great league, it sounds like you’re just blowing smoke about your own neighborhood, but the fact is that our league did have more than a few good teams,” says Wolverine head coach Red Berenson. “Certainly this was the toughest and closest I can remember our league competition among the most teams. It’s good [the NCAA selection committee] gave our league that respect.”
Senior Michigan defender Bubba Berenzweig says that the Wolverines are pulling for the other CCHA teams in the tourney. “I think our league deserves it. I think we’ve got a very strong league. It just shows winning the CCHA title means a lot. I think it’s great for the CCHA, and I’m happy for the other teams.”
Bogas echoes his archrival’s sentiments. “We will keep an eye on how the other CCHA teams are doing, and you always want them to do well. It brings respect to the league and gives you a little bit of bragging rights.”
And Rick Comley — the coach of the Wildcats, the Northern Michigan Wildcats, the ‘Cats who won last week — is as happy as the other three coaches to see four teams from his league in the tourney. “It’s…great to see that the CCHA was rewarded with four teams in the field after all of us battled each other so hard throughout the season.”