Schools like Tennessee Tech and Northwestern State, from conferences like the Ohio Valley and the Southland, spend much the first two months of the season trading humiliation for money in guarantee games. But those opportunities usually disappear when teams move up to the next level, out of the deep zone of No. 14 and No. 15 NCAA seedings. For schools in the Sun Belt and Horizon League and Big West, leagues with recent multi-bid history, finding top-flight competition to cut one's against on is much more difficult.
In top leagues like the SEC and ACC, coaches are far less than willing to risk the humiliation of losing to a nationally unknown opponent. And they increasingly don't have to even think about such a decision. The number of games between schools in the richest eight conferences and the other 24 has been steadily shrinking in recent years, from over 1,000 in 2007-08 to 887 in 2008-09. This season, there were only 853 scheduled all across Division I, a result of increased opportunities for college basketball's elite to play each other on national television. As prices for guarantee games increase, that number is only bound to decrease further.
There are some trends that are reversing the tide, or at least keeping Division I from splitting into a Champions League and a I-A. Coaches in mid-level conferences have had success in negotiating contracts that trade two home dates for one, giving the smaller school an opportunity to play a big, nationally-known university on its own campus (and get the extra RPI juice for playing out on the road). The Citadel of the Southern Conference, for instance, has played Southern California and Michigan State on its own floor.
But it's only in the wildest of fantasies that any school at this level could ever have the same home-court advantage that the big schools enjoy every single game. In the Other 24, players, fans and coaches alike dream of having those loud five-digit crowds with everyone wearing school colors, the NBA-quality presentation and atmosphere and ear-splitting music, the laser light shows and biased PA announcers. They dream of the big time.
On a Friday night in early December, the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders emerged from the tunnel in their silver uniforms, out into a 17,000-seat arena pulsating with pounding rap music. It was the Sommet Center, the building where the NHL's Nashville Predators play, and MTSU was the designated home team.
The preceding Tuesday, they had played Belmont at home at their own Murphy Athletics Center, just south of the city on Interstate 24 in Murfreesboro. The game was contested in front of a crowd that was announced as a very generous 2,738. The Blue Raider band and cheerleaders were there, but there was a severe enthusiasm vacuum in the seating area. MTSU fell away in the second half and lost 83-71 to a generally indifferent reaction; as the band played the beautiful Tennessee Waltz, the 700 or so fans in attendance quickly shuffled out of the arena, ready to get on with the remainders of their evenings.
But this was different. Before the starting lineups were announced, the lights were dimmed. Overhead screens on the high-definition scoreboard showed a reel of MTSU highlights as ominous music blared over the hundreds of speakers installed all over the arena. Silver and blue pom-poms shimmered in the stands as the crowd roared. The public address announcer used the requisite over-the-top home-team alliteration for each Blue Raider player ("Booooooooogie
All the while, the designated visitors, the Tennessee Volunteers from the Southeastern Conference, waited in the darkness in their road uniforms, eager to just get the game started already. The orange-clad fans sat patiently in their orange blazers and sweatervests decorated like the school's football end zone. They sat silently just like they would at a road game at Alabama, LSU or Florida.
That's the way it was at the second Sun Belt Classic, born in 2007 as an ESPN showcase and organized jointly by the conference office and the league's two local teams. The first doubleheader featured Western Kentucky-Tennessee and Middle Tennessee-Memphis. The event took a year off, but returned in 2009 as a regionally-televised Friday night special.
MTSU's home court advantage had certain benefits -- the Tennessee band was limited to only four runthroughs of "Rocky Top" instead of the usual 50 -- and Blue Raider star senior Boogie Yates, back from a leg injury that kept him out until the Belmont game, made a series of highlight-reel dunks and swooping layups that brought thousands of MTSU fans to their feet. But the benefits only went so far. The Vols and their deeper bench began building a second half lead, piece by piece, until it became an impenetrable and unscalable orange wall. Tennessee won going away, by 20 points.
Before the second game of the night, MTSU's leaguemate Western Kentucky received the same treatment -- red swirling lights, pounding drums, everything twice the scale of E.A. Diddle Arena back home. And no fewer than seven seating sections in the lower bowl were filled with Hilltopper fans who had made the 70-mile trip south from Bowling Green.
