March 10, 2009 11:40 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- There are 248 teams in conferences below the Red Line. Only 25 or so will move on to compete for the coveted Division I title next week, have their names known by everybody, reflect in the fleeting glory that's reserved for champions. Most of our favorite teams are already packed up for the summer, or waiting to play out their seasons in hopes of false championships, or in tension-coated limbo. As we did last season, we're taking a moment to recognize eight schools that exceeded their modest expectations and compiled solid seasons, if generally uncelebrated ones.
James Madison (19-14, 9-9 Colonial) -- As VCU holds aloft its title belt in Richmond, don't forget about the breakthrough season enjoyed by the cross-state Dukes. After the departure of Dean Keener last spring, Matt Brady came in from Marist and reminded JMU what winning basketball felt like after eight straight losing seasons. Nobody benefitted from the improvement more than 6-6 senior Juwann James, an extraordinary and explosive player who got a small and delicious taste of success after playing on some truly bad teams in his first three years. And a good sign for 2009-10: junior guard Pierre Curtis began finding momentum and consistency late in the year. He led the team in scoring in both playoff games.
Long Island (16-14, 12-6 Northeast) -- The Blackbirds, one of the great mid-majors long before anybody had a word for it, have been an ashtray for the NEC for most of the decade, and were more known for their quaint and much-missed arena than anything else. But you likely missed the resurgence, perhaps because LIU ended up on the short end of a three-way tie for second place and had to settle for a No. 4 seed. Seventh-year head coach Jim Ferry piloted the team to 12 conference wins, its best NEC record since 1998, and registered a dozen wins in its relatively new Athletic Center. And since the team returns its top six scorers next season, this is probably just the beginning.
Chicago State (19-13, independent) -- The major story for the Cougars was their 5-8 scoring dynamo David Holston, who ended the season with 25.9 ppg, currently the fourth-best scoring average in the country. But Chi-State won a lot more games than they should have, or was expected from a school that's made single-digit win totals a bad habit. In its third season roaming the wilds of D-I independent basketball after leaving the Mid-Continent (currently d/b/a the Badlands Conference), Benji Taylor's club improved its win total by eight, including an impressive 11-3 record at its Dickens Center. Chicago State did so by playing relentless uptempo basketball and forcing a lot of turnovers, and it wasn't all Holston. Backcourt-mate John Cantrell scored 19.2 ppg for a fast and fun team that averaged 83 points per game.
Montana (17-12, 11-5 Big Sky) -- Not much was left from the 2006 team that shocked Nevada in the NCAA first round (save for proud senior Jordan Hasquet), and the Grizzlies have been pretty much forgotten by most everyone since that win. But Montana moved back into the Big Sky's upper division after a disappointing 14-16 mark last year, improved their defense tremendously, and put together a seven-game win streak in January and February that lasted nearly a month. Anthony Johnson (17.6 ppg) was the team's leading scorer in 15 of the last 16 games and was named the Big Sky newcomer of the year, and he's got another season left.
Portland (19-12, 9-5 West Coast) -- Also out west, few saw the rise of the Pilots, fueled by some of the best 3-point shooting in the nation. At 41.8 percent, a lot of Portland's shots from beyond the newly-painted arc found their mark, and a trio of marksmen (Nik Raivio, Jared Stohl and T.J. Campbell) combined to convert 206 of them. The last time Portland had 19 wins, it was 1996 and the Pilots were headed for the Dance in those sanguine days before Gonzaga took over the league. This year, the Pilots made the semis as a No. 3 seed -- but coming off a three-bid WCC and a pair of nine-win campaigns, nobody expected this team to even come within two wins of a national return.
Prairie View A&M (16-15, 12-6 SWAC) -- The Panthers still await the fate the SWAC tourney will bring; they'll go in as a No. 3 seed, and they could very well still make the Big Dance after 11 years away. But as of right now, PVAM has compiled more wins than in the previous two seasons combined, and made the eight-team SWAC field for the first time since 2005 (two don't qualify). This is one of my favorite comeback stories of the year, because I visited the Baby Dome last January and could see how much all that losing hurt and how even the most insignificant and moral victories meant so much to the people there. This year, the team's finding new ways to win on the scoreboard almost every night -- twice as many times as they lose.
