Kyle, I just returned home from my first college basketball double header not involving a conference tournament. I drove for about six hours today to watch UNCG play in front of a couple hundred fans at Greensboro Coliseum against Richmond at noon. Followed a few hours later by a UNCW game against Campbell in front of about a thousand more fans in Buies Creek.
Both teams I was cheering for lost. UNCW lost on a buzzer beater. It was still a fulfilling day that involved me seeing a game at an arena I had not visited before. I know you typically don't do double headers, unless it's a tournament situation. But doing that much driving in one day to watch two games that most people I encountered wouldn't care about, even if they knew they were taking place, put me in your shoes a little bit.
I can see how doing so much driving and seeing so many games a season can wear you down as much as it rewards you. On the long, dark, and cold drive from Buies Creek through Raleigh and points beyond I found myself even wondering why I bothered driving so much to see two Christmas break out-of-conference games that won't mean much at the end of the season.
But then I thought of how I saw a great atmosphere at Campbell, even with students gone on break. That win means a lot to their fans. Even as a biased observer who didn't get what he "wanted" out of that game, I can take something positive away from driving way, way out of my way to be there.
Being a mid-major college basketball fan hurts more often than it rewards you, but the smaller rewards reveal themselves all the time to make the journey from point to point watching different teams struggle in different ways so worth it in the end. My travel itinerary may be confined to the NC/VA area due to time/money constraints of grad school, but going out more on the road like this helps me better understand the rhythm and flow of the college basketball season.
CHICAGO -- We get a lot of letters, which are our only real measuring stick of whether what we're doing is making broader sense or not. The bulk of them are kind and supportive, most are in understandable English (as opposed to the public-school dropout kind), and a few of them even detail curious journeys that readers have taken to mid-major arenas far afield. Those are my favorites. Terry's letter, which came in over our winter break, details a feeling that I've had countless times over the past six-plus years, and have tried to describe: driving in a car late at night between two points, hurtling through the blackness on a dark road. Whenever questions arise as to why, the answers are generally found at the next game, where there always seem to be more reasons to love Our Game.
In September and October, it's not flash images of sitting in an arena watching basketball that gets me the most excited, it's the blur of white headlights, the green signs covered with names of control cities and angled arrows in white, the precise logic of the Eisenhower Interstate highway system. That's what I dream of at night as fall approaches, and that's what pulls me back. That's the feeling that calls me every summer.
We have to take a step back from travel. The largest and most logical reason is that we have to conserve our limited funds for the end, for March (and, hopefully, April). While memberships sold well in November and tailed off in December -- folks got in at the beginning -- the road is costing more than it ever has before, and we rode hard in the first two months -- over 6,000 miles of driving (including 4,376 on one rental car). So we have to be careful and cautious going forward, especially if gas prices continue to spike the way they are. I promised you back at the beginning that if this happened, I'd hover in one place, continue the coverage, and not complain about anything.
The other reason is that the break didn't reignite that feeling. Every year around Christmas, there's a fair amount of burnout from non-conference play, all the guarantee-slash-body bag contests and multiple games in single days at Holiday Classics and College Basketball Experiences, all those miles. Every year, having a few days off has reminded me of how much fun this is, and I've come roaring back into January with a recharged sense of purpose. The beginning of conference season has always been a renewed reunion with the places between.
Not this time, though. I still have passion for Our Game, but I think I may be falling out of love with the road. It is indeed possible to love one and not the other, because most fans do just that... the road is something romantic and distant and ony occasionally ventured out upon. If I owe you, dear readers, anything, it's honesty, and this is my truth.
And here, below, are some things that happened last night in places where we weren't.
Milwaukee 76, Butler 52 (Horizon League) -- So down goes Butler's 22-game Horizon winning streak and the six-game holiday funride the Bulldogs had been on since losing to Xavier on December 8. Milwaukee (8-8, 3-2 HL), not exactly a defensive juggernaut this season, erased the national runner-ups' offense and forced Shelvin Mack into perhaps the worst night of his career so far: 1-for-7 from the field, three points, and nary an assist. But the biggest takeaway from this game is the reappearance of the primary Achilles' heel from Butler's Final Four run, namely Matt Howard's arms. The Bulldog big man collected three fouls in a 36-second span during the second half, which left Brad Stevens scrambling for points and rebounds as the Milwaukee lead grew to an impossible size. Memo to the rest of the conference: drive on 54. In the big picture, Milwaukee lost to league-undefeated Cleveland State by an even more embarrassing score (89-52) in early December, so that gives a rough idea of how the league stack order is at the moment. The Viking-Bulldog game this Friday is a real throwdown-showdown-hoedown, for realsies.
