BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Last week, I went to a late regular-season matchup between Rhode Island and George Washington. These days when I go to games, I sit in the front row wearing a suit and sneakers at a desk, with a touchscreen computer for dispatching short bursts of information to the internet. This implies a measure of authority (undercut considerably and intentionally by my little stuffed basketball), so people ask my opinion a lot. One sharp gent was talking to me at one point, and inquired, "How many bids is the Atlantic  going to get?"
"I don't know," I replied.
His brow wrinkled. The conversation didn't go much further after that. I understood why; I wasn't being very useful.
It's hard to pinpoint when sports expertise stopped being confined to the study of the now and the accumulation of the back then, and became an exercise in soothsaying. Gamblers certainly want to know what's coming, and sports betting has evolved far beyond the dusty alley cockfights and the horse races of America's early days. If you've put part of your hard-earned paycheck on the line, you're going to try to find somebody to tell you the score ahead of time, and there are plenty of people who want to be That Guy. As someone who doesn't trust their own gambling impulses and once used inside knowledge for evil, I stay out of the future.
I often wonder about what motivates folks -- mostly young white American men -- to become modern-style sports experts, to be the best at predicting the winners, to become "bracketologists." The past is prologue, the present can only be observed, but Next is fair game. Correct guesses are the stuff of genius, bad picks are made by morons. I often feel like I stumbled into the wrong room. When the idea for the original 100 Games Project hit me in the far corner of The Palestra, I wanted to go to a lot of games and report what I saw, because I loved college basketball more than almost anything. Still do, seven years and almost 700 games later.
In that time, I think I've figured out a lot about the recessive gene that makes people want to be sportswriters... disease, mutant tumor, whatever it is. It's a desire to be an x-spurt instead of one who looks up to the low-IQ idiots in the firmament. It's also an urge to exert power over the sports themselves, up to the very edge of a competition boundary they could never survive the other side of. The desire's true root is powerlessness, and it manifests itself in polls, MVP debates, the Hall Of Fame, Best Ever lists, and directives to the NCAA and its conferences about how its men's basketball competitions should be run. The way things should be, as defined by a million little princes, led by 50 or so chosen ones who have risen to thrones.
This has been a great regular season, a terrific first week of Championship Fortnight. There is more adventure, joy and heartbreak yet to come. For us, at least 23 more games during Championship Fortnight and at the NCAA Tournament. But a month from now, I'll be sitting in the far corner of a ballpark, or the far corner of a tennis stadium, passing the time by idly chatting about something or other with somebody. If you promise not to start some debate about World Series predictions or the WTA rankings, I'll save you a seat. I can't wait to spend the summer watching the other sports I love dearly, the ones I'll never stop learning about, the ones I can simply enjoy.
The Ryan Center, where URI plays, is off in the stripped woodlands of southern Rhode Island. The campus is isolated, set off from the main highways by thin road-ribbons, and the Amtrak train station is a good mile's walk from the arena. After the conclusion of a 7:00 weekday game, past the parking lots and their halogen light-posts was a deep black night. Roadside and road were indistinguishable from each other, and I had to use the screen from my phone to illuminate my way. There was no light at all.
Except for the stars.
Hundreds and thousands of them, sharp dots on a clear late February night. Familiar constellations showed themselves: the Dipper over there, and Orion too. I started seeing the lines between them, until I quickly realized what I was doing. So I stopped for a moment, switched off my tiny light, and just looked up.
After 120 days, the college basketball regular season is over, except for one game on Tuesday. So this is the last and final Stardate of Season 7, which includes -- what else -- pretend awards. It's also a continuation of our annual slow goodbye. Teams are being eliminated all over Hoops Nation. Fans' pain is equal to their emotional investment, but this is the best time of year to be healing. Baseball is coming, and so are higher temperatures, warm breezes, t-shirts and summer dresses.
As always, we urge you to stick around after their own team's elimination, and cheer on their conference rivals and local colleges as long as they stick around in their quest for the National Championship. But they will lose too, somewhere and at some point. Within a few weeks, all the lights will be out. Until further notice, we all know how this ends.
Most leagues are well into tourney play, but the last few late arrivals announced seeds over the weekend.