The Citadel (20-12, 15-5 Southern) -- In My Losing Season, Pat Conroy wrote of the 1966-67 Bulldogs campaign, his senior year at point guard: "This season had been seminal and easily the most consequential of my life." Even though the school had won just 23 games over the previous three seasons, it's safe to assume that few on the 2008-09 squad feels that way -- perhaps senior leader Demetrius Nelson (16.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) or Jonathan Brick do, and maybe either of those two has a book in them. Otherwise, there were no other upperclassmen on this squad: nine sophomores and four freshmen. When very young players get an early taste of winning, they tend to do more of it later on. Ask Stephen Curry about that.
Troy (19-12, 14-4 Sun Belt) -- There was a lot of doubt four summers ago as to whether the Trojans and their relentless 3-chucking could hang in the bigger, tougher, more physical Belt. Three straight losing seasons seemed to indicate "no." But last March, Troy engineered a 12-over-5 upset in the first round of the SBC tourney, and rode that momentum to a strong year, basically flipping their 3-14 record from 2007-08 around. And yes, they still shoot the 3... converting on 40.5 percent of them (despite featuring three players who shot over 100 times from downtown), it was the best distance team in the league. With all three double-figure scorers returning as seniors in 2009-10, it'll be bombs away in the Belt once again.
Goodbye, Bally Tuesday
Our final Bally contest is complete. We asked you to plot out a Bally cartoon strip, and we received 23 wonderful, well-intentioned entries. But there was one that stood above the rest. It was one of a very small handful of all the responses that have come in over the years that have elicited the kind of emotion that makes the screen all swimmy (I'm a full-grown man, but I'm not afraid to cry*). Beth C. is our winner -- I don't keep very good records of this, but I believe she is the first-ever female winner of a Bally contest. The winning cartoon will be revealed later, and the plot remains a secret between Beth and I until next Monday. You'll see exactly why.
And a big thanks to everybody who submitted an entry to Bally contests in Season 5. Only 17 were awarded, and hundreds of folks came away empty-handed in their attempts to earn Hoops Nation's greatest prize and highest honor. But you know what the old Baron said: The most important thing is not to win but to take part. And your entries have been funny, brilliant, creative, wonderful, thoughtful and awesome. In equal measure. I thank you for each and every try.
In other news, don't forget there's a marathon chat coming. On Thursday from Katy, Tex. (site of the Southland tourney), we're going for the Big One, a chat that will break all records and straddle the line between sanity and stupidity. Click the link, mark your calendar, get a free (free!) e-mail reminder if you need it. It's going to be Texas-sized.
U'useless Stat of the Day
Speaking of endings, this is the last U'useless entry of the season. It's as good time as any to give an explanation to all those who came along for the ride late, who filled the mailbasket with "what does U'u mean?" This is a tribute to Hartford freshman Drake U'u, and in early December we held a contest on how best to do that. Alex C. won a Bally for suggesting this segment, and it's been a daily fixture since. In honor of the close of this particular store in the GMHN strip mall, please enjoy the Serge Gainsbourg classic "You You You But Not You."
Drake U'u, the player, had a rough first year -- he's still yet to come into his own as a distance threat, making just six of his 42 3-point tries. He played 11 minutes per game, but only appeared in 17. This was because of a foot injury that sidelined him for the entirety of January. Once he returned, he turned in his best performance of his collegiate career, going 4-for-9 from the floor and scoring eight points. In the playoff eliminator against the same Black Bears, he made the most of his three minutes on the floor by scoring a hoop and nabbing a rebound.
You can say anything you want with statistics. In the 10 games that U'u was not available, Hartford went 2-8 and quickly slipped out of contention in the America East. If you're looking for a selective reading of the situation that describes why the Hawks slumped to a 7-26 (2-14) record a year after reaching the A-East title game, there you have it.
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