January 29, 2009 11:05 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
CHARLESTON, Ill. -- Being an East Coaster with a family tree that only extends thin branches into the midwest, freezing fog is definitely a new experience. Yesterday morning, driving the long straight Interstates of Iowa headlong into the sun, the sky was thick and golden, just like heaven would probably be like. In perfect asphalt solitude, with the soft hum of the Japanese engine, you'd be checking every few minutes to make sure your skin was still there.
Just a few hours to the south and east was pure hell. A thick line of storms ripped through our nation's midsection, leaving behind dead people and broken trees and cold houses without electricity. As evidenced by the list of "Ppd." entries on last night's scoreboard, it also erased several mid-major college basketball games.
I spent most of the day yesterday in Cedar Falls with Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin. At Creighton the other night, he convinced me to swap out Missouri State-Southern Illinois for Illinois State-Northern Iowa, noting that he'd heard there was a good chance that the game in Carbondale wouldn't go on as planned. It didn't; both MSU-SIU and Evansville-Drake were moved off until today to accommodate for the storm and its cleanup. The commish was trying to figure out the last time conference games had to be rescheduled like this, and he finally guessed it had been nearly two decades.
At our level, postponing a game isn't as simple as crossing it out on the calendar and penciling it in somewhere else. Teams can't just tell the pilot of their private planes to hold back the flight for a day. And when you're dealing with conference rivals looking for each and every possible advantage in their quest for a lucrative NCAA bid, it's difficult to get anybody to agree on anything. When it was clear that there was no way the games could be played on time, Elgin spent the day on the phone with athletic directors and coaches, acting as mediator, arbiter and psychiatrist.
Pushing games back meant scuttled charters that had been purchased months in advance, unexpected bus rides through treacherous weather, lost practice days for the next opponent, and countless ideas of how to reparate. Tempers flared, nobody got exactly what they wanted, and the commissioner was forced to miss a good portion of the best game his conference has had to offer so far this season: UNI's tight and exciting win over Illinois State that built a unexpected two-game lead over the rest of the Valley.
As for tonight, when Evansville plays at Drake this afternoon at 4 p.m. Central (a game up here safely north of the storm line), keep watch over the scoreboard. Know that the Purple Aces left a city without power, to bus nearly 15 hours overnight across storm-wracked Illinois... and then afterwards, they'll have to turn around and return home for a Saturday homer with Southern Illinois.
It was a long day, and at 10:15 p.m. Central the exhausted commissioner and I were at a Cedar Falls Starbucks. Halfway through the ordering procedure, his hand slipped and sent my grande Pike Place Roast all over the counter, soaking the stack of free iTunes cards and the tip jar.
"This is so going in the blog," I deadpanned. He laughed, for the first time all day.
Conference CallsAmerica East: Given the offensive firepower that Vermont has, with league POY Marqus Blakely and Swiss-army guard Mike Trimboli, it's not surprising that the Catamounts are scoring eight points per game more than their nearest AE competitor. Mike Lonergan's charges are 6-2 after a 10-point home win against Maine, and have won six straight since dropping its first two league games. Interesting to note that despite a lot of returning talent, both participants in last year's title game are underwater -- UMBC is 3-5, and runner-up Hartford is last at 2-6.
Southland: I totally blew the new conference alignment last time, my bad, so here's another stab at this. There are so many SLC teams in Texas that one has to be on the eastern side of the standings table, and since Stephen F. Austin is in Nacogdoches, about an hour's drive from the Louisiana border, why not them. The Lumberjacks have been snacking on the East, running a 5-1 record and sitting as the conference's lone double-digit RPI team. Last night, they destroyed an 0-5 Northwestern State squad 73-45, one that's a shell of the program that's made the title game every year for the last two forevers. The champs of 2007, Corpus Christi, are 5-0 in the West, but the two current division leaders don't face off until Feb. 28.
A couple of reminders: Your chances of winning a Bally couldn't be better this week. We haven't received very many Refrigerator Art Contest entries, perhaps because everybody's spent from writing. It's basically yours for the taking. Deadline's tomorrow.
Also tomorrow is our first try at a chat, something I vaguely remember as being a lot of fun in another lifetime. The excitement starts at 12 noon EST, and here's your link.
U'useless Stat of the Day
Speaking of the Southland, there was a real thriller-chiller at Lamar, where Sam Houston State extended a lead late in the second overtime period to win 112-105. Part of the reason for the pullaway was that the homestanding Cardinals almost ran out of players. A total of 68 fouls were called in this game, distributed evenly between both squads, and seven players were disqualified with five (four for Lamar, three for the Bearkats). All that rasslin' and hackin' gave rise to a performance that was destined for this space.
Ashton Mitchell is a 5-11 Sam State junior guard who spent a good deal of his first two years missing free throws, but something must have happened last summer in the driveway. His average from the line has shot up over 10 points to 78.8 percent, and Lamar must not have received the memo that he's the wrong guy to foul. He's had four perfect nights at the free throw line, and made nine of 10 in last Saturday's win against Texas-Arlington. But that just set the stage for last night.
Current MMBOW Ben Woodside went 30-for-35 from the line in North Dakota State's loss to Southland team Stephen F. Austin back in December, and no charity-stripe effort had come close until Mitchell's 22-for-27 evening last night, which represents a school record for FTM's. And it came out the blue -- in his previous 79 college games, he had never attempted half as many free throws. Those 22 free throws helped contribute to a 36-point statline, easily a career high.
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