First in a series of nine daily essays leading up to the 2008-09 college basketball season.
It's not supposed to work out for the best, and the system is designed to anticipate failure. On March 21 in Birmingham, the four lower seeds wore their extra digits like anchors, eliminated one after another at three-hour intervals. I watched from a corner seat as American, South Alabama and then Boise State, and finally Saint Joseph's had their weaknesses cruelly exploited by superior competition, crushed and crumpled on live high-definition television.
Each head coach ascended to the press-conference dais with two dejected and downcast players, briefly explained to the assembled reporters how those things that worked so well for five months just didn't seem to click on March 21, had misfired so badly. And then they disappeared, shunted aside, back to their buses behind the BJCC Arena. By the time the weekend was over, Butler was gone too.
It was only fitting that I came out of that first-round quadruple-header to discover a car with a broken alternator
. In this game, our game, it's the weak links and the missing pieces that do us in, the things that end up defining the journey. The teams followed in this space are built possession by possession, win by win and through a succession of upward steps -- but it's what falls apart, what doesn't work, and what isn't present to begin with, that gets carved into March's gravestones.
Nine days on, I was sitting second row courtside in a packed stadium in Detroit. Davidson, yet another of the squads often chronicled here, was down by two to the eventual national champions of college basketball -- holding possession, 16 ticks 94 feet away from the Final Four. To this day, I have not seen the final shot. When Curry awkwardly handed the ball off to Richards, I reflexively shut my eyes... when I opened them seconds later, it was clear which team was going to San Antonio and which was headed home. The next words I heard were from a colleague in the tunnel.
"Imagine if they'd had a guy like Darrell Arthur
," he said.
There are three times in the college basketball calendar when everything makes sense, where the past and future are clear, when there is no confusion as to where we all stand. One comes in mid-March, when the 65 survivors of the regular season are slotted on a rigorous grid, their missions and their challenges laid out on a simple map that all Americans can read, from the crustiest old head coach to the most temporary office secretary. The second arrives three weeks later, when one of those teams has amassed six victories and is declared the ultimate winner, leaving the other 64 behind.
This, right now, is that other moment. Over 320 teams are all suspended at zero wins and zero losses, each with a theoretical shot at the title Kansas currently holds. Each is a collection of strengths and weaknesses, or experience and lack of same, a living organism whose true value and resilience will be fully known over four months from now. Each one is capable of greatness, and each is capable of abject failure.
Of course, there are those teams that have resources, conference affiliations, facilities, high-paid coaches, television exposure, and time-tested success formulas that attract outsized expectations. History bears many of these expectations out -- in 2007-08, teams from the eight richest conferences beat teams from the 23 poorest 89 percent of the time. And this time every year, certain schools are ranked in an artificial preseason chart of perceived performance.
Take the University of North Carolina, for example, the consensus No. 1 team. The experts expect that team to be 100 percent perfect, and the majority of critical analysis over the course of the season will be concerned with what's wrong with them. The difference between UNC and, say, UNC-Wilmington, is that one is forced to spend the year playing against ghosts, chasing a theoretical team No. 0
. The other is a sum of its admittedly meager parts.
So from this vantage point, it's easier to see the common bond between programs like Boise State, Saint Joseph's, American and South Alabama. All are defined at this moment by their question marks, not their exclamation points. Only one of those schools is perceived as a favorite to return, but American will spend its season looking for respect again in the Patriot League. This stands in stark contrast with the teams that eliminated them, all of which can only play themselves out of NCAA tournament bids.
This is what all teams on our side of the Red Line have in common (yes, even Davidson), and in a way, it's what ultimately binds us all together in a single, unified, indivisible league. These 225 teams that make up the Mid-Majority are built from the bottom up. None are inheritors of unshakable legacies that self-perpetuate. Every season, teams from the Atlantic 10 on down fight to keep and pay successful coaches, lure and keep talented players who'd have greater chances to be on television and catch scouts' attention in higher-profile leagues, and, through all of this, find a way to win enough games to achieve postseason berths.
We are bound together by our common, yet unshared restraints.
During this season, in particular, the challenges will be greater. With more teams coming into Division I, the "guarantee games" offered by power-conference teams, six-figure checks that provide important financial lifelines for fledgling programs, are an increasingly finite resource fought over by a larger market. Cuts in local media budgets mean that small-college coverage is the first to see the ax. Travel costs are up, as athletic directors and commissioners have recurring nightmares about being sent to Hawaii for BracketBusters weekend.
But this is what this site, in its better moments, is all about: a study of struggle. For the past four basketball seasons, The Mid-Majority
has attempted to chronicle the process of assembling successful basketball programs despite disadvantages, the conundrum of how to win March games that logic dictates shouldn't be won. As we move forward into a fifth year, TMM will concern itself more with the commonality between the programs that work, building projects that sustain postseason pressure, the ingredients that lead to signature victories, and ultimately, the problem of sustaining a level of breakout success.
And when it's over five months from now, perhaps we'll have a better idea of why carefully-built programs break in March, and maybe we'll be better able to posit more advanced theories as to how to prevent that from happening. At the very least, I'll be able to test the limits of that new alternator.