The Charleston Classic

The Charleston ClassicWhere: TD ArenaWhen: Thurs., Sat., Sun.Tickets: 953-2632; cofcsports.comThursday’s schedule 12:30 p.m. – Dayton vs. Colorado3 p.m. – Baylor vs. Boston College 5 p.m. – St. John’s vs. College of Charleston8 p.m. – Murray State vs. Auburn

It was a sunny fall afternoon in Puerto Rico five years ago when former College of Charleston basketball coach Bobby Cremins wondered out loud about which tournament the Cougars might play in during the 2008 season.

The Cougars were just wrapping up their week-long stay at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament and the experience, Cremins felt, had proven to be a huge benefit for his team on many different levels. That afternoon, Cremins was sitting poolside with Dan Shoemaker, the vice president for collegiate development at ESPN.

Before he even thought about it, Shoemaker blurted out that Charleston and the College would be an ideal spot for a college basketball tournament around the Thanksgiving holidays. Shoemaker knew the Cougars had just put the finishing touches on their new arena.

In an afternoon, Cremins and Shoemaker came up with the concept of the Charleston Classic.

“It was really that simple,” Shoemaker said. “That was the genesis of the idea about holding a tournament in Charleston.”

The Charleston Classic tips off for the fifth consecutive season Thursday at TD Arena and features one of the strongest fields to date. Murray State, a 31-game winner a year ago, and 16th-ranked Baylor headline this week’s tournament. The Cougars will play St. John’s at 5 p.m. Thursday night. The tournament features games on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Charleston Classic is one five tournaments sponsored by ESPN in November and December. The other tournaments include the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Diamond Head Classic (Honolulu), the DirecTV Classic (Anaheim, Ca.) and Old Spice Classic (Orlando, Fla.).

“We’ve come a long way in five years,” said Cremins, who serves as the tournament’s chairman. “I feel like a proud father watching the tournament grow every year. I’m hoping that the tournament will soon be like the Bridge Run where everyone in Charleston marks it down on their sports calendar.”

The tournament, which has seen a steady growth in attendance since its inception, could have ended after only a year or two. But the tireless work of Cremins and Shoemaker, along with local business leaders, have the tournament on solid footing now. Shoemaker said the tournament already has teams locked in through 2016. The 2013 field will be announced later this week.

“There were some moments early on when we wondered if we could sustain it,” Shoemaker said. “But we got some sponsorships and the local community really stepped up. To be honest, of the five ESPN tournaments, the Charleston Classic has the most local support. You’ll never be satisfied until you sell out every game, but I see a long future for the tournament in Charleston.”

One of the keys for the tournament over the past five years has been securing a rotating host team made up of in-state schools. The College of Charleston, South Carolina and Clemson have all participated in the event. Clemson is scheduled to host the event in 2013, while South Carolina will play in 2014.

“When Dan told me that Clemson and South Carolina were both in, I knew we had something,” Cremins said.

Just having the tournament on the College of Charleston’s campus is a benefit for the Cougars program, said Charleston coach Doug Wojcik.

“It’s a win-win situation for us no matter if we’re playing in it or not,” Wojcik said. “Having ESPN on your campus for a week, showcasing your facility, talking about the city of Charleston, that’s going to help in so many different areas, recruiting being chief among those. It almost doesn’t matter if we’re in it or not, we still get an advantage by the tournament just being on our campus.”

Wojcik didn’t know much about the tournament or the city of Charleston when his Tulsa team played in last year’s event. He just knew he wanted the exposure of being on ESPN for three days.

“When you’re a mid-major, you don’t get many chances to be on ESPN,” Wojcik said. “So anytime you can get on the ESPN networks, you jump at the chance. I just knew it was a good tournament with a competitive field.”

Wojcik brought his wife, Lael, and sons Paxson and Denham along for the four-day trip. While he was stuck in his hotel room or at TD Arena, his family was out exploring the city.

“Every night they’d get back to the hotel room and all I heard about was how we needed come to back to Charleston after the season was over,” Wojcik said.

Cremins said the tournament field will only get stronger as word spreads around the college basketball community.

“We’d love to get a Duke, or Kentucky or North Carolina to play in it, and we’re still hopeful that can happen,” Cremins said. “I think people are going to be very excited about some of the teams we’ve got coming in the future.”