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Big Ten tournament trying to feel at home in Washington, D.C.

March 10, 2017

The Big Ten Conference men's basketball tournament has stepped out of its comfort zone, leaving the familiarity of the Midwest for the busy streets of the nation's capital.

After alternating between Indianapolis and Chicago the previous 19 years, the tournament is making its debut this week a few blocks from the White House. The calculated move has been met with mixed reviews.

"It's always better when it's around our house," said 76-year-old Chicagoan Jack Mikulski. "But we're here."

Like many other Big Ten faithful, Mikulski and his contingent planned to make the most of it.

"It'll be in New York next year. We'll go there also," he said. "This is a chance to travel around the country. Well, it's an excuse to travel around the country."

Not everyone seems to agree. The tournament is not sold out this year, but then again, it didn't always sell out in the Midwest.

Last year's tournament in Indianapolis,however, did draw an average of 16,722 fans per session to Banker's Life Fieldhouse, which has a standing-room capacity of 18,400.

The Big Ten said 12,189 people attended the afternoon round Thursday, which featured games between Illinois and Michigan, and Penn State and Michigan State. Attendance for Wednesday's opening round or Thursday's evening round haven't been released.

Commissioner Jim Delany makes it sound like moving the tournament is similar to taking a trip to a second home, not uprooting the family.

"I think it's just a strong statement that we've expanded," Delany said. "It's different, but I think it's important to us to express to the people of Maryland and at Rutgers and at Penn State that we truly want to live in two regions."

Tickets for games not involving Maryland have been readily available on StubHub, at bargain prices.

But the Maryland-Virginia-DC area is very much a transitory region, which provided 64-year-old Dennis Marshall of Davison, Michigan, a reason to head east.

"For me, coming from just north of Detroit, this is great," Marshall said. "I called my son, who's a teacher in Maryland, and said, 'Guess what's going on in your area? We're going to see some basketball.'"

And then there are those Big Ten grads that live in the region.

Ron Brooks, 59, once a Hoosier, now lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He and his wife, an Indiana University graduate, are delighted to have the tournament so close—though he isn't thrilled about how it got here.

"I'm old school," Brooks said, "so I don't like that they added Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten. But the good news is that I get to see Big Ten basketball in my backyard."

Said Marshall: "There are so many people from around the country that are here. It's nice for them to see their alma mater play. Plus, there are so many things to do other than just watch basketball."

Mikulski was stunned to learn he was standing in front of Ford's Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot.

"I want to see the Smithsonian. That's around here, right?" he asked.

Yes, along with a few other things.

"Washington offers a lot more in the city compared to Indianapolis and Chicago," said 19-year-old Paul Keen of Chicago, a member of Mikulski's traveling party.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo agrees, saying, "There are some great, great things to do here. I know my wife's happy. (But) getting to practice is a little more difficult because of the traffic here. I mean, God bless you people, I don't know how you do it."

For those who traveled from the Midwest, there's a small taste of home on the rotating ad board at midcourt. There's Iowa-based Pizza Ranch; Meijer, a store chain in Michigan; Tire Rack of Indiana and Michigan-based Auto-Owners Insurance.

In making the move to Washington, Delany ultimately decided there wasn't any reason to delay the inevitable.

"We could have waited five or 10 years but we thought we should do it now," he said. "It's like anything else—if you wait until it's convenient, you might be waiting a long time."

Not to mention, there's a good chance of getting seen and heard in Washington and New York.

"The media capital of the world is up and down that corridor," Delany said. "So there are a lot of reasons for us to be there. And if you're going to be there, you might as well really be there."

All legitimate reasons, though for 57-year-old Rich Keen of Chicago, it comes down to basketball.

"It's 10 games in three days," Keen said. "If you like to watch basketball, this is the place to be."

The tournament will return to Indianapolis in 2020 and 2022, and to Chicago in 2019 and 2021.

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