CHICAGO -- Many of the conferences in college athletics were born in hotel ballrooms somewhere, converted from ideas into working cooperatives by men in suits who took turns talking and occasionally sipped glasses of water. The league names and statements of purpose and guiding principles and slogans weren't made up by New York creative agencies or "branding experts," they were bursts of inspiration brought to votes and consensus. What are we going to be about? they might have asked each other. At least that's what I imagine what these meetings were like, and the romanticized historical recaps on fifth pages of conference media guides certainly give those impressions.
Parents name their children and wish for the best, and there's never any telling what they'll grow up to be. It seems to be the same for any brand new entity, including but not limited to college leagues. At any point of time, each has an identity, necessary to define a collective's purpose for existing; for our purposes, we need to know what it is so we can properly describe it in quick-hook format to others who are curious enough to know what the basketball is like there. Horizon League: the original Midwestern city conference. Atlantic Sun: entry-level Division I feeder league for D-II schools who want to Get Big. Metro Atlantic: small Northeastern Catholic colleges who love their hoops. And so on.
Despite the best hopes and efforts of founders, these umbrella-like structures change and grow in strange ways. One of the side-effects of big-time capitalism is that money becomes more powerful than logic or purpose. Entities combine and overlap and eat each other, and you get mongrel things like "Shearson Lehman Hutton" and "AOL Time Warner." Here in our world, you get the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA, Hawaii in with the broke California schools in the Big West, and BYU in the West Coast Conference with all the Jesuits. At the higher levels, you get a Surf and Turf conference where a five-team Athletic Association of Western Universities used to be.
People spend a lot of time examining and analyzing these transitions, especially lately, and most of this talk seems to consist of vain, failed efforts to come to grips with situations that simply don't make any sense. A lot of it is dumb jokes, and vain, failed efforts to get others to laugh at those dumb jokes. But fans care about who their school shares a neighborhood with, and take as much offense to weird changes as they do with neighbors who construct strange things in front yards. Conferences are like street addresses; to a lot of folks, that's serious stuff.
I don't take conferences personally, but I'm still relentlessly fascinated by the way they are born, grow and break. As I've often said on this web domain and in the book too, it's because I went to a school named Drexel that never fit within its surroundings. When I arrived, it was part of the America East's weird semi-southern thumb, and a sixth wheel in the Philadelphia Big Five. Just as I left, it became a piece of a Colonial Athletic Association that was once a DelMarVa basketball league (ECAC South!), which then attached a sprawling Big Dipper-shaped city apparatus and suddenly got a football jones.
So in a roundabout way, this is me explaining why the CAA race has been so enjoyable to track in its initial stages. With very few exceptions, it's been impossible to guess what's going to happen next, and the play has been slow, nasty and bruising. It's just a week, but it's a week that's played to my optimism. It's the first time in almost a decade that I've had any sense that there's any kind of unifying identity here, other than "conference of giant-killers," that fleeting tag that's unsustainable at our level. I'll take anything, even if it's the "East Coast version of the MAC," where almost everybody finishes .500 in the league and in the top third of the RPI, there's one bid, but all the games are knockout memorable.
Perhaps this is fleeting as well, but it's a very rare thing to be able to describe a mid-major conference in three simple words. Especially these days.
Colonial: Just as I was mentioning George Mason and how its statistical profile suggested yet another breakthrough to the national mid-major consciousness, Hofstra goes ahead and blasts the Patriots by 13, pulling ahead in the second half and scoring 1.23 points per possession. Recent MMBOW Charles Jenkins had 32 points and eight assists, and the Pride now stands in first place as the only 3-0 team... the same Pride that went 0-3 in San Juan back in November. Hempstead 5-0 is possible, too, with a road trip to league-winless Northeastern and Towson coming up. NU put up 34 at Old Dominion (one of seven 2-1 teams), which is tied for the third-lowest point total of the season by any team anywhere (Saint Peter's at Robert Morris, 11/13: 30; Idaho at Montana, 11/22: 33). In that game, padlock-tuff Frank Hassell was perfect from the floor. And the hottest team in the conference is... James Madison! The Dukes' sixth in a row was a 99-68 thumping of Towson in which they shot 66 percent, including 12-for-21 from three. If you have a prediction for this conference, let it fly. You're probably wrong, and that's fun.
