PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- The real state of the Union is that it's changing faster than ever. When you're away from the place you live for an entire month, don't expect it to be the same when you return. Here in Providence's baseball suburb, there are more "for sale" signs on frozen front lawns than ever before, the corner gas station is boarded up with an oversize blue tarp clinging to the yellow sign, and they're gutting/renovating my favorite local coffee shop until President's Day.
I also found out that I have new neighbors. I got to meet them yesterday afternoon: a friendly older couple with a young son. I got more of their story than I expected to for a first conversation (especially in closely-guarded New England), and it turns out they're downgrading from a big house to a smaller one, trading a mortgage for due rent. They're being very dignified and open about it. "These days, things need to make more sense," the man told me. It was something I might have said. I think I'm going to like them a lot.
I've been thinking about Centenary quite a bit lately. I'd prefer to leave them alone and let them go about their final lame-duck season in Division I before "repositioning" to Division III. But as the last winless team in the NCAA's top flight, they're attracting more and more attention as the weeks go by. The Gentlemen are 0-21, 0-9 in the Badlands Conference, and the Pomeroy-bot forecasts a 60 percent chance of history. With 30 games on the regular season schedule (they won't make the BLC's eight-team playoff), losing out would put Centenary past NJIT's recent 0-29 futility mark, which broke Savannah State's 0-28 in 2004-05. Sportswriters are fascinated with zeroes, for whatever reason.
Centenary will go down as one of the saddest stories in a century of American college athletics. They never made the NCAA Tournament, never got close, even though they had one of the greatest players in the sport's history. Robert Parish averaged 21.6 ppg and 16.9 rpg for the Gents between 1972 and 1976, but not a single point or rebound counted. The NCAA docked Centenary six years of probation and postseason ineligibility for converting Parish's Louisiana high school test scores into a standardized format to fit the NCAA's eligibility requirements at the time, but kept the school and star center erased even though the requirements were changed. Centenary went 87-21 during the four-year Parish era, but the NCAA insists none of that even happened. "The Chief," to his eternal credit, didn't transfer or go to the pros early. "I didn't transfer because Centenary did nothing wrong," he toldSports Illustrated in 1975. "And I have no regrets. None."
Since Parish graduated and took the NBA by storm, Centenary wandered. They were in the TAAC (pre-Atlantic Sun) for a while, spent time as an independent, and signed up with the Mid-Continent Conference (pre-Badlands) in 2003. We visited in 2006; it was eventually erased from the internet, but this was what we wrote.
SHREVEPORT, La. -- R. Buckminster Fuller was a 20th-century inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician and part-time poet. He pioneered the geodesic dome, a lightweight and portable structure, as a means by which to ease housing shortages and help eradicate global poverty. Back in the 1940s, as the story goes, a visitor to Fuller's prototype house proclaimed, "My God! This is the house of the future!"
For the past 36 seasons, Centenary has played in a geodesic arena called the Gold Dome, but it's done precious little to eradicate its basketball poverty -- with the notable exception of the Robert Parish years in the 1970s, the Gentlemen have spent most of their life in their Epcot Center-esque building starving for wins. They've only enjoyed one winning season in the past decade, and in 2004-05, they only emerged victorious three times over a 27-game schedule.
Despite a coaching switch, 2005-06 hasn't gone much better. Rob Flaska spent the past two seasons assisting at Arkansas and the previous three at TCU under Billy Tubbs, and was given his first D-I head coaching shot in March of last year. Flaska's Gents have gone 4-16, including a 2-7 record in the Mid-Continent Conference.
"I'm a poor sport, because I don't like losing," Flaska said. "I'm not going to be happy after a loss. I'm a great guy and I'm never going to be bad to anyone, but I reserve the right to be a poor sport. [Expletive], Bobby Knight can be a poor sport, so can Krzyzewski. You see what you see with them, but after losses, once they get in that locker room..."
The frustration can be found in the stands, too. Despite the program's genteel monikers (the women's teams are called the Ladies), refined manners are hard to find in the student section. On Saturday night, they razzed the opposing blue-and-yellow UMKC squad when the Kangaroos took to the Gold Dome's court, desperately trying their best to bolster a white-and-maroon starting five that topped out at 6-6.
