February 5, 2009 8:40 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Let's get this out of the way first: when the first place team loses to the last place team, it's definitely not good for the league profile. And when the overwhelming preseason favorite takes one in the collective stomach from a team that long ago unanimously passed a team rule banning the use of defense, that's not so good either. But that's just the place where the Colonial Athletic Association is right now. The CAA is nowhere close to being the kind of conference that can win NCAA games in the name of this level, but I'd like to figure out how it can get back there, and why this happened.
You can't directly blame rapid expansion (with this set of teams, the league had two bids in 2006 and 2007) and you can't fault a lack of talent -- not with Eric Maynor around, a player who might end up sticking in the NBA, and at least 20 quality players worthy of power-conference starting lineups sprinkled throughout the league. But the rapid overall decline is sobering, and obvious with a quick glance at the league's recent record of success against Top 50 RPI teams (teams' rank based on latest season date available).
|Season||Conf. Home Win %|
So far this season, home teams are just 40-32. This is astounding to me, especially when compared to the MAC (.638), WCC (.679), Horizon (.642) -- even the Bizarro Valley (.600), which is strange for reasons entirely more random. We have a month to go before the tourney, and there are already seven fewer home losses in CAA games than there were in all of 2005-06. And this is with some truly awful road teams in the league: UNC Wilmington, Delaware, Georgia State and William & Mary have just six away wins between them -- since November. Only George Mason has held serve, winning all six of its CAA games at the Patriot Center, all 11 overall.
Now, attendance figures are always suspect, and the average gate at CAA games has officially hovered at around 3,500 since the addition of city teams like Northeastern, Georgia State, Hofstra and Drexel. And this is based purely on selective observation, mostly through the filter of Slingboxed television, but most of the games I've seen (even ones on weekends) haven't even managed half that. Last night, watching the announcers state multiple times that UNCW's Trask Coliseum was the toughest place to play in the CAA, I could only imagine casual fans looking at the sections of empty seats and wondering if the announcers were putting them on. Or just laughing and changing the channel.
I understand that some folks need to feel that what they're watching is important, that investing in mid-major college basketball is about watching potential future NCAA teams battle it out. But there are plenty of places across the country where the game sells itself, where fans will show up win or lose. Power conference teams are powered by money, but we are fueled by love: the players play and the coaches coach, but a full house of fans reminds them whose flag they're fighting for.
Here's my theory, and you're welcome to work it over: the CAA could very well be developing a Conference USA problem. With bleak NCAA hopes, and full of every-other-year "rivalries" between teams further than a day's drive of each other, a lot of fans must be simply tuning out. With few exceptions, all of which are in Virginia, game atmosphere in the CAA this year is flat Coke. At this point, with home teams barely managing a .500 record, you might as well play the whole league season on a neutral court, at the Richmond Coliseum perhaps.
So I say this to my friends who once named me 2006 CAAZone media POY, those whose concept of expertise expires when the kind words disappear. Take the time you're spending ripping me a new pants-covered orifice on anonymous message boards, and redirect it towards convincing a wayward friend (or new convert) that they should show up to a game -- especially if you're at one of these newer member schools. Tell them that this stuff really does matter for reasons other than March. This shouldn't be a private club. Pack these places, make all CAA basketball arenas tough places to play.
Get your own house in order, then we can talk about slaying giants again.
America East: We would have been at this game if not for the ice-covered snowbank that ate our car the other night, but Binghamton engineered one of this year's most stunning comebacks last night up in Burlington. Quickly down by double digits and facing a 22-point deficit at the break, the Bearcats stormed back with a 20-4 run to pull out an 85-83 victory over the Catamounts of Vermont -- Bingo's junior guard Emmanuel Mayben scored 22 of his 31 points in that hectic second half. Both teams are now 7-3 and in a second-place tie. Boston University, riding a six-game win streak, leads the conference by a half-game at 7-2 and will play Albany this evening. We're taking the train to that one.
Big South: Two great overtime battles in the BSC last night. After dropping an extra-frame battle at home against UNC Asheville over the weekend, VMI (9-2, tied with surging Radford for first) went on the road and completed a sweep of struggling league champion Winthrop with a 110-106 high-possession free-for-all. We yammer on about ball control all the time, but the Keydets only turned it over 10 times in a 45-minute game, 10 percent of the time -- that's a fast car with good tires. The homestanding Eagles, forced from its comfort zone, shot 61 percent but gave VMI 25 extra chances. And over in Boiling Springs, N.C., the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb ran off Liberty in 2OT to draw both teams to 7-5. The Flames' Kyle Ohman gave an oh-baby performance in the losing cause with 38 points, including 16 made free throws.
Mid-American: Brilliant reader Charles challenged us to find a two-division league more lopsided than the MAC 2008-09, and a quick check of our database doesn't turn up any results. After Ohio's lost weekend on the road (at Central Michigan and Ball State), the Eastern Division is 15-2 against the West. Each of the six teams from Michigan/Illinois/Toledo side are on losing streaks, and only one has a .500 record (Ball State, 10-10). Not to say there haven't been close calls by the league's current elite: Buffalo (7-1), in position for its first-ever NCAA bid, slid by Central Michigan at home the other night, 56-55.
Former Jackson State Tiger, baseball pitcher, and feature subject Trey Johnson was called up the other day to the Cleveland Cavaliers on a 10-day contract after averaging over 20 points a game for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBDL. He even got into Tuesday's game against Toronto late, with two scoreless minutes -- let him play, coach, sit that useless LeBron guy! Johnson is one of our favorite players that we've covered, and we couldn't be happier.
U'useless Stat of the Day
Damned if it didn't seem like just about every game went to overtime last night. In addition to the exciting Big South games, Illinois State took five extra minutes to take out decimated Southern Illinois with a 60-57 win to help keep UNI from running away from the division. In the murky midsection of the Atlantic 14, Saint Louis defended its nice new home floor against the visiting Dukes of Duquesne in a four-point decision, but it required an extra period. And there was our G!O!T!N!, a 89-86 Texas-sized comeback for Sam Houston State on the road at San Antonio in double OT. All told, there were nine OT periods contested yesterday.
It's not the biggest OT night of the season, though. Back on January 31, there were 12 extra periods across Division I in a full Saturday slate, which matched the figure from the 17th, two Saturdays earlier.
But National Overtime Day this year was Jan. 10, when a whopping 19 additional jump balls were tossed up. Included on that Saturday were Saint Joe's 3OT thriller-chiller win over Rhode Island, and North Texas' 86-83 triple-OT Sun Belt victory against Arkansas State. It might make you late for bed or dinner, but there's no basketball like the free kind.
|Hickory Picket Fences||27629|
|The Hopping Cats||21526|
|Under a Blood Red Line||10379|
|Jen Folds Five||6895|