December 29, 2008 1:15 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
LOGAN, Utah -- Whenever I travel to this part of the country, the Tetris-stack of states that makes up the intermountain west, I feel a great sense of unease. This goes back to when I lived in western Oregon for seven years, and would occasionally come further inland, but my advancing age allows me to better articulate the feeling.
It will take this nation at least a thousand years to fill up this time zone. The earth will spin into the sun before there's time enough to attach houses to cliff faces, or to string enough long-distance irrigation to turn deserts into magic valleys. A proud line of Colorado mountains, a wide Utah desert, either is enough to force any human being into their proper miniature scale. Disappearing into these vast landscapes would be effortless (even less so after a trip to a Wal-Mart Supercenter for sufficient supplies). Places like these invite loneliness, as much as they demand it, enforce it and amplify it in equal measure. In that open space, there's a lot of time to think about one's relationship to larger things.
So it's never been any mystery to me why these lands have been a magnet for those with a religious bent, why Brigham Young said that this was the place and not, say, Laguna Beach. A place of cosmic loneliness inspires higher thought, as much as it compels people to draw closer together into communities and ensure that they continue in the most efficient way possible. Look, I've seen "Saturday's Warrior," and I didn't poke fun. I've been here, I know that zero population is not the answer, my friend.
But an outsider like me needs to learn the rules of passage, and quickly, even if they've changed slightly since the covered wagons came across. But Law No. 1 is still this: help is not on the way. Crossing these areas requires careful forethought, and errors can be devastating and costly. I'm reminded of a long passage two seasons ago, sidling north and west to Spokane airport, straining to catch a morning flight after a night game in Pocatello. The 560 miles through a snowstorm was manageable enough, but finding a service station on I-90 open at 3 a.m. was a different matter. Finally, after exits full of darkened signs, I filled the 12-gallon tank of my rental car with 12.1 gallons of gas. As the low-gas light burned for nearly an hour, my hands were shaking, I was terrified.
To live here, anywhere along America's backbone, requires faith, and it requires patience. I clearly don't have enough of either, so this could very well be the perfect place for me to spend the next week.
Red Line Upsets
A mighty Mid-Majority welcome back to all of you, friends and distant relatives, as we move out of the holiday break and get on with the important business of transitioning into conference season. It's the last chance for teams in mid-major conferences to make their marks against higher competition before retreating back into their parenthetical world for two months.
We last spoke on Tuesday, which turned out to be a major red-letter day in the world of trap games. The biggest by far was Portland State's stunning 77-70 upset of Gonzaga, in which the relatively Lilliputian Vikings outrebounded a Zag team with two 6-11 dudes. Not quite as headline-grabbing, but just as satisfying, was America East champion UMBC's 57 percent shooting performance at Nebraska with a six-man team, a 66-64 win sealed by a Darryl Proctor blocked shot. South Dakota State of the Badlands Conference also picked up a win over a Big 12 team, beating Iowa State 65-58 in a good all-around performance. Creighton also beat the Big East's DePaul by eight, but there's no real shock there.
After the three-day holiday break, there were some razor-thin margins in unexpected places, primarily at the expense of the two limbo leagues that have the money but not the power-conference results. On Saturday, the A-East's Binghamton held off Tulane of Conference USA 74-73 in New Orleans, and Portland moved to 7-5 before WCC play with a 43-42 win over Air Force at the Golden Bear Classic at Cal. A neutral court situation in Myrtle Beach resulted in a Coastal Carolina win over East Carolina, 63-55. The big teal chickens of the Big South aren't supposed to beat a C-USA team, especially after being thrashed by 21 in their season opener with the D-II Coker Cobras.
But finally, there's a sweet upset you might have completely missed. Lipscomb, an Atlantic Sun team in the midst of a tough rebuilding project, stunned 14,000 Indiana fans yesterday as the Bison outmuscled the Hoosiers 74-69 at Assembly Hall. Lipscomb's two Indiana natives, sophomores Michael Teller and Adnan Hodzic, were the stars with 19 points each. How sweet is that?
Missouri Valley: Sunday was the first day of the MVC calendar, always a time for celebration. The best game of opening day was the double-OT thriller between Indiana State and Northern Iowa, won by the host Panthers 85-84. Preseason faves Creighton dropped Wichita State at home by 12. Illinois State (12-0, 1-0), which we'll be watching carefully due to its soft early-season sked, won its 12th straight with a 72-69 decision at Missouri State's new JQH Arena. Bradley spanked reeling Southern Illinois 79-63 in Peoria, and what's this? Evansville beat Drake by 11 at home. I've said enough about passing the Valley underdog torch, you fill in the rest.
U'useless Stat of the Day
There have been a total of 96 Red Line Upsets so far this year, and mid-majordom's .134 win rate over the top eight leagues is two full percentage points ahead of last year. We've spoken plenty about that. And I'll admit I missed a certain very important part of the story, this is my fault. There have been 717 instances of teams above that line playing teams below it so far. As far as scheduled games go (that is, not NCAA or NIT matchups that are still very TBA), there will be 120 more, mostly coming this week and next. That's a total of 837 chances at the top dogs. There were 57 mid vs. major matchups in the national postseason (assuming a similar number this time around, that would bring us to roughly 900).
Let's take a quick look back at last season, and keep in mind we are using the same Red Line across years. In 2007-08, there were a total of 5,593 college basketball games played. Assuming the ridiculous CBI championship series goes to three games again, the number for 2008-09 will be 5,724. Of 1,278 games between mids and bigs a year ago, there were 145 upsets. That's how we arrived at a .113 win percentage.
The primary reason for the increase in the number of games this season is that Division I has grown by two teams playing full schedules, Houston Baptist (who's here in Logan for this three-day tournament) and Bryant. There are also more schools playing in Multi-Team Events and pushing their schedules out beyond 28 games. But I leave you with this today, something we'll be delving into more detail as the week goes by.
How would you explain the sudden, unexpected drop in games between large schools and low-budget schools?
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