January 2, 2009 11:12 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
POCATELLO, Id. -- First of all, we have a chat today over at ESPN SportsNation at 4 p.m. Eastern, or 2 p.m. Mountain Standard. Don't forget!
One last blast of mid-major mystery before we turn our attention solely to conference races, and forget that the top eight conferences exist -- a luxury we'll be able to afford until March. As we've been discussing all week, the number of mid- versus major games is plummeting. The number of games involving at least one sub-Red Line school has gone from 78 percent to 73 percent. Top conferences, as a group, scheduled fewer guarantee games and BracketBuster gut-checks, opting to save their cash and pride and taking on opportunities to play other majors on TV. There's a year-over-year deficit of 300 chances at the big boys, games that will probably never return.
Jonathan T., a man who likes soft pretzels, grabs the flag and runs with it.
I would argue that the solution to the power conferences' self-centeredness is the same as it has been for many years: take them onto the floor in March and see what they've actually got. If CAA, MVC, A-10 and other such teams are proving it to each other from November to February but the BCS conferences aren't paying attention, they'll learn the hard way of their error with the whole country watching on national television... and we will have no sympathy for them.
While we're edging closer to a virtual Division I-A in college basketball, I'd still argue that there's no real error here. The programs in the top eight leagues have their own self-interests to protect, and more power to them. An undisputable fact of life is that a November Big East-ACC game in worth much more on the open market than a Horizon League-Missouri Valley matchup. You have future NBA stars and hot-air hype on one hand (something casual fans will never transcend), and sated curiosity about future apple-cart tippers on the other. If people actually cared that much about the latter, this site would be a hell of a whole lot more popular than it is.
But there are subtle repercussions to fewer intersectional games, starting with fewer opportunities to prove mettle. Don't tell me that the CAA, Valley and WAC -- all looking like solid one-bidders in 2009 -- wouldn't mind getting a few of those missing chances back. And while next year's MVC-Mountain West series will be a Red Line crosser as well as a study in budget disparity, it's only a handful of games, and Lord, the travel. There's got to be a better way.
The BracketBuster event remains integral, and the return game fills an important first-semester schedule hole -- but the travel can be a BudgetBuster (ask any eastern team that's been suddenly saddled with a California or Hawaii trip).
Maybe it's time to extend the spirit of the mid-majority further and work towards a "I-A Alliance," have commissioners provide incentives for playing teams from the other 23 leagues at similar levels in matching geographical footprints. The Valley only played the Horizon eight times this season. The WCC and WAC played only 15 games (most of those involved San Diego), the CAA and A-14 10, and the Big South and Atlantic Sun only had a five-game series. This is baffling, and will become ever more so in the future -- especially if the power leagues continue to close ranks.
I'm not holding out much hope for this, mostly because of the mindset change this would require. Some conferences, and I'm not naming any 14-school names, are obsessed with breaking into a high-budget country club that doesn't want them. They don't realize that the national media forgets them whenever they're not racking up upsets. We are all in this I-A thing together... we have to be, because the top conferences are increasingly so.
Red Line Upsets
The Mountain West took it on the chin a couple of times on New Year's Eve, something we always love to see. In the fourth RLU of the holiday season for the mighty America East (which owns a 48-54 noncon record and a No. 16 RPI), Stony Brook upended Air Force by a 67-64 count. The Sons of Wolfie overcame the Falcons' 54 percent shooting with a +15 margin on the boards. And in the last game to go final in 2008, Utah State transcended a rare poor 3-point shooting night to clip Wyoming in overtime.
And yes, we were at that game. We spent the evening in a Refraction t-shirt, sitting in with a USU student section that's easily one of the best in the country. You haven't lived until you've done "The Scotsman."
Missouri Valley: The Valley rang out the old year with a full slate, and each team has now played a pair. Undefeated Illinois State showed upstart Evansville what was what in a 30-point G!O!T!N! blowout. Creighton extended a nine-game win streak with a 79-61 blue-wash at the House That Bird Built. And your surprise 2-0 team is Bradley, which eked by Wichita State on a Sam Singh putback with 0.9 seconds remaining. A strong MVC season would help erase the school's burgeoning reputation as the MVC's premier party school.
U'useless Stat of the Day
The year 2009 kicked off with one of the true rarities in college basketball: a triple-double. It's fairly common for a star NBA player to achieve one in 48 minutes, but try doing it in 40. In a 23-point Sun Belt romp over Troy yesterday afternoon, Western Kentucky's Orlando Mendez-Valdez only needed 33 to score 18 points, nab 10 rebounds and dish 12 assists.
And make no mistake: this was a big man's triple-double. The 6-1 Mendez-Valdez is more a candidate for the guard's T-D (points, assists and steals), and the entire performance was completely unexpected. Not only was this the first triple-double in Western Kentucky history, it was the first time in 105 collegiate games that the senior guard had achieved double figures in either rebounds or assists.
This was also the fifth points-rebounds-assists version of the trip-dub so far during the 2008-09 season. Three of them were by players from above the Red Line, so we don't care about those. Back on Nov. 20, Courtney Pigram of East Tennessee State had 21, 10 and 10 in a win over Wingate. That was against a non-D1 opponent, as was Lester Hudson's quad-dub a season ago against Central Baptist. The Tennessee-Martin star had 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in that Nov. 13, 2007 game.
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