PHILADELPHIA -- Earlier this week, Caltech ended a 26-year, 310-game conference losing streak by beating Occidental 46-45. Last night in Shreveport, previously winless Centenary ended a 33-game skid (one away from the Division I record) by beating Western Illinois at home. It sure is tempting to fit these two virtually concurrent stories into the same template: shaggy dogs who finally have their day. That kind of romance only makes sense if you accept the idea that "losing" is a black hole of a place, some kind of direct opposite of winning.
Caltech has its priorities straight: making jet engines and Robots, not winning games in the sports. That's why the Beavers play in NCAA Division III, where basketball is as much an extracurricular activity as Latin Club. Centenary is different. In 1970, the administration at the tiny 800-student school built a geodesic Gold Dome and decided to have a go at big-time athletics. Over the next four decades, they were punished repeatedly for their ambition. The Gentlemen sent one of the greatest players in basketball history to the NBA, but the NCAA said Robert Parish was never there and banned the program for six years over paperwork. Centenary received the first postseason ban from the APR formula -- partially because they can't afford the same type of student-athlete academic services other schools can. If there was any direct measure of red tape tangles to NCAA Tournament appearances, Centenary's ratio would be infinity. So they're going to D-III, just like Caltech.
Centenary was two games away from finishing its excruciating final Division I season 0-30, eliminated from a league postseason that takes eight of 10 teams. First-year head coach (and three-year Gents assistant) Adam Walsh and his overmatched team had nothing to play for instead of the opportunity to play games, but they chose to put in a hard week of practice and go for a win against the second-to-last team in the league. They led for nearly the entire game, and won.
We will always remember Centenary for as long as we are doing this, and beyond as well, even though the shifting sands of the "Summit League" will eventually cover over the hole in the standings that the Gentlemen will leave at the end of the 2010-11 season. But the real point of a victory like this, as I see it, is to be forgotten. The Gentlemen didn't deserve to be remembered like that. College basketball fans remember the historic zeroes, the Savannah States and NJIT. There's no room at all in the casual fan mental database for 2000-01 Gardner-Webb, 2003-04 Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 2005-06 Jacksonville, 2009-10 Marist, or any of the 25 one-win teams in the last two decades. I'll bet you can't name five others off the top of your head.
As far as the national media goes, this story will go away tomorrow. Later today, even. After that, it will belong to anyone who can relate to being flogged repeatedly by faceless forces, but who don't stop dreaming of success on their own terms. Centenary is basketball Sam Lowry.
Horizon League: Milwaukee is the hottest team in Horizon League play, but not sure anybody was prepared for the emphatic nature of last night's win at Cleveland State. Forget the 87-83 final score, this was a Panther blowout (they led by as many as 18 in the second half) until a late burst made the score pretty. After Valpo's equally surprising foldo at home against Loyola (a 68-48 drop), it's now a three-way tie with one game to go. Milwaukee earned the upper hand with that win; if they win fail to screw up against Youngstown State on Saturday, they win the group tiebreaker (3-1 against the other two) get the double-bye to the semifinals and host the last two rounds. Cleveland State can still win the No. 1 outright if Loyola victimizes Butler and YSU wins. And don't forget that folks still call the Horizon League tournament the "Butler Invitational"... but the Bulldogs need a lot of outside help.
Ohio Valley: In the G!O!T!N! last night, which was threatened by a tornado(!), Murray State scored 17 unanswered points to take control, even the season series, and clinch a share of the OVC regular season title. Both teams will get byes to the semifinals in the OVC's new bracket, but seeding tiebreakers are fun. Murray can wrap up the No. 1 seed with a win over Eastern Kentucky at home. Austin Peay, which eliminated Eastern Illinois last night, can still grab a share of the title and get as high as No. 2. And check this out: if all three teams end up at 13-5, Morehead, Murray and Austin Peay will each be 2-2 against the others. The next breaker is record against the next-best team, which would be Tennessee Tech. Both MSU's are 2-0 against Mike Sutton's squad, which would push APSU to No. 3. The No. 1 would then depend on who the fifth place team ends up as. Exciting!
West Coast: In a game that was close-close, then went late-late and over-time, Gonzaga shot 56 percent and got revenge for the Mickey McConnell dagger in Spokane. Also, the Zag sports information folks sure like to use the D word whenever possible. "Gonzaga Dominates Saint Mary's 89-85 In Overtime Thriller" might be the weirdest headline of the year. Should these two finish tied for first after this weekend, the second tiebreaker goes like the OVC's: record against teams in descending order. Looks like that will be San Francisco, and USF's win over the Zags would prove crucial (SMC swept the Dons). Third tiebreaker is (ugh) RPI.
Just think: we're exactly one week away from one of the MAAC's most cherished traditions: "Pillowfight Friday," the 7/10 and 8/9 doubleheader. (We didn't call it that.) This was one of my favorite nights of the year, especially back when the tourney was up the road from my Philly apartment, in Trenton. You could get a ticket for five bucks, watch five hours of basketball, slide back a few longnecks and shoot the breeze with some dude from Marist. So many variables: do you bring the band and cheerleaders? Do you play hard, or just let the season die? You've got to play another game within 24 hours if you win, against a really good team. It was a defining experience every time, sadness and desperation and flickering hope. Taught me a lot about losing. Can't wait to be there again.
As mentioned a couple days back, Siena is attempting to avoid going from three straight titles to the featherfest. That's what this final weekend of the regular season is about. The Saints are 7-9 and tied with Canisius for the sixth spot, and the Golden Griffins have home games against Manhattan and Loyola. Siena has to go through Fairfield, tourney host and 2011 regular season champions, before heading home for Marist on Sunday. They've lost four straight MAAC games. Turned out that Ryan Rossiter, the 6-foot-9 senior whose post moves have flustered and dazzled the conference in equal measure, has been turned into a one-man team by injuries and misfortune. He gets the rebounds (a MAAC-best 13.4 per game), but none of this current floormates can shoot it (39.7 percent in league play). And it looks like a really tough season in Albany next year without him.
Fairfield, a team with one 6-foot-11 beanpole (Ryan Olander) and nobody else above 6-foot-6, has been the squad in waiting all year, ever since the overtime loss in the 2010 MAAC title game at Albany. This year's version is one of the most compulsively watchable teams out there. They love to crash the boards en masse, and they play relentless defense that is beyond most common measures of "tough." They allow .867 points per possession, and although they've played the 265th toughest schedule in America, they match up well against any team in Hoops Nation, as evidenced by their 76-69 BracketBuster win over OVC possible Austin Peay. The Stags will have the MAAC tourney at home (where they're 11-2), and will have a great chance to let it fly in the NCAA Tournament, where they haven't been since 1997. Fairfield's odd makeup would certainly make for a lot of new fans, especially if they can do what Siena's done two of the last three seasons: get a round in.