Atlantic 14: In another expansion-happy league that has felt the strain of extended geography and naming conventions (at least the CAA didn't give itself a number), the league race began on Wednesday. Dayton, a team that also has won six straight, took out Saint Louis in an A-14 "wild west showdown" in which Chris Wright tallied a perfectly balanced 14-and-14 double-double. SLU head coach Rick Majerus missed the game and will be on the DL for the next two with an infected leg. Get well, coach! Temple, a team good enough to make second-weekend NCAA plans for, destroyed Fordham by 19 at their neutral court home at the Izod Center in New Jersey. The Rams have now lost 27 straight league games. Not really a good basketball fit for the former Patriot Leaguers, and this picture is worth 10,000 empty seats.
Conference USA: Four games opened up play in the Great Metro Midwest league (with bonus WAC and A-Sun refugees). Season-perfect Central Florida won its 14th game and 14th straight by rallying to beat Marshall by a 65-58 count. A happy Marcus Jordan had 26, and UCF Donnie Jones got a small measure revenge on Marshall for, you, know, firing him last summer. Tulane won former Citadel bench boss Ed Conroy's first C-USA game. In the G!O!T!N!, UTEP polished off Tulsa by ten. Also, congratulations to the league for inking a new deal with Fox Sports that will increase revenue across the league: an extra $7 million to neatly double the conference's total TV take. So, as per the rules of the Red Line, it really doesn't look they'll hang around with us for long. But good for them!
Saint Mary's at Loyola Marymount (West Coast) A. Gersten Pavilion - Los Angeles, CA 9:00 EST
We are at Game No. 32 tonight, which is a small seismic shock to be sure, but it's not this one. We welcome the West Coast Conference to league play tonight, and ESPNU will be providing live pictures from Hank's House that will pale in comparison to the award-winning artistry of the invisible G!O!T!N! camera crew. Your visitors tonight are from Saint Mary's College, which made the Sweet Sixteen last season and have sat atop our State of the Other 25 ratings for most of the season despite having lost their Taylor Swift-loving Beast to graduation. With nary a player above 6-foot-9, the aggressive Gaels are grabbing 60.2 percent of available rebounds (eighth in Division I), and are as ridiculously efficient as ever, scoring 1.18 points per trip (fifth) with eight men. Not to mix statistical metaphors, but four (half) of that rotation is scoring in double figures, led by senior Mickey McConnell, who may be in the running to be the best #superhooper of the TMM era. He hit over 50 percent from three last year, and could do that again. He's nailed 37 of 80, including five in a Red Line Upset over Mississippi State on December 29.
While SMC was ripping it up in 2009-10, Loyola Marymount showed amazing improvement. Bill Bayno's second year was a 15-win increase to 18, and the Lions finished above .500 overall for the first time since 2004. This year, a 7-7 record slightly obscures the fact that LMU has played one of the weakest schedules in the country (SOS: 323), and since this is virtually the same cast as last season, the extra confidence wasn't really necessary. Still, though, it's a chance to talk about 6-foot-8 senior (and former Oregon transfer) Drew Viney, who won't be dwarfed by the Saint Mary's front line and will be able to showcase his shot-making and backboard-cleaning skillz. He's averaging 16 ppg/19.4 p40, has collected 93 rebounds, and has three double-doubles on the year, including a 22-and-10 the last time out against UC Irvine. Loyola Marymount gets a national 28th-best 57.3 percent of boards (albeit against a softer schedule than the Gaels), so if you want to see guys with two-digit heights get after it on the glass, tune in tonight.