CLAREMONT, Calif. - The distance between the home basketball venues for Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Roberts Pavilion) and Pomona-Pitzer (Rains Center) is a little more than 1500 feet, or only about 75 three-pointers away from each other.
In last year's SCIAC Championship game, it probably felt to Pomona-Pitzer like the Stags made enough of them to cover the distance.
The last time the two teams met, CMS made 12 three-pointers on its way to an 86-62 win in the 2018 SCIAC finals, completing a 3-0 season sweep of the Sagehens and earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Most of the players who hit those bombs, though, graduated as senior Scott Lynds knocked down five and senior All-American Michael Scarlett hit four. In one stretch in the first half, Scarlett hit back-to-back triples and Lynds followed with another to turn a one-point game into a 10-point lead and send the Stags on to a lopsided win.
This year's first matchup (Thursday night, 7 p.m., Roberts Pavilion) will have a different feel, though. Four of last year's starters for the Stags graduated, as well as two top reserves, which on paper shifted the balance of power towards a veteran Sagehen team this year, which returns two seniors (Corbin Koch, Daniel Rosenbaum) and a junior (Micah Elan) from its starting backcourt. Pomona-Pitzer (5-1) was picked first in the preseason SCIAC poll and picked up a big double-overtime win over No. 4 Whitman at the David Wells Classic over Thanksgiving weekend, a day after the Stags (3-2) battled Whitman (which defeated the Stags in overtime in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament) to an 84-75 defeat.
But nothing on paper has ever meant much for a Sixth Street Rivalry game, which are unlike any other rivalry games in the country. All five student bodies from the Claremont Consortium, which are enclosed within one square mile, flock to the arenas and get the chance to act like students at a Duke-North Carolina game for a night. Only at these games, the fanbases are divided equally, with pretty close to half the stands filled in scarlet and half in blue. Then everyone has to leave the building after screaming at each other for two hours and share the same library that night, or share classrooms the next morning, so there's a little at stake for the fans, too.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," said senior forward Ryan Kusch, who will be playing in the ninth Sixth Street rivalry game in his career, including two postseason meetings (both won by CMS). "Especially when we have these games in Roberts, we get a big crowd going and its fun to look over and see all the students from both sides filling up the stands."
Over the years, the men's basketball rivalry has seen some wild finishes that have led to enthusiastic court-stormings. In one of the most memorable endings in 2012, Pomona-Pitzer tied the game on a three-pointer in the closing seconds, only to have Stag guard Remy Pinson come right back and go coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer.
Not every game between the teams comes down to the wire, but the crowd still gets into every play. In fact, the cheer from the crowd when one team wins the opening tip passes the decibel-level reading of the cheers from any other game. It makes the atmosphere much different than normal, and it can take a little bit of adjustment from the players, but they all love the experience.
"I'm looking forward to it a lot, especially since it's my last one here," said senior guard Mark Sui. "These have been the most fun games of my entire career - high school, junior high, everything, just because of the amount of people that come through, and all the students from both sides."
The excitement extends to the coaching staffs as well. CMS Head Coach Ken Scalmanini is in his 21st season with the Stags, while Charles Katsiaficas is in his 32nd with the Sagehens, so the two have battled head-to-head nearly 50 times.
"I was telling the guys that I think this is my 46th game like this," Scalmanini said. "They're going to love them. They're fun to play in, more people show up, there's more at stake here. And there's two good teams with a lot of quality players on the court, so it should be a lot of fun Thursday. I'm really looking forward to it."
The teams will play again in the regular season this year at Pomona-Pitzer on Jan. 23, the first week of classes after winter break (both programs always insist on having the game dates moved to when students are in session), and if recent history is any indication, a third meeting is entirely possible in the SCIAC Tournament. But for now, Thursday's SCIAC opener is the one on the immediate agenda, and CMS knows that in addition to the excitement of the rivalry, Pomona-Pitzer (ranked No. 25 last week) is going to be a tough matchup, regardless of what jersey they're wearing.
"We know it's going to be a competitive game, they're a good team this year." said Kusch. "We got the better of them last year, so I think they are going to be gunning for us a little bit this year. We need to make sure we come out and bring our A game."