Commentary

First practices not so much 'midnight' but plenty of 'madness'

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The idea took root at third base.

Jay Wright hugged the bag and rapper Lloyd Banks held him on during a celebrity softball game for Tim Thomas' charity.

The two got to chatting about basketball, Wright's full-time job and Banks' part-time passion, and the Villanova coach half-jokingly told Banks he ought to attend Hoops Mania, the Wildcats' version of Midnight Madness.

Before Wright could head for home, Banks said he'd be there.

But a week before the event, Banks landed a guest spot on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" the same night as Hoops Mania. He called Wright, apologized profusely and offered up his G-Unit partner Tony Yayo.

"That night, 50 Cent just decided to come along with Tony," Wright said.

Naturally.

[+] EnlargeVillanova Hoops Mania
Villanova Media Relations Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins was an honorary head coach for Villanova's blue-white scrimmage during its 2007 Hoops Mania.
On Oct. 23, 2006, the otherwise cavernous airport hangar that serves as Villanova's home gym on the conservative Catholic campus in the even more conservative cloister of the Main Line section of Philadelphia became the hottest concert hall this side of the Garden.

Stunned Villanova players danced on the press tables, and frenzied students whipped out cell phones to take pictures.

Somewhere in the middle of the mayhem, a little basketball broke out.

No one remembered.

As soon as it was over, students mobbed Wright with one question: Who can we get next year?

With a laugh, Wright remembered their asking: "'How about Kanye? Or Jay-Z?'"

This is what Lefty Driesell hath wrought: rappers introducing basketball at a college run by Augustinians.

Nearly 40 years ago, Driesell, then the Maryland coach, decided to go minor league baseball and inject a little promotion into basketball practice. Taking the NCAA at its literal word, he started practice at midnight on Oct. 15, 1971, and dragged his Terrapins out for a mile run around the football field. Illuminated by car headlights and cheered on by a few hundred students, the Terps might not have copyrighted the phrase Midnight Madness (someone else did, though), but they defined it.

Driesell's idea took root, becoming an annual rite of passage for basketball teams nationwide. Students jammed gyms to watch dunk contests and hokey skits. Were it the age of YouTube in 1994, Cincinnati's Cory Clouse would have been an instant hit after sinking a half-court shot to win a year's worth of room and board plus the textbooks Dick Vitale threw in at the last minute.

But traditions change, and Midnight Madness has been victimized by the times -- literally and figuratively.

Three years ago, the NCAA agreed to push the starting time for the first official practice to 7 p.m. And coaches, who frequently dance on the wrong side of sanity when it comes to getting an edge, believe a five-hour differential could mean the difference between the Final Four and a burst bubble.

"The biggest change is the change in the rule," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who in the past has enlisted famous "American Idol" flop William Hung and emerged from a coffin to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" but this year will go a tamer route, incorporating the madness with Florida's homecoming Gator Growl next weekend. "Waiting around until midnight isn't worth it anymore."

Consequently, the wild parties have turned into tepid tips better reserved for the senior citizen set. "Midnight Madness" has become the ultimate oxymoron, with much of the mayhem over before prime time expires.

Even in Kansas, where a new national championship banner will be unfurled, Late Night in the Phog will be over before most college kids even think about going out (it starts at 6:30 p.m. and should be wrapped up by 9:30).

Matt Painter will grudgingly host Mackey Madness at Purdue on Friday night, sandwiching his team's event around a volleyball game. The festivities will be over at 9:30.

In today's society, how do you get kids excited? You have to find something exciting or different to get them here.

--Illinois coach Bruce Weber

"I always said when we see improvements in our program, we'll bring it back," Painter said. "Last year we made a big step, so it's the perfect time. If fans come out and support us, if there's a packed house, we'll continue it. If not, we're not going to do it.

"Midnight Madness doesn't help us win games or get better in practice. The hoopla sometimes can get in the way of being blue-collar, of doing your daily business. Maybe I'm old-school, but that's just how I think."

But even for those willing to jump headfirst into the madness, the gamesmanship is no longer the same.

Like just about everything else in college sports, Midnight Madness is no longer simple and pure. Pleasing fans is nice, but pleasing particular fans is more important.

Falling conveniently in the middle of recruiting season, Midnight Madness is yet another tool in a savvy coach's box of tricks. Lure kids to campus, lure fans to the gym and watch the magic happen.

The catch, of course, is making sure there is magic. Nothing says, "Go elsewhere, young man," quite like an empty building.

"In today's society, how do you get kids excited?" said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who a year ago encouraged fans to purchase pink T-shirts for breast cancer and turned his midnight madness into a $47,500 pink-out. "You have to find something exciting or different to get them here."

Kentucky used the calendar. Exposing yet another loophole in the voluminous NCAA manual, the Wildcats moved their practice up an entire week. The move didn't endear coach Billy Gillispie to his peers, but the folks who gobbled up 23,000 tickets in 40 minutes didn't seem to mind the novel idea.

Neither did Daniel Orton. The Oklahoma big man gave a verbal commitment to the Wildcats this past weekend.

Weber's team practiced a week early, too, but the Illinois coach insists he wasn't looking for any sort of edge.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
University of IllinoisIllinois forward Mike Davis leaps over a fan during the Fighting Illini's Midnight Madness dunk contest last year.
He wanted to host the World's Largest Outdoor Practice as a tie-in with Coaches vs. Cancer (fans were asked to purchase a Zook Zone orange towel, with the proceeds going to Coaches vs. Cancer), and the football schedule -- the team put a temporary court on one of the end zones -- dictated the practice date.

The Illini are home this weekend, too, but it's a night game and Weber figured an ensuing outdoor 11:30 p.m. practice wasn't such a great idea.

"We have recruits there, but we have recruits every home football weekend," Weber said. "We wanted to do something that got people excited about our program but also brought awareness to Coaches vs. Cancer."

Unfortunately, the pigskin Illini didn't hold up their end of the bargain very well. Illinois lost to Minnesota, and only 5,000 or so fans stayed for the basketball practice.

Wright is going the other direction, pushing his mania back a week because students are on fall break this weekend.

It's the best way to stem a campus mutiny.

Last year, in anticipation of 50 Cent's follow-up act, students lined up for hours. More than 1,000 didn't get in, leading Wright to turn Hoops Mania into a ticketed event this year for the first time.

Who's this year's draw? He's not saying. Wright would rather diagram a double top-secret inbounds play for you than tell you who his celebrity guest is.

"Coming up with someone for Hoops Mania is more pressure than getting the team to play well," Wright said. "I know what I'm doing with the team, but this is pressure."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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