Thundering Herd In Great Alaska Shootout

Marshall men's basketball coach Ron Jirsa announced that his team will participate in the 2006 Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout this winter in Anchorage, Alaska. The Herd will join host Alaska-Anchorage, Cal, Hofstra, Loyola Marymount, Missouri-Kansas City and two yet-to-be determined teams in the November 22-25 tournament. Marshall will play three games at Alaska Anchorage's Sullivan Arena. "It's a prestigious tournament and we're looking forward to being involved," said Jirsa.

"These exempt tournaments allow our program to add a high level of games to our schedule." Exempt tournaments allow teams to count three games played as one on schedule. It will be Marshall's first trip to the Great Alaska Shootout, and the Herd's first appearance in an exempt tournament since 2001 when Marshall played in the NABC Classic at Rupp Arena. The last time Marshall left the continental United States for games in the basketball season was 1987-88 at the Hawaiian Tournament. The Herd defeated Idaho and Hartford in that tournament, the third trip over four seasons to the "Big Island" for the Rick Huckabay-coached Herd teams of 1983-89.

Current Conference USA member UAB won the Great Alaska Shootout in 1984 and also played in the tournament in 1987, 1992 and 1997. No other current school in C-USA has played in the tournament, although Louisville (1999/1994/1986/1978); Marquette (2005/2001 champion/1981); DePaul (2000); and Cincinnati (1998 champion) participated as members of the league, between 1995 and 2005.

Schools from the Tri-State area to appear in the Great Alaska Shootout include Kentucky, who won the tournament in 1996 and 1979 and also played there in 1988. Ohio State played in the Shootout in 2000 and 1981, while the Ohio Bobcats played in Anchorage in 1995. Former Herd Mid-American Conference rival Eastern Michigan made the trip north in 1991, while former Southern Conference rivals Furman (2004) and Chattanooga (1992) have played in the Shootout.

This year's event includes the Bears of the University of California, who won 20 games last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament from the Pac 10 Conference, losing in the tourney to N.C. State. Hofstra, who will also open the home portion of the Herd's 2006 football schedule on September 9, won 26 games last year before falling in the finals of the Colonial Athletic Conference tourney. The Pride advanced to the NIT last season, while the Lions of Loyola Marymount, just 12-18, played in the finals of the West Coast Conference championship, falling to "Sweet 16" NCAA team, Gonzaga. The Kangaroos of UMKC were 14-14 in the Mid-Continent Conference, while Alaska Anchorage played in its 12th NCAA Division II Tournament and was 19-12 last season since 1982 and the second time in the last three seasons. Marquette won last year's tournament, beating South Carolina, who has won the National Invitational Tournament in back-to-back seasons, in overtime in the finals of the 2005 Shootout.

Marshall, here shown in action against UAB last season, joins the Blazers as the only current members of Conference USA to play in the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska by Greg Perry/HI staff

The Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout began back in the 1970s. The tournament began as a dream of Bob Rachal, the coach the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves during the 1977-78 season. Rachal (who died of cancer in 1985) wanted to put a fledgling UAA basketball program on the map and do it in style. He parlayed an NCAA rule that said games outside the contiguous 48 states didn't count against your normal allotment of 28 and the lure of Alaska itself into a winning hand. The gamble was whether the UAA and the community could attract big-name schools to a new tournament, in Alaska of all places, but the gamble paid off. Coaches jumped at the chance to squeeze in three "free" games against top flight competition, not to mention the recruiting possibilities a trip to Alaska afforded.

The first tournament, known then as the Sea Wolf Classic, was played in November of 1978 in the 4,000-seat Buckner Field House at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. The inaugural event received national press attention and portions of the tournament were televised live to regional markets of the teams involved, a first for the state of Alaska. Most important, however, was the reaction of the visiting coaches, who praised the hospitality, the officiating and most of all, the level of competition.Even as the first Sea Wolf Classic ended, plans were being made for hosting the second tournament, pending a review of the three-day event by University officials. In the end, they declared that the Classic was a success and should continue and in 1979 it did.

Only it wasn't the Sea Wolf Classic anymore. It was now called the Great Alaska Shootout, which was a name reportedly coined by CBS television commentator Billy Packer during regional television broadcasts of the initial tourney. Kentucky, led by guard Kyle Macy, defeated Jeff Ruland-led Iona for the 1979 title. Regardless of the name, this Thanksgiving holiday event was now well on its way to acceptance both at home and among the nation's top hoops teams.

In 1983, the Shootout moved from its original confines at Buckner into a newly constructed municipal sports facility in Midtown Anchorage, the Sullivan Arena. Named for former Anchorage mayor George Sullivan, it was part of Anchorage's "Project 80s," in which oil wealth was turned into a series of major public building projects. The $30 million facility gave the Shootout twice the number of seats (8,700) and a classy new home. In 1994 the event became the Carrs Great Alaska Shootout when Carr Gottstein Food, Inc., became the title sponsor of the event. With the purchase of Carrs by Safeway in 1999, the event is known today as the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout.

All told, 27 former NCAA champions have taken part in the Shootout, and 1996 marked the fifth time that the defending national champion had participated in the Shootout when Kentucky began defense of its NCAA title the following season in Anchorage. North Carolina State was the first, starting the defense of its 1983 title in Anchorage. Two years later, Villanova played in the 1985 Shootout after winning a national title earlier that spring. Louisville (1986) and Kansas (1988) have also played in the Shootout after winning national titles – not bad timing for contracts that are often issued years in advance. In recent years the Shootout has served as a springboard to success for the Final Four. The 2003 Final Four featured three of the past four Shootout champions: Kansas, 1999; Syracuse, 2000; Marquette, 2001, plus 2001 Shootout participant Texas. Indiana, which placed third in the 2001 Shootout, went on to reach the NCAA title game later that season. Duke, the 1998 Shootout runner-up featuring Anchorage's own Trajan Langdon, began its run to the 1999 Final Four in Anchorage as did North Carolina in 1997-98 and Kentucky in 1996-97.

From the beginning, the Shootout has attracted the attention of the nation's sports press. Nearly every major daily newspaper and sports magazine has at one time or another staffed the event. Televised from its inception on a regional basis, the Shootout went live nationwide via the ESPN cable television network beginning in 1985 – a mutually beneficial relationship that continues today and is contracted through 2006. In fact, it is safe to say that the tournament has generated more exposure for Alaska than any other single venture in the state's history. Indeed, the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout is no secret anymore, but rather an event eagerly awaited annually by fans of the successful NCAA Division II UAA Sea Wolves and also by millions of basketball fans nationwide.

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