In the 1960s and ’70s, it was called the Baltimore Metro, a three-day, season-opening tournament of games between seven local men’s basketball programs. One of the schools, the University of Baltimore, no longer has a team; another, Johns Hopkins, competes in Division III.
From 1998 to 2003, it returned as the Battle of Baltimore Classic, a four-team, two-round competition sponsored and televised by Channel 2. UMBC won three titles, Loyola Maryland two, and Towson, Coppin State and Morgan State none.
On Tuesday, as head coaches from the five Division I programs within 10 miles of downtown Baltimore gathered at Towson’s SECU Arena for the first Greater Baltimore Basketball Media Day, there was pride in the renewed state of Baltimore basketball but a longing to be more like Philadelphia, to bring back the old days. Up Interstate 95, the city’s “Big 5” — Pennsylvania, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova — play every year.
In Baltimore, there’s no consensus on what it might be called the next time the local schools play under the same banner. Only that it needs to happen sooner than later.
“I would hope that we could come up with a more creative name than the Big 6 or 7,” Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman said, alluding to the possible inclusion of Navy and Mount St. Mary’s. “I just think it's time.”
There would have been no better time than this season.
Towson has what coach Pat Skerry calls his deepest roster of his Tigers tenure, well positioned to improve on last season’s third-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association.
UMBC returns four starters from a surprising team that led the America East Conference in points per game and 3-point shooting.
Loyola senior Andre Walker became the first Greyhound to earn first-team All-Patriot League honors since the school joined the conference before the 2013-2014 season.
Morgan State, which finished tied for third in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 2017, counts two first-team all-conference performers among its 10 veterans.
And Coppin State — well, the Eagles have Juan Dixon as coach and all the new hope that that promises.
“A lot of the programs are on strong upticks right now,” Skerry said, “and it'd be good timing to get that going again.”
Not that the schools are avoiding one another. In fact, the opposite: Each Baltimore-area team will meet at least one other this season. Coppin State and Morgan State will face off twice, as they regularly do in MEAC play.
But there is no showcase for the area’s internecine battles. Coaches said Philadelphia’s Big 5 model, a round-robin tournament to determine a champion, would impose too much on their scheduling needs. (“Guarantee games,” early-season matchups between a high-major team and a lower-level foe earning a significant paycheck to hit the road, are important to a program’s bottom line. And money talks, often more loudly than civic pride.)
Restoring the early-season tournaments of yore, though — something like that would be more palatable. Coaches suggested a tripleheader, maybe around Thanksgiving or the winter holidays, the venue rotating among the participating schools.
“We'd have a day of college basketball, and you get all the teams here represented and maybe you play a different team each year,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “It would require some sacrifice in terms of not having it at your arena. … But I think, all in all, it would definitely be a positive.”
“It would give us an opportunity to keep some of our prospective student-athletes here at home,” Dixon said. “If they can witness Towson and UMBC and Morgan and Coppin and Loyola, these schools here, on the same floor, competing, it's going to bring out all the local talent. Bring out AAU teams, the coaches, the high school coaches. And they get to witness high-level basketball right here at home.”
“Any type of exposure that has us going against each other, no matter if you win or lose, people are going to know about it,” Loyola coach G.G. Smith said. “ ‘Well, did Coppin beat Morgan today? Did Loyola beat Towson? Did Towson beat whoever?’ Just that type of discussion is going to be great for all of our programs. It's great for branding.”
Smith has heard these calls to action before. When he was an assistant under Jimmy Patsos, the former Greyhounds head coach worked with Bozeman to create an annual Baltimore basketball competition, something that would minimize travel costs and bolster media and fan interest. It never came together. “It’s just so hard,” Smith acknowledged. Coaches have their own interests; athletic directors have theirs as well.
If area teams are ever to come together again, Smith said, they have to start planning now — even if they’re for games held after the next presidential election. Baltimore’s Big 5 sounds good in theory, but practically, there are issues that need sorting out. Who would host, and when? Which Maryland team would be the sixth in a tripleheader? How would tickets be allocated?
And just what it would be called?
“It's something that is going to be unique,” Smith said, “if we can get it done.”