McDonnell created event to celebrate basketball in state

In its previous form, the Colonial Athletic Association was fun while it lasted, especially for basketball fans in the state of Virginia. Games among Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, George Mason, William & Mary and James Madison fueled rivalries and sparked interest.

But the departures of VCU to the Atlantic 10 (this season) and Old Dominion to Conference USA (next year) have left fewer games to mark on the calendar. Consider George Mason, which has lost the two premiere dates on its conference schedule, home and away against VCU, and next year will lose its two next most important games, against Old Dominion.

Earlier this month came more bad news for Virginia basketball fans as the CAA announced it was moving its postseason tournament from Richmond to Baltimore.

Governor's Holiday
Hoops Classic
George Mason vs. Richmond
Where » Richmond Coliseum
When » Saturday, 3 p.m.
Virginia vs. Old Dominion
Where » Richmond Coliseum
When » Saturday, 5:30 p.m.

Helping fill the void, however, is the Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic. At Richmond Coliseum on Saturday, George Mason (6-4) will take on the University of Richmond (9-3). In the second game, Virginia (8-2 entering Wednesday) faces ODU (1-10). The Classic continues next year with games pitting Virginia Tech against VCU and James Madison vs. Hampton.

The Classic was conceived a few years ago by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell during a radio interview. Proceeds will benefit the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

"The governor had a terrific idea of focusing on college basketball in the commonwealth," George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "As soon as the idea was presented to us, we jumped on it right away and wanted to be one of the first participants."

The idea is similar to the Crossroads Classic, played Saturday in Indianapolis. The event got more exposure than anticipated as unranked Butler topped No. 1 Indiana in overtime. In the anticlimactic second game, Notre Dame defeated Purdue.

It was the second year of the Crossroads Classic doubleheader and the second sellout crowd of 18,500. The schools have agreed to participate through 2014, but as conference shuffling continues, they can't commit to the long-term future.

The eight Virginia schools involved in the Governor's Classic find themselves in the same situation as they evaluate the results.

"I think you have to give it a two-year look-see. After two years, you look at it and see where you're at," O'Connor said. "But we think it will really grow into something nice for people who enjoy basketball in the commonwealth."

The last time Virginia had a similar event was from 1976 to 1991 when the Richmond Times-Dispatch tournament included VCU and Richmond playing other schools from the state on a rotating basis. Usually played between Christmas and New Year's Day, the tournament was a two-day event with four teams, including championship and consolation games.

McDonnell hopes for similar success for his new creation.

"I hope the Classic will become a long-lasting Virginia athletic tradition," McDonnell said last summer. "And as a father who has had children attend U.Va., Virginia Tech, ODU, JMU and VCU, I'm definitely staying neutral in this one."