"Hey, Quinton!" a young Lady yelled at UMKC's leading scorer, junior guard Quinton Day (20.5 ppg). "Your daddy drives a minivan, you [expletive]!"
But when UMKC rattled off 15 straight points to start the game, punctuated by a long 3-pointer by Day, the students turned the fickle finger on their own team.
"C'mon, they're Kangaroos, for [expletive]'s sake!" screamed another Gentleman before sighing dejectedly. "Man, we suck."
The new head coach acknowledges that it's a matter of square pegs and inexperience. "We're starting from scratch this year," Flaska said. "Some of these guys are in the wrong positions. We have no point guard and no center -- we're all really twos, threes and fours. We thought some of them would be ones, and we knew our size was going to be an issue at the five." "What I have to do is chill out," Flaska said. "I'm sleeping OK now, but I just have to take what happens as it comes. You want to win right away, and when you don't, it's frustrating. But [former South Carolina head coach] Eddie Fogler said this to me once, he said, 'Never make your jump the first year. You want to make your jump the second, third, fourth year.'"
And the head Gentleman is convinced that victories, and a polite and civil society, will soon return to their geodesic home.
"This is going to be a winning program, and that's what I came here to build," Flaska said. "And don't get me wrong, we are going to make a huge jump next year. We've got some guys who have laid the foundation this year, and with help in other areas they're going to be more productive."
An hour after the game ended, the Gold Dome walls echoed with the sound of dribbling basketballs, as the Gents' underclassman bench players underwent a rigorous, sweaty, self-imposed shootaround. By their effort, it was clear that Centenary's lost season hadn't crushed their spirits, that they were readying themselves to make the jump that Flaska keeps promising.
"My God," one might have been compelled to say. "These are the Centenary Gentlemen of the future!"
The jump was only six games, from 4-23 to 10-21. Flaska lasted just three years (he's an assistant at a very good Texas Southern program in the SWAC now). Greg Gary lasted two seasons, and resigned last May after compiling 8-21 and 8-23 records. On Gary's watch, Centenary became the first Division I school to be banned from the national postseason over Academic Progress Rate shortcomings. While the APR problems had more to do with the wrecked Louisiana academic landscape -- and dwindling endowments at the smallest school in Division I (807 students, 347th out of 347) -- than sketchy recruits with the 14th-smallest athletic budget in Division I ($5.5 million), Centenary wasn't able to make it work. So they retreated.
There's strength in self-awareness, in realizing that you're somewhere you don't belong, and making the appropriate adjustments in order to allow life to make sense. That's the honorable and pragmatic sort of failure. There's also something quite good about the effort to keep trying despite stacked odds. In my visits to Centenary, I was struck by how many students showed up at the games (based on percentage of the academic populace, of course), how much pride they showed, and how they'd try to yell and scream for wins. And in the latter years, the Gents did have some small, great moments: the December 2007 70-66 Red Line Upset over Texas Tech in nearby Bossier City being chief among them. It was fan razzing of Bobby Knight at halftime by 20 to 30 fans -- the smallest of small armies -- that so upset the then-Red Raider head coach that he beelined for his hotel instead of returning for the second half.
I hope that this was not the final moment of small and humble greatness for Centenary. This is a program that doesn't deserve this kind of ignominy, and 0-30 is the wrong fate for them. Savannah State was before TMM's time, and we ran "NJIT: On The Cliff Of History" every week during Season 4. That pair of schools represented recent entries in Division I, upwardly-mobile fools moving into the wrong neighborhood, and it was difficult to muster sympathy for them. Or for Birmingham-Southern, the school that practically altered its books in order to make its failed move up to D-I appear momentarily profitable. Centenary College has always been up against forces beyond its control, tried its best, lost, and now the Gentlemen are saying goodbye.
Centenary's next and final winnable Division I game comes on February 24 at the Gold Dome against slightly less woeful Western Illinois (7-13, 2-7). I hope to make it there for that, somehow and some way, not as a credentialed journalist but as a fan.
