BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- For schools in conferences like the Big Ten, college basketball means endless tradition and legacy. It means banners and legends and stories passed down from one generation to the next. For fans, the gameday experience isn't limited to the 40 minutes of action; there are pep rallies and pregame pow-wows, huge flags unfurled at midcourt, and throaty chants that everybody knows. For them, college basketball is total immersion in a total basketball culture.
For others, like those in the Southland Conference, existence includes showing up to those buildings to play the designated palooka. In November and December, many teams from the Other 24 travel around the country playing "guarantee games," in which they're guaranteed a five-figure check in exchange for a virtually assured loss. By sacrificing their nonconference win-loss record and pride to power-league teams by showing up and losing, are also helping to perpetuate the pageantry.
On a Saturday in November, Northwestern State University traveled to the University of Indiana for another in a long series of what some call "body-bag games." The Demons flew up from Louisiana to Indianapolis International Airport. Instead of making the final 50-mile leg to Bloomington in a standard charter bus, the team rented three 10-seater GMC vans, the kind that are normally used as airport shuttles. "We could have spent $2,500 on a bus," head coach Mike McConathy explained. "But these cost us $500. Why spend all that extra money?"
Northwestern State was due to receive over $70,000 as its appearance fee, and the cash-strapped program needed to pull as much of a profit as it could.
But the unconventional convoy caught some outside Assembly Hall completely off guard. An hour and a half before the 3:30 p.m. tip, assistant coach Mark Slessinger drove his van containing five players, two coaches and two guests up to the entry point of the VIP parking lot. He rolled down his window and said to the gatekeeper, "We're the visiting team."
"Ten dollars," replied a pimply young man holding a stack of parking coupons. "No, we're the visiting team," Slessinger repeated.
A supervisor in a white parka came over and sorted everything out, and the Demons' three vans rolled in, towards the loading bay.
The first thing that a fan notices when entering Assembly Hall proper is the bank of five giant crimson-colored national championship banners at one end of the arena. There's also the stunningly steep concave seating bowl with 17,000 seats, each an easy shouting distance from the floor. The Demons players and coaches only received a glimpse of all this as they paraded down into the bowels of the building, down a long dark concourse towards the visitors' locker room.
I don't know what the Big Ten teams use when they visit during January and February, but Northwestern State was brought into a cramped enclosure used by the women's soccer team. There is a small locker area, a small room for use by the coaches, and a separate bathroom with three dingy showers. This wasn't the kind of demoralizing pink locker room experience that football teams that visit Iowa
get to experience, but the implications were clear.
Half an hour before tipoff, Coach McConathy addressed the team.
"Guys, some of you were on the team when we played here last year. For the rest of you, it's easy to be blown away by everything they have here... the banners, the striped pants, the facilities. I just want all of you to remember that those Indiana players put their shoes on one at a time just like you, and put their peckers in their shorts the same way y'all do.... okay, maybe not the same way."
The joke didn't go over; the players were too intense and nervous, and their anxiousness was written across their faces. Then Slessinger took the floor; he had been up late for three straight days reviewing film and looking for the cracks in Indiana's armor, the same ones that George Mason and Boston University were able to exploit during their wins over the Hoosiers in the previous week's neutral-site tournament in the Virgin Islands. As Slessinger scribbled plays on the dirty whiteboard, he stressed the importance of taking it to the opposition early. He made sure the players understood that they'd be opening with one offensive set and changing to a different one after the first possession, hoping to disorient Tom Crean's Indiana staff with misdirection.
He laid down the final reinforcements of a tough week of practice, one that required the Demon players to sacrifice their Thanksgivings. Finally, he stepped away from the whiteboard and said, "Gentlemen, it's going to be one hell of a day."
One by one, the players' uneasy expressions melted into smiles. They began chanting and hollering, and leapt from their chairs to jump up and down. They huddled in the center of the tiny locker room. Demons on three!
The cruelest thing about a guarantee game is that there is always hope at the start. There has to be. If there is no hope, why enter the arena at all? Why not lay down from the opening possession? Why not throw the game, or virtually forfeit?
Northwestern State announced its intent with a 3-pointer by the head coach's son, senior guard Michael McConathy. The Demons hung close, matching every basket for eight gutsy minutes. By the second media timeout, the Hoosiers clung to a 16-15 lead.
But there's an inevitable moment in any game like this, when the home team strings together a few quick baskets to open up a quick score gap. Indiana stole an inbound pass that led to a picked jumper, and Hoosier freshman Maurice Creek ran a steal back for an easy layup. Four minutes later, Northwestern State's Will Pratt was stripped of the ball in the backcourt for another transition bucket, and Indiana was up 30-20. The Demons' shoulders slumped, and the troubled facial expressions returned.
