Game 052:at Delaware State 71, Maryland-Eastern Shore 45 Saturday, February 5, 2005 Memorial Hall - Dover, DE
To determine where their favorite school stands during the regular season, most college basketball fans are conditioned to use a bizarre and ultimately flawed reference point. With no reliable or realistic on-court yardstick to rank and rate the quality of more than 300 national Division I basketball teams, many place their trust in sportswriters, coaches and computers to determine who "Number One" is.
This is ridiculous enough as it is, but much of the patter that passes for commentary between November and February is concerned with perceived flaws that keep Team X or Team Y from ascending to that top position. Abstract terms like "guts" and "clutch play" litter the discourse. And being Number One, even a unanimous One, doesn't grant a team critical immunity either. Every winter, self-proclaimed experts and pundits cavil and niggle over what keeps a "great" team from becoming "legendary." When there are no more real live teams left to conquer, there are always the ghosts.
Since being Number One isn't good enough for some people, I often wonder about the peerless perfection that fans and writers seem to demand from college basketball teams. Zero is the number that precedes One, and our generation has been lucky enough to see the closest thing to pure, perfect-circle basketball as any human being is ever going to see: the U.S. Dream Team, thirteen years ago in Barcelona. But I've always imagined a theoretical Team Zero to sport a lineup of spiritual all-stars: Jesus Christ running point, Mohammed and Krishna at the two and three, Buddha holding down the post, and the Omnipresent One in the paint to clean up anything that gets by them. I don't care how good Illinois is, they'd go down hard to that crew.
But the real truth is that Zero means Zero: nothing. While perfection is a relative construct built by the human mind, total emptiness is a much easier concept to grasp. All things begin at nothing.
No matter what your religion, most agree that pure nothingness preceded the world-as-we-know-it. Before a kindly bespectacled Canadian doctor presided over the marriage of a soccer ball and a peach basket, there was no such thing as basketball. Yes, the era Before Hoops (B.H.) was the same type of blank darkness that we all climbed out of at birth. Each of us entered our existences naked and shivering, armed to face the world with only what was given to us; each of us will leave our accumulations and achievements behind at the end, as we voyage onward into that great Unknowable.
At this writing, the team closest to absolute zero is Maryland-Eastern Shore. They are ranked last in the nation by nearly every computer model, mostly because they play ball in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The MEAC is judged to be the worst of all the conferences, so their 14 straight losses have primarily occurred at the hands of teams that are slightly less feeble than they. Therefore, it would logically follow that the Hawks must be the weakest of the weak.
But when UMES takes the floor, it's not immediately apparent that they are the worst D1 club America has to offer. While many might imagine the most awful team in the land to be a squad of overweight church-leaguers, it's just not the case. Their players are limber and athletic, and they make as many buckets in their pre-game shootarounds as everybody else. They're not like Savannah State, an under-equipped program administered by D1-sized egos much larger than a D2-sized ($2 million) athletic budget. And they aren't like the slow, plodding squads of Caucasians at the lower end of the Ivy and Patriot Leagues, filled out with players more scholar than athlete. Just looking at these Hawks, you'd never know how bad they are.
It's over the course of an entire game when their weaknesses become apparent, and discovering them is a more subtle exercise than one might expect. The Delaware State Hornets, the best team in the MEAC right now, trades baskets with UMES to start the first half. With nothing on the court to poke fun at, the members of the "DSU Diehards" student section turn their attention to the visiting team's cheerleaders, who are dressed in cut-off grey sweatshirts straight out of Flashdance, the school's acronym handwritten in Sharpie on each. "Home-made out-fits!", they chant.
When you're facing one of the worst teams in America, there's a natural tendency to relax a bit, and focus on your upcoming schedule. Every once in a while, the weaker team will make the most of this underestimation and strike for an improbable upset - it's one of the things that makes our game great. The Hornets spend most of this game resting their starters for the regular-season home stretch, and coach Greg Jackson leaves the dirty work to a buzzing bunch of eager benchwarmers. Wouldn't this even the chances a bit, and allow for a more evenly-matched contest?
The answer is, of course, no. It's because Eastern Shore, as many underachieving teams are wont to do, beat themselves without any additional help. Two straight turnovers are quickly converted into a 6-0 run. Blink, and an eight-point lead suddenly becomes a formidable 14-point cushion. After a kamikaze series of off-balance three-point misses that vainly attempt to bandage the bleeding, a 14-point cushion can quickly turn into a 26-point blowout. And when there is silence where defensive communication should be, simple screens and forced bad switches can lead to the 10% difference in field goal percentage that, in turn, often manifests itself in 50-point throttlings.
It's horribly unfair to pick on a team that has no chance whatsoever, and it's unrealistic to say that a win-loss record and a conference's general level of play can accurately measure the distance between a bad team and nothingness. The Savannah State Tigers, for all their slump-shouldered losing, just don't belong at this level of competition, and nobody can find the person responsible for the school's jump to Division I.
Maryland-Eastern Shore, on the other hand, may well indeed be the worst team in America - but it's due solely to that wide gulf that separates what they could be and what they are, a bridgeable gap if only they'd keep their heads in the game.