Like a retro DeLorean, the Charleston Classic is time- traveling through college basketball, stirring memories along the way. At least for the pair of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame-worthy coaches who help market the tournament.
Last year, it was John Kresse beaming about ties that bind. St. John’s, his alma mater, was among the eight teams in the three-day tournament on Kresse Court, named in honor of the man who took the College of Charleston from NAIA status to four NCAA tournament appearances.
“It was just very, very special,” Kresse said, “to see St. John’s go from playing in Madison Square Garden to playing right here.”
This week, it’s Bobby Cremins. The former Cougars coach favors No. 19 New Mexico in the Thursday-Friday-Sunday action. First-year Lobos head coach Craig Neal played point guard for Cremins at Georgia Tech.
“His nickname at Georgia Tech was ‘Noodles’ — such a tall, skinny kid,” Cremins said. “Craig grew up in Indiana and he used to drive me crazy telling me how much better Indiana basketball was than New York City basketball. Of course, I’d always tell him he was full of it.”
Neal, 49, was promoted from New Mexico assistant coach last April soon after Steve Alford surprisingly took the UCLA job. The Lobos open play in the sixth Charleston Classic on Thursday at 3 p.m. against Alabama-Birmingham.
Clemson, Georgia, Davidson, Temple, Massachusetts and Nebraska are also in the bracketed tournament.
New Mexico, the only ranked team in the Charleston Classic, is 2-0 including a 109-93 track meet victory over Charleston Southern at The Pit in Albuquerque.
ACC assists record
“I’m not surprised he’s a coach, and I’m very proud of him,” Cremins said. “He was always a very smart player, and the son of a high school coach. I thought Steve would stay at New Mexico a long time, but I wasn’t surprised they hired Craig when Steve left for UCLA.”
Cremins’ had a steady run of NBA-bound point guards at Georgia Tech, including Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Jarrett Jack, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best.
And Neal, who didn’t look the part.
He seemed too frail for the Atlantic Coast Conference gauntlet.
He had a tough act to follow on The Flats; Price sparked the first of Cremins’ three ACC championship teams.
Undaunted, Neal steadily improved. He averaged 7.7 points and 9.5 assists as a senior in 1988. His 303 assists that season set an ACC record that was broken last season by North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall (351).
Roy Williams, too
“He was a great passer and a good ball-handler,” Cremins said. “He had played with Mark Price in his first few seasons at Georgia Tech, learned a lot from Mark and became a very good player. But at times, I couldn’t get him to slow down. He was a little wild.”
Neal went on to play two seasons in the NBA, splitting time with the Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.
It’s not just Cremins and Kresse. Charleston Classic ties extend to seasonal residents. Jerod Haase, in his second season at Alabama-Birmingham, played at Kansas and coached at Kansas and North Carolina for Roy Williams, who owns a place on the Isle of Palms.
It also extends to recruiting. Neal’s New Mexico roster includes his son, Cullen Neal, a 6-4 freshman guard. Cremins recruited the former Albuquerque high school star for the College of Charleston before resigning as Cougars head coach. The younger Neal signed with St. Mary’s in California but was allowed to switch to New Mexico last spring when his father got the head coach gig.
Charleston Classic ties collide this week as Cremins will pull for both Neals, perhaps against old Georgia Tech rival Clemson and familiar College of Charleston foe Davidson, in a tournament that keeps going back to the future.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.