??????, ?.?. -- The game of Last Man continues into its second full day in the secret bunker. Follow along with as I slowly descend into madness. No, David, I have not heard about Pittsburgh, P. A., and don't tell me!
Conference USA: Fact: the ex-Metro won 68 percent of its non-conference games and is No. 8 in just about any chart of conferences out there. Another fact: many of those numbers were built over the top of much weaker conferences (a 22-0 combined record against the SWAC, MEAC and Atlantic Sun, for instance), and the Red Line Upsets have come against the Big Six's weaker teams (Miami, Texas Tech, Michigan, Stanford, Cal, LSU, Arkansas). Even Memphis' Exception Bowl win against Gonzaga didn't have much bubble impact, due to the struggles of each. The only real signature win for the C-USA came against Florida by way of Central Florida. And we all know what happened there, in Orlando, once league play began. So while has seven teams in the RPI's top 100, there are three in the cut-off forties, and the best team on paper, UAB, has a selection sheet with a lot of red on the left side (0-4 against the top 50).
Conference USA has as many multi-bid years over the past four seasons as the Colonial Athletic Association does (one), but without the parity. With Memphis' down year (especially on the road), it will likely be one again, but with the added bonus of a CAA-like conference tourney filled with intrigue and madness. Who will it be? All the leaders have some sort of horrible flaw: UTEP's shooting, Southern Miss' defense, UAB's and Memphis' turnovers. So our current vote is Larry Eustachy's USM team. (Wouldn't that be a comeback story.) The Golden Eagles have by far the hottest offense in the league (1.093 points per trip), were nicked at home against Josh Pastner's Tigers in mid-January, beat UAB on the road, and have statement opportunities coming at Memphis (Saturday on ESPN2) and at home against UTEP (next Wednesday). Let's see how that unfolds.
Ohio Valley: Austin Peay's 6-0 start was an exciting wrench in the works, but the Govs have lost three of four now, including a pair against Morehead State and Murray State. With four (or five) games to go in the regular season, the league has settled back into a battle between its two most recent titleholders. The Racers have won six in a row, including last night's 66-53 victory at Eastern Illinois, which was broken open in the fourth quarter and represented both survival against 56 percent Panther shooting and revenge for EIU's win at Murray on January 20. On the Morehead side, Donnie Tyndall's team has won five straight (including a sweep of the Jacksonville State-Tennessee Tech swing) and has a game in hand over Murray. The two MSU rivals will meet on February 24, and that's a long time to wait.
MEAC: Ah, Daytona's Ocean Center. So many memories. Last night, at a virtual home game for Bethune-Cookman, league champion Morgan State came in and toyed with the Wildcats' tinkered lineup in a 65-57 win. That result lifted Morgan into a second-place tie with BCC, and both sit one game behind hot Hampton, winners of six of their last seven. This is the Pirates' rest week before heading off for a local road trip to Norfolk State and N.C. A&T. Meanwhile, Tempo-Free Aerial says to watch out for Coppin State, currently lurking in fourth. The Eagles lost last night down at Florida A&M, 60-58. Coppin was by 10 with four minutes to go, but cut the deficit down to two in three minutes with an 11-3 run. There's a team that won't quit on you.
In the corridors of The Palestra, there's a hand-operated scoreboard that displays the all-time head-to-head record of men's basketball games between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. The reason why there is not a similar scoreboard at Jadwin Gym up the road is probably because Penn is up in the series by 22 games, and is guaranteed the upper hand until at least 2022. Still, though, this is serious business. The two schools alternated league titles through the 1970s to the 2000s, and the games between the Quakers and Tigers have featured so many classic moments -- Bob Bigelow at the buzzer in 1974, the Sydney Johnson game in 1997, Princeton's comeback from a 29-0 first half Penn run in 1999... all the races that went down to the final Tuesday night in early March, generally the final regular-season contest in all of Division I. And all the rollouts too.
But in 2007, Princeton fell hard, from 10-4 the previous season to a last-place finish of 2-12. During the rise of Cornell, who owned the conference for three straight years, one or both of the ancient P-school rivals was awful or worse. The rivalry suffered. Fans of both teams couldn't find much of a reason to hate the other, at least not enough to show up for games.
Order, however, may be entering the advanced stages of restoration mode. We saw Princeton's breakout year coming from a year away, and Johnson, now a coach, has the Tigers all alone at the top of the league at 4-0 (16-4 overall). The Tigers' six-game win streak includes a thrilling Friday night 65-61 escape against co-favorite Harvard, and for now they are unquestionably the best the Ivy has to offer. Stringent application of the "Princeton system" has been left to others now, but this team features excellent three-point shooting (league-best 41.3 percent in Ivy play), effective rebounding (56.3 percent), and shared scoring. Four Tigers -- 6-foot-7 sophomore Ian Hummer, senior guards Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox, and junior flinger Douglas Davis -- combine for 75 percent of the team's scoring, but none score more than 20 percent of the team's points.
Penn's 3-1 record in early Ivy action (9-9 overall) represents something of a surprise, especially coming just over one calendar year after the program's low point: an 0-7 start and a midseason coaching change in December 2009. Since Quaker legend Jerome Allen took over, the attitude around The Palestra has improved considerably: the Red & Blue Crew student section has gone from two rows to two sections, the team won six of 14 non-conference games, and there was a double-overtime near-miss against Harvard on Saturday. It's also a very well-balanced team with a lot of seniors, and a flashy 6-foot-3 freshman named Miles Cartwright (11.9 ppg) representing the future. But this Princeton game tonight is the first of five straight road games, and staying in contention will be tough. But as most any Penn fan will tell you, there would be plenty of satisfaction in beating Princeton for the first time since 2009, and flipping that scoreboard over to 123.