CHICAGO -- It can't be said enough: most of what we do as college basketball fans is try to figure out exactly what it is we're looking at. Keeping proper perspective during the season is difficult, impossible sometimes. Up there, north of the Red Line, it's easier because ranked and regarded teams measure themselves against each other on a nightly basis. But down here, with every conference-affiliated school generally confined to their more humble leagues until March, excellence is a much more mysterious and elusive thing.
Consider the case of Belmont. When you run Rick Byrd's team through a computer, they are world-beaters, champions, Butler with a drawl and a music business degree. When we ran into Keaton Belcher, a star of the previous Belmont dynasty, his parting words were, "Keep an eye on them this year. They're going to be good." I don't think even he had an idea of how good. The 2010-11 Bruins are 16-3, all their losses are to Southeastern Conference teams, and they almost solved Tennessee on the second try. What they are doing to Atlantic Sun opposition may be subject to felony assault charges. They're a perfect 8-0, beating teams on the circuit by an average score of 84-59, and were up 45-14 on Campbell at halftime last Saturday before being gentlemen about it at the end.
In this story, the problematic phrase is Atlantic Sun. As much as we love Division I's southeastern feeder league, it's not providing Belmont much in the way of equal competition right now. It's contributing to the Bruins' strength of schedule ranking of 280, which will severely depress any seed number once March comes. But for the moment, Belmont has the nation's attention. It's easy enough to make jokes about moving up to the SEC -- might need to add football and increase the $8.8 million athletic budget tenfold, though -- but there's a second edge to the sword: as soon as Belmont loses a single game in conference, the spell is shattered. That may happen on Sunday at two-time champion East Tennessee State: 7-1 in the A-Sun, a former SoCon member and by no means a lightweight program. If ETSU holds court, that's great for the league, but too bad for the league as well.
Belmont is not the only team walking that kind of a fine-lined tightrope. Utah State out in the WAC is in a similar position at 16-2, and 5-0 in a middle-RPI conference. One loss in league play would be very damaging, but a loss at the tourney in March would be fatal, triggering a massive and ultimately pointless debate fueled by romanticism and what's-right. It would be a "Davidson 2005," which is code for going undefeated in league play but ending up in the NIT. Belmont, after all, could be destined to share that fate too; the pain would be proportional to the emotional investment.
It's in the past, so the what-ifs are safer, but Butler's eventual national runner-up story was fraught with danger all winter long. I'd estimate, retroactively and retrospectively, that three badly-timed losses instead of a historically perfect Horizon League season would have done them in early. The one-possession games at Detroit and Loyola, and then some kind of conference tourney loss -- you may recall that Gordon Hayward sustained a back injury late in the regular season, then made a stirring and somewhat unexpected quick recovery. Somewhere in the XBox multiverse, this reality exists. So does the one where Davidson 2005 actually beats UNC Greensboro in the semifinals, makes the Big Dance, and...?
Then there's the question of what a league-undefeated season really does for an overachieving mid-major team, besides bringing a whole bunch of attention and curious speculation. Our old friends at Gonzaga were always the patron saints of this back in the 2000's. I'm thinking of the 2003-04 team in particular, the one that went 15-0 in the West Coast and crashed out in the NCAA second round with a 19-point loss against Nevada. Back then, it always seemed that the more of a fight the WCC put up, the farther the Zags would go. Two months is a long time for an elite team to take a vacation from equal competition. It's easy to get soft.
Belmont and Utah State are great teams, but as far as 2010-11 value judgements go, we'll have to save those for later. January is all about staying sharp and sticking together. What we do know is that Rick Byrd and Stew Morrill (and Mark Few, of course) have their teams in this position almost every single year, no matter who's on the team in a given year, which makes them some of the very best coaches in the country, in the name-on-the-floor way. That won't change by March.
Missouri Valley: It cannot be denied anymore: TreeFever is real, as real as anything. With a last-second and-one by Indiana State's Jake Kelly, the Sycamores downed previously league-unbeaten Missouri State in Terre Haute, 70-69. An hour later, Northern Iowa put the finishing touches on a 77-74 road win at Wichita State's raucous Roundhouse, those being a whole bunch of Kwadzo Ahelegbe free throws. With Indiana State on a six-game streak and in a first-place tie with Cuonzo Martin's Bears, the next test will be the toughest yet: going to Wichita on Saturday, a place where they haven't won since 2004, and facing a very pissed-off bunch of Shocker players and fans, who will be out for some Valley blood. Good luck.
