CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When I switched on the local TV this morning, there was a reel of clips from a Murray State exhibition game, the Racers were beating up on Bethel College
. In the inbox, news that Stephen Curry had lit up the scoreboard for 41 points
... iin a non-counter against Lenoir-Rhyne (eight turnovers? hmmm...). We here are already inside the season, counting wins and losses and tabulating statistics, but it's easy to forget that "opening day" is still two days out. It's like when Major League Baseball starts in the dead of a March night in Tokyo's Big Egg, or when the NHL plays a weekend of games in Europe. The season has started, but it hasn't.
Four games into the 2008-09 campaign, we're definitely in a temporary in-between bizarro world. Gas is a buck-seventy-nine. The Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, the nation's only time-exempt event this year, has again found its marquee hogged by a video-game company that acts as ruling sponsor (it reads a little like "BUY STUFF BUY STUFF cure horrible diseases"). And a lot of these matchups in the first and second rounds look a lot like exhibitions.
The Division II teams that litter the bracket are there not for charity's sake, but because of the market forces that always print themselves out in big letters. The preseason tournament game is now a cutthroat business
, and there are now no fewer than 50 mini-brackets
playing out across the country. It used to be, back in the days of two exempt tournaments every four years, that an event like Coaches vs. Cancer would draw the best power-conference teams and the best mid-majors. Because no Classic or Tip-Off or Invitational can feature more than one team from any given conference (so they don't end up playing each other early or unnecessarily), there just aren't enough schools to go around anymore.
Last night in Carbondale, the only pod not being televised on ESPNU this week, Massachusetts and Southern Illinois geared up for their inevitable Wednesday face-off against the University of Arkansas-Monticello and California (Pa.), respectively. The UAM Boll Weevils, mainstays in the Gulf South and votegetters
in the D-II poll, are named a bug that the U.S. government is attempting to eradicate
. The Vulcans, not
a Star Trek reference, is often seen at the top of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
But neither simply rolled over, like many of this week's exhibition punching bags have. Both teams actually led their games at one point or another. UAM turned a 14-3 deficit into a momentary 33-31 lead thanks to 6-9 Raymond Wright, an athletic gentleman from New York City who unleashed a string of baseline-drive slams against a young and still somewhat bewildered UMass defense (the Minutemen pulled away late, 90-71
). Southern Illinois, breaking in a five-freshman class, was down 16-10 and tied at halftime before the kind of depth not available in Division II came through, and the Salukis won 66-52
In just 48 hours, the "real" season will begin, with hundreds upon hundreds of games dotting Hoops Nation, bringing college basketball joy to brighten every corner. Until then, we've got Boll Weevils in our brackets.
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