INDIANAPOLIS -- If you were a young boy once, or just a 1990's sitcom character, you probably passed odd hours engaging in the classic game of playground speculation -- who would win? Who'd prevail in a fight between Superman and Spiderman? The Incredible Hulk of the Green Giant? My dad or your dad?
That tension and mystery, the anticipation of impossible competition, is what drives a lot of modern beer-belly sports debate. The '72 Lakers or the '86 Celtics? Manny Pacquiao or Sugar Ray Leonard? That American-style football team that went undefeated that one time, or one of those that might go undefeated now? All of this is needless man-fantasy; nearly all of these theoretical conflicts can be settled with household computers anyway.
There are plenty of real-life, contemporary examples in which one set of sporting attributes goes up against another, where we can experience the true joy as spectators and students. Whenever two opposing forces enter an arena, there's something to learn by watching. Take basketball, for instance. What happens when an uptempo team goes up against a clock-munching slowdown squad? Who would win in a fight between superior ball control and superior rebounding?
For those of us with a very specifically abstract focus, this is a wonderful time of year. Who would win between the best team in the MAAC and a middling team from the Valley? Or two evenly matched teams from the midsections of the OVC and MEAC?
Many of the matchups in November and December are 30-point guarantee game blowouts or local interleague battles for local bragging rights. While those are all fascinating on their own individual merits, there are some games with the true capacity to teach. If there's anything to be learned from this time of year, anything we can take into conference season, it's these glimpses of the relative strengths of leagues. We're getting our first idea of how conferences stack up against each other. Once everyone is cloistered into 24 separate congresses, we'll only have one more regular-season chance to get this glimpse, on BracketBusters weekend.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
On Wednesday, we drove north from North Carolina, and Season 6 departed the South for good (postseason pending, of course). Up through the skinny side of Virginia, and then up and down through the round bulk of wild and wonderful West Virginia. The Mountain State is not represented as one of the 47 stars on the flag of Hoops Nation (its two Division I representatives are above the Red Line), but it has an undeniable hoops heritage. We stopped for lunch in Chelyan
, whose most famous resident
has a silhouette you see every day of your life.
We did not stop in Tamarack
, although if you've driven through that area, you know how desperately West Virginia wants you to stop there to buy some arts and crafts. Blue signs by the American roadside are generally designed to indicate with gas, food and lodging are at an exit; I haven't seen anywhere else where they proclaim the "soul" and "artistry" that are waiting for you behind this particular offramp. With green road signs, there's an expectation that they'll give you directions, differentiate paths from one another, and then let you make your own decisions. You certainly don't expect them to try and influence you, or make editorial comments.
The place apparently loses $2.5 million a year
, so it needs all the hypin' and pimpin' it can get.
By the time night fell, we were in Athens, Ohio, a college city so remote and so far from the nearest Interstate (a hard hour) that it qualifies as a resort town too. We're always greeted so warmly at Ohio, blazing emerald of the Mid-American Conference, and we love it back with equal ardor.
The Bobcats have lost all the members of that 2005 club that caught fire for a magical week
in Cleveland. It's short Jerome Tillman, the reliable double-double machine who arrived the next year and helped pace Red Line Upsets over the likes of Cincinnati, St. John's and Maryland. Ohio has also switched head coaches; before Tim O'Shea left to build Bryant, he earned as many MAC titles as BFF's in the national media.
This is the second year of ex-Ohio State assistant John Groce, and the first true year of the new style of Bobcat Ball. Ohio gets up and down the court with lightning speed, takes good care of the basketball, and has a stable full of young outside shooters. They're likely still a year away, but might pull some surprise wins in a league where the prevailing style is plodding and physical.