At this time last year, the Hilltoppers used the Sommet Center to propel their season into the stratosphere, pulling away from nationally-ranked Louisville late for a 68-54 win. The team was coming off a Sweet 16 run the previous season, but were coping with the loss of Courtney Lee, a dynamic forward who was drafted into the NBA. The remaining WKU players took two early losses, but regrouped and used the momentum from the huge win in Nashville to win the Sun Belt again, claw past Illinois in a 12-over-5 upset, and come within two points and a bad call of beating Gonzaga for a Sweet return.
WKU wore its home whites on this night, even though the nationally-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores were just a few miles away from their home campus. And as the game got underway, the black-clads were getting all the home calls. Hilltopper head coach Ken McDonald spent most of the evening with his arms spread in perpetual disbelief, from the missed travels and the 50-50 block-charge calls that always seemed to go Vandy's way. The refs were calling it like a money game.
But these Hilltoppers, who returned five of their top six scorers from the 2008-09 team, are champions with plenty of experience playing in outsized arenas against high odds. For every questionable call, they answered with advanced effort. As the foul disparity grew, so did their focus and drive.
And for each layup in the lane delivered by chiseled muscles honed in a power-conference weight room, WKU answered with a slighshot 3. Down the stretch, buoyed and strengthened by thousands of imported home fans, the Hilltoppers held off the hard-charging Dores, earning a 76-69 victory, a seven-point achievement topped off with a few late free throws.
The fan reaction was so overwhelming, the WKU fans so loud and boisterous, that some wondered aloud after the game if Vandy had even brought any fans from its nearby campus. Where were they all?
"I saw people in the stands taking their Vanderbilt stuff off," joked junior forward Sergio Kerusch. "During the game, man. Shorts, eveyrthing."
Any Commodore fans who were there, even the ones who were shamed into renouncing their affiliation, only had a short drive or walk home through the chilly Nashville night. After its home game, WKU still had an hour to spend on the bus, and anybody who wasn't driving got to spend the time celebrating the victory.
Two afternoons later, there was another big presentation and big arena for a small-college team. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, members of the Southern Conference, played a Sunday matinee in grand old faded Greensboro Coliseum. During the pregame ceremonies, two 40-foot projected round UNCG logos spun on the floor in the darkness of the arena. Blue and yellow lights, the colors of the school, flashed all around. A professionally produced video full of thunderous dunks and menacing facial expressions played out on the digital scoreboard.
The opponent that afternoon was Princeton; the Tigers were just making good on their end of a 1-for-1 scheduling contract. The crowd was suppressed by the early start time as well as the freezing rain outside. The entire upper seating area and both end sections were covered with large black tarpaulins. But that won't be the case for some of UNCG's other home games this season.
The Spartans have spent most of their decade-long Division I history in Fleming Gym, which seats 1,800 -- and very few of those are comfortable. It's a cramped little arena with undersized seats and a press row where officials, scorekeepers and writers have to insert themselves like Tetris bricks. In 2008-09, they moved some of their home games to the 23,475-seat Coliseum, and made an agreement with the building's owners to move all their games there for 2009-10.
As it just so happens, Greensboro Coliseum sits at the end of a road nicknamed "Atlantic Coast Conference Drive," and will host the ACC tourney for four of the next five years. Usually relegated to the fringes in ACC country, forgotten in a state where Duke and Carolina rule, UNCG has turned its greatest weakness -- its location -- into a powerful strength.
"ACC teams want to get in this building," Mike Hirschman, UNCG's sports information director, told me as we watched the Spartans and Tigers run up and down the floor. "They want to get familiar with playing here. We have Clemson, Wake Forest and Maryland coming in here this year. We've got two other ACC teams we're working on contracts with to come in next season."
And UNCG's Greensboro Coliseum agreement also has the attention of a Tobacco Road team that very rarely comes out of its friendly confines unless there's a well-defined reason to.
"Yeah, Duke's coming here next year," Hirschman said. "Duke! Having a home game with Duke is something of a recruiting advantage for us. They wanted to do a 2-for-1, but everyone else is going even-up with us, one home game a piece."
A home game with Duke is a pipe dream for nearly every school below the Red Line. But nearly every school below the Red Line is within a short drive of an opportunity to potentially harness, if they're quick and smart and innovative like Middle Tennessee or Western Kentucky or UNC Greensboro. They've proven that you can play the big boys on your home court, just as long as it's somewhere else.