Colonial: Monday wasn't the first day of CAA play (all teams played a December preview for whatever reason) but it was the first full night of the race-in-earnest. Your three 2-0 teams at the moment are George Mason, Hofstra and Georgia State... none of which are named "VCU" or "Old Dominion," the two schools that showed signs of competing for a first and second NCAA bid. GSU dumped the Rams in Atlanta last night 76-66 with a second-half pullaway and 26 points (12-for-16) from 6-foot-10 junior Eric Buckner. Drexel was taken out at home by Hofstra in come-from-ahead style for the Dragons' third loss of the year. Then there was George Mason (10-3, 2-0 CAA), which is statistically the superior team in the conference, holding off Delaware by 11 at home. Odd that GMU would come out of nowhere in any context whatsoever, but the originator of our Season 7 secondary motto is ahead of all the CAA's Others of Them.
Metro Atlantic: In November and December, many from the Northeast -- present company included -- fell in love with Iona and their balanced scoring and their dynamic junior guard Michael Glover, who almost took down Syracuse with a 25-point performance. But they're still just 8-6 overall and Siena remains the title-holder. Last night, the Saints (5-8, 2-1 MAAC) lagged behind all through the first half at home, but rode Ryan Rossiter's 26-and-15 double-double to a 73-67 win. The 2010 runners-up and highly regarded 2011 championship candidates from Fairfield, meanwhile, spent the evening beating the crap out of Niagara, 70-48. Pause a moment and reflect on the plight of the 3-12 (0-3 MAAC) Purple Eagles. They were stocked with ball-hogging Big East transfers last season, and all that got them was an 18-15 (9-9) record. The young guys didn't get to play that much, and now here they are, getting outscored by an average of 18 points in their MAAC games.
Mississippi Valley State at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (SWAC) HPER Complex - Pine Bluff, AR 8:30 EST
There's a full slate in the MVC this evening, and there's a key early matchup between Creighton and Missouri State, but we're talking about a different kind of Valley as we send the invisible G!O!T!N! camera crew deep into the South for some swick-swick-swickity SWAC action. Yes, it's the opening night in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Hope you got to read the Basketball Times feature on Mississippi Valley State we did for this month's magazine (just nod yes), but the Delta Devils are one of the more fascinating stories of the season. They had to spend the first seven weeks of 2010-11 on the road, but then again every SWAC team has to in order to pay the bills. MVSU couldn't play home games if they wanted to, as their roof was so damaged and their floor so warped that they couldn't even practice. "We've been practicing at a middle school 20 minutes away from campus," head coach Sean Woods said. "Can you imagine that? We all have to get in vans and cars, and drive to a middle school if we want to practice." In the past decade, the program lost assistant coach Cecil Dowell to a fatal one-car accident in 2006, and three years earlier their top scorer was paralyzed by a stray bullet in mid-season. Here in 2011, they're 1-12; that single win was a victory over Georgia Southern in the South Padre Island mini-tourney. It was MVSU's first win away from campus in six years.
UAPB: nothing less than the defending champion school of this conference. The Golden Lions swept through last year's tourney in Birmingham (including a 69-66 quarterfinal eliminator over the Delta Devils) and went on to claim the SWAC's first NCAA victory since 1993 by blowing out Winthrop in the last-ever PIG. It still stands as their most recent win. They're 0-12 this year after their own trail of tears, scoring on an NCAA-third-worst 30.8 percent of their possessions for a NCAA-third-worst .763 points per trip. But things are different now, and there'll be no more getting beat by an average score of 79-54 in guarantee games; this is the SWAC now. It's a brand new day.
P.S. Also, with the new year, the new Robotic StatBlast. Follow @midmajority360 to get tweets every five minutes or so during business hours filled with Other 25 info. Every hour is a different conference, with standings and leaders and ratings, and each league is featured three times per week. It's all alphabetical, and you'll figure out the schedule after a while.