On this night, their opponents were the Illinois State Redbirds of the Missouri Valley. Since Tim Jankovich came in from Kansas' bench in 2007, the team has spent the first two months of the season racking up wins. Not the kind of hard-fought ones that NCAA Tournament teams do; that's why a 24-9 squad in 2008 was left out of the Big Dance. In 2008-09, the Redbirds won their first 14 games against inferior competition, and fell flat on its first Valley road trip. This year, Illinois State has been snacking on the lines SIU-Edwardsville, Norfolk State and Southeast Missouri to build a non-conference RPI of 347, or in other terms, last in the nation. Needless to say, the team's fans are frustrated about the lack of adequate competition in advance of league season.
The risk that's run there is that when you finally go against a team of equal quality, you won't be ready. That's what happened against Niagara of the MAAC last weekend, as the Purple Eagles' strong offense came into Normal ruined the Redbirds' 7-0 start with just with just seven men in a well-disciplined eight-point win
. That failure gave little hint at what was to come, however.
Despite the tiny crowd (the students have been on break since Thanksgiving), the Bobcats played so well that they didn't need a groundswell of loud support in order to excel. With a smashmouth man-to-man defense, Ohio took Illinois State out of the game early -- and often -- and effectively ended the contest with a 15-5 run out of halftime. It was the kind of 18-point final spread
that was misleading because of the mercy showed at the end by the victors. Jankovich was so displeased with the play of star senior Osiris Eldridge
that he benched his 18-point scorer for the final seven minutes, opting to send a message to the team instead of trying to dig the game out.
And as we left the Convocation Center (or just "The Convo"), we dropped by the Ohio Athletic Trainers' Association Hall of Fame and Museum, just like we always do.
There weren't any dramatic coach-to-player messages sent on Thursday night, a few hundred miles to the west in Evansville, Indiana. The hometown Aces, MVC members like Illinois State, scheduled a sub-Red Line money game special against Georgia Southern, a Southern Conference team with few recent wins and a long way from its last NCAA appearance in 1992. We watched from high above the Roberts Stadium court, in a luxury suite set aside for media members.
Georgia Southern, after a long decade of mediocre seasons under Mike Price, hired a new head coach, somebody from those good old days. Charlton Young was the point guard for the Eagles when they made it to the Big Dance, as a member of the Trans-American Athletic Conference (which you might know by its new name, the Atlantic Sun). He spent most of the last two decades climbing the ladder, from Jacksonville to Northeastern to Auburn to a right-hand-man position at Chattanooga, and finally to Georgia Tech.
It's hard to judge where the Eagles are right now -- like many teams in transition, Georgia Southern fields a collection of mismatching athletes who run stock plays and hope for the best. And they're also getting bought by Valley teams.
Evansville has a promising and well-named freshman guard Colt Ryan, with close-cropped hair and Joe Mauer sideburns, who hit a long series of long jumpers over the soft Eagle defense. It was the kind of 17-point win
that was an eight-point lead with just a few minutes to go. The final burst was only for the purposes of impressing other Valley schools who might be watching the scores roll by on the ESPN ticker.
The Purple Aces haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999, when they earned a No. 11 seed with a 23-8 record. They even won a game there ten years previous, when they pulled an 11-over-6 upset of Oregon State... this was back when beating the Beavers was impressive, of course. But the program had a lot more success back when Arad McCutchan led Evansville to no fewer than five NCAA College Division championships. (That's what's now known as Division II.)
And they won them all in those famous sleeved uniforms, something that McCutchan thought up because the gym was chilly and he wanted to keep his shooters' arms warm. He also brought his teams out of the locker room in boxing robes, for intimidation purposes. The banners at Roberts Stadium attest to the fact that the scare tactic worked pretty well.
For now, Evansville is figuring itself out, with five freshmen and three sophomores competing for playing time. After a senior-heavy team compiled a 17-14 record and gave Evansville its first winning season since 2000, they're starting from something resembling scratch. In 2009-10, they'll likely go as far as young Mr. Colt will take them. But someday, they might be good enough to wear those sleeves again.It is an honor, indeed, to wear the sleeves; an honor that only a select few will achieve.
The sleeves stand for championships, attitude and desire; A tradition that will raise one's standards higher...
Hard work, determination, success and pride are characteristics of the sleeves, known nationwide.
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