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Purple Aces don sleeves again

1/1/2008

EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Basketball and the liberal arts are often kept as far apart as possible. So on Saturday night, those in attendance at Roberts Stadium were a bit surprised when the PA announcer asked for their undivided attention before the national anthem. He wanted to read them a short poem that the radio analyst had written.

It is an honor, indeed, to wear the sleeves; an honor that only a select few will achieve.

The sleeves stand for championships, attitude and desire; a tradition that will raise one's standards higher.

Hard work, determination, success and pride are characteristics of the sleeves, known nationwide.

And with that, the homestanding Purple Aces pulled off their warm-ups, revealing the short-sleeved uniforms not seen since the 2001-02 season. The sleeves had disappeared for five long, losing years, but the crowd stood and applauded the return of a uniform feature that most longtime college hoops fans know as uniquely Evansville.

The sleeves were originally the idea of Evansville's Hall of Fame head coach Arad McCutchan, who won 514 games in 31 years and led the Aces to five national championships in the NCAA College Division (now Division II). McCutchan was famous for finding every possible advantage he could, testing the bounds of a basketball rulebook still under development in the '50s and '60s. He outfitted his Aces in sleeved shirts because the gyms were chilly, and he wanted to keep his shooters' arms warm. McCutchan used to use fashion for intimidation purposes, too, having his teams come out of the locker room in purple boxing robes.

Locals will tell you that McCutchan was strongly against the school's move to Division I; he stepped aside as head coach right before the 1977-78 season. It could be said that the decision might have saved McCutchan's life -- four games into Evansville's first Division I campaign 30 years ago, the Evansville community was hit by one of the worst tragedies in college basketball history. On Dec. 13, 1977, new coach Bobby Watson and the entire team and staff perished in a plane crash shortly after takeoff at the city's regional airport.

The Aces have enjoyed some success at the Division I level, achieving the NCAA Tournament five times over the past three decades under Dick Walters and Jim Crews, including an 11-over-6 overtime upset of Oregon State in 1989. But when a 7-21 campaign doomed Crews' tenure in 2002, former Hampton coach Steve Merfeld came on board, and the sleeves were snipped. Merfeld lasted five seasons and won just 37 percent of his games, so Marty Simmons was hired this past summer after building SIU-Edwardsville into a national power.

Simmons once wore the sleeves himself, on a purple No. 50 uniform as a former two-time all-conference forward for the Aces in the late '80s. But Saturday night wasn't a matter of an old star forcing history and mystique on a younger generation.

"It was their decision to wear the sleeves," said the Purple Aces' coach. "We've had the jerseys, but they wanted to wear them tonight. They understand that it's about the program."

Unfortunately, Evansville wasn't able to tap into the rich vein of the program's history and do the sleeves proud on Saturday. Perhaps distracted by the extra fabric, the team shot just 33.9 percent from the floor in their Missouri Valley opener, coming apart in the second half against Indiana State to lose 70-56. The visiting Sycamores, shoulders plainly visible, broke open a tight game right after halftime with a 10-0 run, sending the Purple Aces to their sixth loss of the season against five wins.

"Those sleeves mean something," said a dejected Simmons after the game. "I wore 'em, I know what they stand for. There are a lot of guys who played before me who wore them, and I took a lot of pride being able to wear the sleeves myself. Coach Crews made it perfectly clear to us players what they stood for."

Simmons wouldn't say whether his team has lost the privilege of wearing the sleeves. Will the old-school jerseys make their next appearance on Wednesday at Northern Iowa? Or much later? It's still early in MVC play, and it remains to be seen if Evansville will turn in a sleeve-worthy season.

But the 2007-08 Aces do feature some good cards, most notably 6-foot-11 Dutch redshirt freshman Pieter van Tongeren, who's shooting 51.5 percent from the floor and leading the team with 6.2 rebounds per game. There's also key holdover guard Jason Holsinger (team-leading 13.5 points per game) and much-improved 6-6 senior forward Victor Gomez, who has displayed some superb finishing skills. With a new coach and a renewed sense of pride in the program's rich history, it looks like the beginnings of an intriguing squad.

Perhaps, someday, the kind of team people write poems about.