PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- What is madness? Back up, let's start this way: the reason and order necessary for understanding and mastery of one's surroundings has no room or space for such anarchic disruption. Madness is the danger where once things were safe, displacing sense and destroying sensibilities. Sanity makes a sandcastle; madness is the wave that knocks it down.
I think this duality is central to the poet-geek college basketball fan dichotomy. The geeks build charts and graphs and polls, using logical architecture to try and explain exactly what will happen next. Poets love to see these things explode. We have the poets to thank for marrying Our Game with mental instability, most specifically Hall of Fame wordsmith and Missouri Valley resident Henry Van Arsdale Porter. In 1939, he wrote an essay about his state's high school basketball tournament in Illinois High School Athlete called "March Madness," which both coined the term and acts as a highly accurate field study of anybody who's suffered from the condition since.
In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him. He likes his coffee black and his basketball highly spiced. He despises the stall -- unless his team is ahead. It is a major crime for the official to call a foul on the dribbler -- unless the opponent was dribbling. His moods are as changeable as the March wind. He flies into a frenzy at some trivial happening on the court and before his vocal expression of disapproval is half completed he howls in delight at the humorous twist of a comment from a bleacher wit. He is part of the mass mind and is subject to its whims. He berates the center for attempting a long shot and lauds him when it goes in the basket. He is consistent only in his inconsistencies.
What the mad fan wants is mess. He (and also she, of course) is looking for the unexpected, the surreal, the never-seen-before, the words ripped out of boring prosaic sentences and rearranged as poetry. The geeks can't coexist with this. They need superiority to remain superior, for things within the court's boundary lines to stay there and make sense. Otherwise, their expertise is worthless. But when forecasters enjoy seeing their own models smashed, or when basketball romantics sneak glimpses at stat sheets for just a taste of concrete reasoning... then it becomes real, actual madness. Those of us who play on both sides of the line end up in advanced states of emotional imbalance.
Porter recognized that this basketball mind-malady is not confined to a single month, or to a single geographic location. "There are millions of him," he wrote 71 years ago. "He exists through summer and fall, shows signs of animation through the winter and lives to the utmost during March when a hundred thousand pairs of rubber soled shoes slap the hardwood in a whirlwind of stops and pivots and dashes." This, right now, is that winter of animation. For all the tireless work of Robot-builders and bracketologists and pollsters and experts, it's being eroded by upsets and unexpectedness and the ultimately poetic essence of the sport itself. Even the laws of physics aren't safe, and we don't have to wait another month.
Colonial: We beat this to death in the book, but the CAA is a tough place for edgelanders. Only one team outside the state of Virginia has repped the conference at the NCAA Tournament since 1987. That was UNC Wilmington, and North Carolina is kind of the same thing. Every year, the league inevitably moves towards its power center, and here we go again. Hofstra took advantage of an advantageous early schedule, but s*** got real last week with a 15-point beating at VCU. Big games coming up at the top. The Rams have a three-game roadie to Northeastern, JMU and Delaware, and GMU will run the Virginia gauntlet after hosting Hofstra. So there's some toughening up coming. And for all those people who ask, yeah. There are probably two bids here... but they'll be from one state.
Horizon League: Cleveland State had a bad weekend earlier in the month. A really bad one. Lost at Butler and Valpo, and then fell off the face of the earth. It's okay, sports fans, you can come back now. They're not that bad. Of the nine teams with 20 or more wins before Groundhog Day, the Vikings are one. They haven't lost since that weekend -- five straight, three on the road -- and at No. 30 are the second-highest ranked RPI team in the BracketBusters away pool (Utah State: 29), which is the blunt instrument ESPN usually uses to match teams. (Oh yeah, the selections are today.) And there's Butler in fourth place after losing at Valpo in overtime on Saturday, 85-79. The rest of the nation has stuffed the Bulldogs into a "No Gordon Hayward, no good" narrative, but if you're watching, you can see how much they're relying on Matt Howard, how poorly Shelvin Mack is shooting, and how many 2010 role players have been rushed into 2011 key roles. It's sad and romantic, but it's not working very well.
Missouri Valley: For the time being, we are back to the Missouri State-Wichita State axis that most people expected. But the recent purveyors of Valley Madness, the Northern Iowa Panthers, are moving into position to shake things up. It was right around this time of year in 2009 that Ben Jacobson's team began to construct its massive run (which eventually reached 11 games), and this season's on-the-move streak is up to seven after the cable-televised Sunday night come-from-behind job at the home of the front-running Bears, sealed by two Johnny Moran free throws. Not so fast, indeed. Indiana State's #TreeFever seems to have worn off. After that triple-overtime classic at Wichita State, the Sycamores went oh for the week, losing to Evansville by three and getting revenged on at Creighton. The Bluejays didn't like that missed shot-turned-alleyoop that beat them in Terre Haute.
Conference USA: One thing we're learning about the ex-Metro is that it's not a bus league. Teams travel pretty comfortably across the wide expanse of C-USA country, from New Mexico to the Carolinas. It's a footprint similar to that of the Sun Belt, but road teams only win about a third of the games there. Here, it's almost an even-up, neutral court proposition. In 2010, away teams won 45 out of 95 league games... 47 percent. It might head that way this year, too, with 16 of 42 matchups thus far going to those who fly in.