Colonial: Is Hofstra's Charles Jenkins such a force for basketball good that he can save other programs from themselves? Brian Mull at the Wilmington Star News is 100 percent convinced that the Pride senior star's eight-point possession last year was the catalyst for mid-season change at UNC Wilmington. (The next question: what can he do for Towson?) Jenkins may not be given a pregame ceremony at Trask on February 23, but the CAA's leading scorer did drop a 22-and-6 hint/reminder last night in a 66-57 Hofstra win up in Hempstead. So the Pride keep pace with VCU, who tuned up for Saturday's blood rivalry game at Old Dominion with a 71-54 win over Georgia State. Speaking of ODU, they defended home court in the G!O!T!N! with a trademark 64-58 dank slog over James Madison. Both of those teams now sit a game behind the leaders.
Mid-American: Ball State has given folks plenty of reasons not to take them seriously: start with the Black Line Upset loss to Alaska-Anchorage in the fourth-place game of the Great Alaska Shootout, and an 88-55 loss at Butler was, well, somewhat conclusive. But then again, the Cardinals blew out Indiana State, a win that looks better every day, and they have one of only two MAC RLU's this season (a two-point win at DePaul). And it's beginning to look like BSU might be the best team the MAC can offer this year. At 12-4 and 4-0, they're one Saturday road game at Toledo from having swept the West division on first pass, and with .91 points allowed per defensive possession this season, Billy Taylor's team is playing the best D in the league, by far. The true test, of course, will be the much tougher East, with whom the Cardinals will play a single game each, but the schedule has them at home against MAC titan Kent State (Jan. 27) and the defending champions from Ohio (Jan. 30) to start that stretch. Not since 2004, the year before the TMM era began, has a team from the West represented the league at the NCAA Tournament; is this the season?
Big West: Long Beach State, the team that plays in a magic pyramid, has had considerable trouble out at Cal State Fullerton, losing three of their last four at Titan Gym. Last night's hyper-paced 89-87 loss there, which was somehow played in regulation, came at a time when it looked like the 49ers would run away from the rest of the league. These are days of extreme parity in the California Bus League, with seven of nine teams within a game of .500 in BWC play, and home-court advantage meaning very little: 11 of 24 conference games so far have been won by the road team. If you're looking for a bid-stealing dark horse among all this murkiness, please consider Pacific. The Tigers came within a buzzer-beater of CSULB at the Pyramid last weekend, and will get another shot next week, on January 26 up in Stockton.
Oakland at South Dakota State (Badlands) Frost Arena - Brookings, SD 8:00 EST
We know that there's a new South Dakota State logo, and that they've been using it for a few years, and if somebody sends it to us we'll finally swap it out. But dude, Bugs. He was awesome in "Space Jam," the official movie of TMM This year's Jackrabbits, though, are not living up to the film's central basketball message, which is that offense is more important than tough Monstar-style defense. Scott Nagy's squad (12-6, 4-3) is one of the most efficient in the country at scoring points, tallying 1.12 points per trip overall and an eye-bulging 1.19 in conference. For all that effort, they're breaking even in the Badlands. Why? Because they play like Nerdlucks on the other end, allowing a league-worst 47 percent of threes to fall over seven conference games, as well as 50 percent of all shots. (Note: any sentence with "league-worst" in it that doesn't include 0-20 Centenary is highly abnormal.) The Jacks don't play at a particularly fast pace or anything, they just have priorities.
The plot of "Space Jam," as you know, involves stealing the essence of NBA players. Keith Benson didn't have to take anything; he's an NBA player already. At 6-foot-11 and 230 pounds, he's using his senior season to work on his YouTube highlight reel and to prepare Draftniks in emptying out the thesaurus for "upside" synonyms. He's averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds, and has double-doubles against Purdue, Michigan State and Tennessee. Now back in the BLC, he can work out the rough edges of his game. While Benson is the focal point, the rest of the team can ball too. Since league play began, the G'Grizzlies are perfect at 7-0, scoring 1.21 points per possession and leading the conference in nearly every offensive and defensive category. And this, a roadie in the frozen north at the other offensive powerhouse, might be their last test until March. This is, after all, an echo chamber.