"Body language, guys," McConathy yelled from the sideline. "This ain't a funeral!"
A metaphorical grave was being dug for Northwestern State's hopes, however. In any guarantee game, the home team is in charge of organizing the officials, and as such these contests are usually five against eight. Fouls mounted for the Demons; the Hoosiers entered the bonus and then the double-bonus. McConathy was irate, yelling at head official J.D. Collins.
"You called that over there," he said, pointing to the other side of the court while offering the standard head coach's logic seminar. "Why won't you call that on this end?"
Collins looked over at McConathy and simply smiled.
Slessinger slid down the bench, over where I (as a non-assistant) was sitting, next to the pile of purple warmup shirts that I was being pelted with as players came in and out of the game. "They're killing us, these guys," he muttered, pointing to the men in stripes. "Absolutely killing us."
Devon Baker, one of the New York products who came to the Demons via the juco route, started getting hot from the outside, hitting a couple 3-pointers to keep the Hoosiers from running away. As halftime approached, Northwestern State's goal was to keep the gap to single digits, and the half ended at 45-35.
Back in the tiny coaches' chamber, Slessinger stayed upbeat. "Honestly, Coach Mike, and don't take this the wrong way, but I'd rather be down 10 than up one right now, if you know what I mean... I think if we continue to run our stuff, we can chip away at this."
But that was a pipe dream. Indiana leveled a 20-5 run midway through the second half, opening up a 79-55 lead and effectively ending the dream of an upset. The Hoosiers entered the bonus at 12:28, when Northwestern State picked up its seventh team foul. From then on, the home team was able to get foul shots any time they wanted. All they had to do was lean in a little bit.
And as the run continued, Northwestern State did what too many teams in their situation do: supplement the opponents' efforts with bad mistakes. Demon guards dribbled the ball off their feet, 5-10 guards made ill-advised and fruitless drives to the basket to do battle with the Hoosiers' bigs, and There were missed front ends of one-and-one foul shot opportunities. Some of them had to do with the energetic Indiana student section and their collection of large celebrity heads.
Two hours after it began, the Demons shuffled back into the locker room, losers by 18 points.
"We have to learn from this," McConathy said to his gathered players, whose heads all hung low, their shoulders drooped like those of scarecrows. "We're going to have to regroup. Somehow, we have to learn from this game. Let's pack up, we'll shower back at the hotel."
In their black hooded sweatsuits, the Demons shuffled out of the locker room, up the long loading ramp and back to the three waiting vans. In dead silence, they disappeared into their iPhones and Blackberries as the vans crawled through the quiet streets of Bloomington. They were oblivious to the transaction that had just taken place, the different rules of fairness and logistics that they'd been a part of. As far as they knew, they had gone on the road to play a game and they were blown out. Simple as that.
Two hours later, there was a somber team dinner, funded by meal money, at the Hilton Garden Inn's spots-themed hotel restaurant. On the television sets was a Louisiana State-Arkansas football game, played in a packed stadium. "There's not a lot similar about LSU and NSU," McConathy mused while looking up at the TV. "A world of difference in that one little letter."
The next morning, Slessinger sat with the team at the Indianapolis airport. He and the rest of the coaching staff had checked the team out of Bloomington at 8 a.m., driven back up to Indy and dropped off the three vans. As the gate announcements blared in the background, he reflected on the process of guarantee games.
"To win one of those, you have to be perfect," he said. "Everything has to go right. Not a single thing can go wrong."
On December 5, 2005, Northwestern State realized that perfection. One of the reasons why the Demons received a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, instead of the Southland's standard No. 15 or No. 16, was because they had gone to Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater and knocked off the Oklahoma State Cowboys 68-64
. That was the elusive "win plus a check" that small-conference teams dream of, and the foundation of confidence built in that contest helped the team much later, when NSU beat Iowa in the NCAA first round.
"I always admired Coach Sutton and the staff there for the way they handled it," Slessinger recalled. "Most of the time, whenever you win a guarantee game, nobody will call you back for a few years. But OSU was so classy. Their coaches came up to us before the next season's game, and told me, 'We've been preparing for you all week. The style you play really makes you a tough out. And when you beat us last year, it made us want to get better.'
"That was such a sign of respect. I'll never forget that moment."
Here in 2009, there's still the question of whether a tough loss to Indiana will make the Demons better.
"I hope it will," he said. "We'll bus back to Natchitoches when we land today, and we have a practice scheduled for the minute we get back to campus. We play Centenary Monday night. We'll find out then, I guess."