Over the years on this site and also in an article for ESPN, Kyle has written about how mid-majors put up with "guarantee games." The mid-major travels to a major conference school, and gets a guaranteed paycheck that makes men's basketball a source of revenue at their school. But in return, the mid-major plays against a major program that will beat them easily and gives the school from above the Red Line an (almost) guaranteed win. This cycle of guarantees has diminished the level of basketball early in the season and was one thing that frustrated Kyle when watching early season games.
So, is it a dream for a mid-major to host another school and be the one cutting the check in return for an extra home game and an easy win? Not at all, as it turns out. The non-Division I schools, referred to here as being "below the Black Line," provide mid-majors with extra home games and easy wins all the time. In return, the non-Division I team gets a small paycheck which helps with the shoestring budgets below the Black Line. Back when I was at High Point, HPU liked to schedule this type of guarantee game even more than the more well-known kind. In 2007-08, High Point was forced to drop its exhibition game by the NCAA because it had already scheduled four non-Division I opponents in the regular season. As High Point had at that time a stellar home record and a small gym, almost no Division I team wanted to play HPU at the Millis Center. So High Point had to schedule a certain number of home games, and the non-Division I teams were easy to schedule.
With my grad school classes ending as well as my internship, I had free time this weekend and looked to see what games were available to go to. Yet the only game on the schedule in South Carolina was between Virginia-Wise and Wofford. My time at HPU made me sick of seeing Division I schools play non-Division I teams. So I was unsure of whether to go to this game, or instead go to an American-style football playoff game at Georgia Southern. But I decided that the basketball game would be cheaper and American-style football is definitely not Our Game. So I took some pictures at a local JUCO game, and then headed to Spartanburg for a Saturday night basketball game at Wofford.
The University of Virginia's College at Wise is a very small school for a state-supported institution with only 2,000 students. UVA Wise is located in a remote area at the far western end of the state, just east of Kentucky and halfway between the West Virginia and Tennessee state lines. They are a NAIA school that often finishes with a losing record. This season they have lost games to Bluefield College, Miami-Middletown, and by 21 points to NAIA power Georgetown College of Kentucky. Yet UVA Wise has an ambitious schedule. The Highland Cavaliers (a name derived from being in the mountains and a satellite school of the University of Virginia) will play five guarantee games against NCAA Division I competition this season. Among these games is a New Year's Eve clash with a school above the Red Line in Conference USA member East Carolina. This would also be the second of three games in six days against mid-major South Carolina teams, as UVA Wise lost on Tuesday by 20 points at Furman and will play at Winthrop Sunday. The Highland Cavaliers have been around here before, as I saw them play three years ago at Coastal Carolina. Their football team also played a guarantee game at Wofford this year as well.
As a supporter of mid-major basketball, I hate these games more than when mid-majors play major schools they have no chance against. All the mid-major gains here is another home game, and winning does not help at all (the games do not count in the RPI) while losing would be a major stain on both your team and your conference. At least in traditional guarantee games the mid-major is making money and has nothing to lose and everything to gain in the game itself. These games just allow the mid-major to stay at home for an additional game, and generating fan support is hard. When I saw High Point play non-Division I schools, sometimes High Point would win big. In the 07-08 season, HPU won a game by 70 points against USCAA opponent Warren Wilson and by 81 points against NCCAA opponent Florida Christian. While those games would be fun as a spectator, they did not prepare High Point for the rigors of conference play. Those wins also felt cheap to claim as well when the opponent is talent-wise not even close to the Division I level. Yet in some cases players can be just as apathetic as the fans and play down to their competition leading to frustrating results. This was the case when High Point won by only 10 points against NAIA weakling Johnson & Wales, and would end up being the case tonight at Wofford as well.
Many season ticket holders tonight did not show, but fans in the bleachers would not be able to take their seats as ushers closely guarded these seats, leaving a lot of empty seats near the court. Aside from a dedicated group of about 10 students standing behind the Terriers' bench, most Wofford students seemed apathetic and were in and out of Benjamin Johnson Arena. The game seemed to serve mostly as a social event for students before finals.
The Terriers have won the last two Southern Conference Tournaments and have had respectable showings in their two losses in the NCAA Tournament recently. But the only key players from those teams remaining were Brad Loesing and Kevin Giltner. While Wofford had much more skilled players and much more size, UVA Wise did have a few good athletes who could shoot the ball, led by Travis Berry. The Highland Cavaliers would control the tempo against the struggling Terriers and keep the game close for the entire first half, and only trailed 34-31 at halftime.
With UVA Wise struggling on free throws and getting into foul trouble, I was sure Wofford would pull away quickly in the second half. But UVA Wise kept battling and led by four points midway through the second half. The few Wofford fans who cared became worried, and the Terriers would have to step up. Eventually Giltner and Loesing (who missed much of the second half with foul trouble) hit key shots and Wofford would pound the ball inside against the Highland Cavaliers, who had numerous players with 3 or 4 fouls most of the second half. Wofford would retake the lead with five minutes to play, but the Highland Cavaliers would never go away. A 3 point play by UVA Wise closed the lead to 1 with 12 seconds to play, but two Terrier free throws and a steal let Wofford narrowly escape a potential Black Line Upset and win 69-66.
It is hard to see what will come from this game. Has Wofford declined significantly with the loss of Noah Dahlman and three other starters, and can High Point beat them when I see them play in less than two weeks? Is UVA Wise a surprisingly good NAIA team, and can they pull off the Black Line Upset next time I see them (January 2 at the Citadel)? Or was this all just a fluke, and was this near "unbelievable upset" (as UVA Wise put on their athletic website) the season highlight for the NAIA school? Time will tell, but the challenge of these games is you never know what to expect. And this should serve as a lesson for mid-majors that these games can be risky. Division II Texas Wesleyan beat Florida International earlier in the day, and past Missouri Valley power Southern Illinois program fell to Division II weakling Ohio Dominican at the start of the season. Wofford just happened to be more fortunate tonight.
at WOFFORD 69, VIRGINIA WISE 66 12/10/2011
WOFFORD 6-4 (1-1) -- K. Giltner 4-12 8-9 17; D. Crowell 5-9 3-6 13; K. Cochran 4-12 0-0 8; B. Loesing 3-8 5-6 14; A. Smith 7-8 0-0 14; L. Skinner 0-6 2-2 2; J. Swinton 0-0 0-0 0; T. Wagener 0-1 1-2 1; D. Rinksalis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-56 19-25 69.
Three-point goals: - , WOFF 4-14 (K. Giltner 1-6; B. Loesing 3-6; T. Wagener 0-1; K. Cochran 0-1); Rebounds: , WOFF 33 (K. Cochran 10); Assists: , WOFF 16 (D. Crowell 5); Total Fouls -- , WOFF 19; Fouled Out: -; WOFF-B. Loesing.