Patriot League: Bucknell keeps rolling. Last night at Lehigh, the Bison prevailed 81-68 despite major foul trouble, most specifically to star center and recent MMBOW Mike Muscala. But the 6-foot-10 Minnesotan still scored 15 points, grabbed nine boards, and tied a school record with eight blocked shots. And he's a sophomore. American, which just a month ago was the Patriot pick to click, fell two games back of Bucknell with a 72-53 blowout loss at Navy. The 7-15 Mids aren't doing Billy Lange's career arc any favors this year, but remember this name: J.J. Avila. The 6-foot-7 Texan freshman scored 24 on 8-for-11 shooting, one in a collection of decent games so far in his young career.
Great West: New Jersey Tech may eventually end up swallowing pride and returning to a lower level, but for now they're riding high at the top of the Great West Conference. Four of the 23 wins in the Highlanders' three and a half seasons of Division I life have come in the last two weeks, and three have been conference victories: UTPA, Houston Baptist and at Chicago State. Here's a phrase you've never heard before: "NJIT is scorching the nets!" With shooting percentages of 57, 62 and 52 in three league games, including 65 percent on two-pointers, it appears that they're really going for that automatic bid to the College Insider tournament. That's the ultimate prize for winning the GWC. But can they survive a quick-turnaround swing to Utah Valley (round trip: 4,200 miles)? This West is more big than great, but that name was already taken.
Northeast: After nearly a calendar year of physical neglect, we will be revisiting the Blue Triangle tonight when we trudge out to Smithfield for Wagner at Bryant. They'll meet near the middle of the standings, a scenario that didn't seem probable a month ago. Bryant won a single game last season (1-29), but Tim O'Shea has the Bulldogs at 6-14 and 4-4 in a league they're not yet eligible to win. Wagner won their first four games but dropped three of the next four to slide to 5-3. The standings are a parity party, with nine teams within two games of .500, but a second dimension (thanks to the Tempo-Free Aerial) gives us some true NEC clarity.
So yeah, Long Island's good (1.08 points per possession, .94 d-ppp).
On any other night, anything involving Saint Mary's and Gonzaga being in the same room together would be the G!O!T!N!, no question. But the Gaels are two games up on the Zags at the moment (with surging San Francisco between them in the standings), and this game here is for nothing less than first place in the CAA. In addition, the league's unbalanced schedule has this as the only meeting of the season between Hofstra and VCU, so this could possibly end up as a one-seed tiebreaker as well. Both teams are currently 8-1 heading into the second half of conference season, and either or both might be on your bracket seven weeks from now.
Hofstra's season got off to a bad start at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (losses to North Carolina, Western Kentucky and Nebraska), and the Pride's first win against a Division I opponent didn't happen until the day after Thanksgiving. But they're 13-3 since then, and those three losses (Florida Atlantic, at Iona, and Old Dominion) were to teams that are in contention for Dance bids of their own. And how any paragraph about Hofstra can go three sentences without a mention of former MMBOW Charles Jenkins borders on disservice. The 6-foot-3 senior scores a third of the team's points off a quarter of the shots, but his back is more than strong enough to support the Pride. His consistency during this potential CAA history-book season is remarkable; in all but five of the team's games he's shot 50 percent or better, and in those other five he's scored at least 19 points. And in a year when folks are falling all over each other to find new ways to hype up college basketball's Big Two scorers, Jenkins is putting up the kinds of numbers that are anything if not comparable.
Hofstra has beaten George Mason and James Madison so far, and took out William & Mary on the road, but tonight will be a real test as to their ability to win in Virginia. The Rams are on a seven-game streak since dropping a holiday hangover game at Georgia State on January 3, and they've been getting things done with a balanced offense -- three active double-figure scorers -- and a lot of forced turnovers. VCU needs to end as many possessions early as they can, because opposing sides are burning their defense with 50 percent two-point shooting, 11th in the 12-team league. (That's understandable, since big Larry Sanders is off making Milwaukee Bucks.) It's a team that relies heavily on senior leadership, with guys like 6-foot-9 Jamie Skeen (14.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and point guard Joey Rodriguez (10.4 ppg, 2.2:1 ato). Next year will be an interesting reload, but this version isn't done yet.