Conference USA: 1. UAB 2. TULS 3. UTEP 4. MEM 5. USM 6. MRSH 7. SMU 8. ECU 9. UCF 10. RICE 11. HOU 12. TLN
Atlantic 14: 1. XU 2. TU 3. RICH 4. DUQ 5. GW 6. URI 7. BONA 8. MASS 9. UD 10. LAS 11. SLU 12. SJU - DNQ: CHAR, FORD
MEAC: 1. BETH 2. HAMP 3. COPP 4. MORG 5. NCAT 6. NORF 7. FAMU 8. DEST 9. SCST 10. UMES 11. HOW
SWAC: 1. TXSO 2. JSU 3. MVSU 4. ALST 5. ALAM 6. GRAM 7. PVAM 8. UAPB - DNQ: SOU, ALC
Big West: 1. LBSU 2. POLY 3. CSN 4. PAC 5. UCSB 6. CSF 7. UCR 8. UCI - DNQ: UCD
Southland: 1. MCN 2. NWSU 3. SHSU 4. TXST 5. SELU 6. SFA 7. UTSA 8. NICH - DNQ: LAM, UCA, TAMC, UTA
Western Athletic: 1. USU 2. BOIS 3. NMSU 4. ID 5. HAW 6. NEV 7. FRES 8. SJSU
Great West: 1. UVU 2. NJIT 3. NDAK 4. SDAK 5. CST 6. UTPA 7. HBU
Mid-Majority Baller of the Year: Kenneth Faried, Morehead State
It would be enough to become the leading rebounder in the Division I era (post-1973, after freshmen became eligible to play), or that Kenneth Faried was our only two-time MMBOW this season, or that he's already proven himself against the best team in the country in advance of the NCAA Tournament. But the RastaBeast was clearly the most electric and exciting player at our level, a man who doesn't calculate the distance between himself and the ball but grabs it by any means possible. Raw reptilian rebounding instinct. Our left brains had plenty to enjoy too. His fourth year at Morehead went like this: 17.6 points per game (20.4 per 40 minutes), a national-best 14.1 rebounds per game, and 27 double-doubles. He is going to be in the Big Dance on national TV next week, so the nation "gets to see him." Which is odd, because he's been available to watch all along. And it's been awesome.
Mid-Majority Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont
Rick Byrd is the ultimate Name on the Floor head coach, with school loyalties that go as deep as the outer edge of his DNA. He has been there at Belmont since 1986, has coached every one of the Bruins' 14 Division I seasons, and popped the popcorn for the concession stand back when the Bruins were NAIA. They take care of him there, he's more than happy. "A lot of people might set goals, and have grand ideas," he once told me. "But my way of working is to go at it day-by-day and do the best we can on this day. Then we try to improve the next." His superclass of 2006-2008 went to three straight NCAA Tournaments and almost beat Duke in the the last one. As seniors, that group ended up in a lesser tourney in 2009 because most had got everything they wanted out of basketball and were starting families. In 2009-10, a very young team finished 19-12 (14-6) but exploded onto the national consciousness this year. They'll head into the Big Bracket at a hungry 30-4 (19-1), with hyper-efficient offense and defense, and a 27 percent opposition turnover rate. Then, whatever happens, he'll come back in 2011-12 and try to improve. Because that's what great and humble coaches do.
Game! Of! The! Year!
Harvard 83, at Pennsylvania 82 - 2OT (Ivy League) The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA 7:00 EST
The game Tuesday night between Penn and Princeton may decide the Ivy League regular season champion (Quaker win -> Harvard title), or force a one-game playoff at a TBA neutral site (Princeton win -> standings tie). It will not be the Game! Of! The! Night!. The G!O!T!N!, by rule, is a game that we do not attend. However, via proper retrospect and many nominations from others, the best game south of the Red Line this year was one we witnessed personally. No single night shaped destiny in a single league as much as Harvard's double-overtime win over Penn on February 5.
The G!O!T!Y! was like old times, but not perfect. The Red & Blue Crew's rollouts were awful. But that was countervailed by a surprise Red Panda performance at halftime. And the last real soft pretzel in the Palestra. And Tommy Amaker's vertical corduroy suit. And the great god BOOBA making an appearance in the final seconds of regulation, so that Zack Rosen could make two game-tying free throws with ten seconds left, and so that the refs could wave off a Penn foul that may or may not come after the buzzer and did not send Harvard to the line in suspended time. Rosen made another shot at the horn in the first overtime to send it to a second. But his vain attempt to win the game in 2OT, after Oliver McNally's jumper put Harvard up by one with 11 seconds left, was blocked by Harvard's Kyle Casey.
It was Penn's first loss of the Ivy season after three slate-opening wins. The Quakers lost the next three over the next week, and when we caught up with them at Columbia seven days after the 2OT game, they were stocked in leaden shoes, hollow-eyed, and emotionally spent. They'll come into the final game of the season at 7-6, reduced to a spoiler in their ultimate rivalry tilt against the Tigers. Motivation will be strange and twisted: a Penn win would deliver the title to the team that, in effect, killed their season. When there's an all of us and an each of us, that's the way it goes sometimes.
Finally, to the invisible camera crew, which darted around the country all year to bring readers the best and most intriguing mid-major matchups all during Season 7, thank you. You are the best in the business, even if that business does not actually exist.