No team is having a worse time defending home court than UCF, who came into C-USA play 13-0 but have since lost to East Carolina, Rice and UAB in their white jerseys... over the past 11 days. As 6-foot-3 sophomore Marcus Jordan has achieved more notoriety (if you don't rearrange the letters of his last name, it's Jordan), teams are keying on him more, and he's shot a combined 16-for-52 (30.7 percent) during the losing streak... and the G'Knights' conference shooting percentage is six points lower than their overall. But home court still counts for something: Marshall smushed Memphis in Huntington on Saturday, 85-70. Since both became leaguemates in 2005-06, it's the first time the Thundering Herd have won in the series (eight tries).
MMBOW #10: Mickey McConnell, Saint Mary's
The first time I saw Mickey McConnell play, it was at Conseco Fieldhouse against Southern Illinois, as part of a neutral-court undercard to a Davidson-Purdue game. That other game ended badly for Stephen Curry & Co, and I sat next to the man who wrote this. In the second game, while most writers were filing their stories, Gael point guard Patty Mills struggled with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio and streaky shooting, and the Salukis led for most of the second half. But then, in came this little translucent sophomore, who started making kamikaze runs into the SIU defense, absorbing abuse (but not enough to keep from making eight of 11 free throw shooters) and kicking out to open shooters. Thanks to him and the Diamon Simpson-Omar Samhan inside duo, SMC came back and won 65-52 that day. McConnell had 10 points and five assists; it was his first really good college game. Two years later, he's our tenth Mid-Majority Baller of the Week for the 2010-11 season.
McConnell is a star now. He's one of the most accurate three-point shooters in mid-major ball, making 48 percent of them over his career so far (245-for-509). This season, he's made 57 percent of his twos, which is the kind of mark you'd expect from a big man... like departed BFF/Beast Samhan. Last Thursday, he scored 27 points on 10-for-17 shooting (plus six assists) up at Gonzaga, and the Gaels did something they hadn't done since 1995: win up at Gonzaga. McConnell's last two points of the game were these, which defined the final 73-71 score.
Two nights later, he matched his jersey number with 32 points on 11-for-21 at Portland, but Saint Mary's was in such an early hole that not even Dr. Superhoop with his 59-point week could bring them back to health. The 85-70 loss was the Gaels' first in WCC play this season, and touched off a round of okay-maybe-these-guys-aren't-for-real. But consider this: since the last time Saint Mary's won at Gonzaga, only three California-based WCC teams have swept the Northwest trip in those 15 years (the most recent was Santa Clara 2007). But things have changed; instead of fighting off the Zags for first, the Gaels are battling San Francisco for the top spot. Down is up, and right is left. And congratulations to our MMBOW.
Today on 360
Lots and lots of double-overtime games this weekend.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Jackson State (SWAC) Williams Athletic Center - Jackson, MS 8:30 EST
The SWAC somehow gives off the impression of brutal parity, but the conference races have taken on one of two patterns during the course of the first tenth of this century: a two-team battle for first, or more rarely, a single squad racing away from the pack -- for instance, the Jackson State team that ran the league last season with a 17-1 record before getting a shock bounce in the quarterfinals by Grambling. This year, fans of the league have an extra treat: a third strong contender. JSU, Mississippi Valley State and Texas Southern have four losses between them after eight games a piece, and thanks to a Monday night cable package, all of Hoops Nation can watch this unfold.
Tonight's ESPNU game is Alabama State (3-5) at TSU (7-1), which will be good, yes it will be good. But our G!O!T!N! has a lot more subtext. The 2010 title should have gone to Jackson State, easily the superior team in the SWAC last season, but that old March Madness struck again. Arkansas-Pine Bluff was swept by JSU in the regular season in a pair of three-point games, and hasn't beaten Tevester Anderson's team since 2007 -- the last seven tries. The Golden Lions' 4-15 record against Jackson State since 2000 is their worst against any SWAC-mate. But once the Tigers were cleared out, the second-place Shinycats defeated Valley, ASU and TSU for the crown, then beat Winthrop in the final Play-In Game for the conference's first NCAA win since 1993. This Tiger squad features a SWAC-tall front line of three double-figure scoring 6-foot-7 upperclassmen (let by junior Jenniro Bush at 14.7 ppg), and has something the other teams in the league don't have: an overall winning record (11-9, 7-1). The odds are against UAPB repeating as champions, anyway: no SWAC team has done so since Texas Southern earned consecutive Big Dance bids in 1994 and 1995. And their 4-4, 4-16 record at the moment makes it painfully clear what they spent the first two months of their season doing: playing body-bag with the titans of college basketball. The Golden Lions' key stat is 12,774, which is the number of miles they racked up before heading into league play. It's a broken and beaten roster, with only two players who've played in all 20 games, and the ones who do show up haven't put the ball in the basket that much. At .826 points per possession, it's the seventh least efficient offense in Division I. In league play, they've managed .916, and have won three out of four against the true bottom of the league: Alcorn State, Prairie View and Grambling. So the season for George Ivory looks like it will end with a .500 record and an early exit in Shreveport. Unless, of course, there is some Madness. Basketball State Preview/Box