Gigantic arena with all the bells and whistles. Big time coach that once led a team to the final four. Your own ESPN commercial featuring your own mascot. The mystique of that mascot. A big metropolitan city all to yourself.
Every mid-major's wet dream. Think of the recruiting advantages. Sure, the state school a couple of hours down the road gets a lot of pub because they play in a big-time conference. Sure, you're not on TV, except for Cable Local Access. But you're on the radio with popular local professional broadcasters. You've got great facilities. You're all-in - as much as you can be for a mid-major team that has barely madea dent in the NCAA tournament since it expanded to 64 teams.
Every game report I've done so far has been for the team that plays in my home town, Valparaiso - a school that would die for the setup described above. I decided to take a slight detour from reporting on myteam to take in a game in the big city whose metropolitan area I currently live in, so I drove from my home in Creve Coeur, Missouri to Chaifetz Arena to watch the St. Louis University Billikens take on the Duquesne Dukes in a regular season A-10 match-up. I picked this game in part because Duquesne visited Valpo earlier in the year. I thought I would recognize some of the Dukes players and see how they did against a different team. They had played in the Valparaiso Sub-Regional of one of those tournaments-that's-really-not-a-tournament, and played us on the final day after a knock-down drag out slugfest against Akron, while the home team got to feast on a D-II school.
I couldn't shake the feeling that Duquesne was the only mid-major playing in this game. Sitting in a brand new glittery huge arena with 4 video scoreboards, complete with a local weather personality giving the weather report, a full concourse outside the seating area with all the cheerleaders greeting fans as they came through the turnstiles, tons of concession stands (almost, but not quite on par with Busch Stadium), an excellent sound system and light show for starting lineups - it is hard to understand St. Louis University as a school below the red line. The student section even acted big-time (to me, anyway) - they held up signs saying "Who Cares?" and "So What?" during introductions of the visitors' starting five. Maybe I just don't get out enough (this is the first game I've ever attended at this arena, and I've not been to any like it anywhere else).
In fact, I was more than tempted to go off on the contradiction of a mid-major trying to act like it is big-time with all the trappings, but the truth is, I haven't really gotten around enough to settle on that conclusion. Besides, none of that stuff really matters. The only thing that truly counts is what goes on when the ball is tossed in the air by the referee. Five on five for 40 plus minutes. That's where it either pays off or it falls flat. The banners in this place all point to successes that happened prior to the building of this arena: NIT championships in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, Conference USA and Missouri Valley conference championships in more recent times, an NCAA tournament win in 1998 (remember Larry "One-and-Done" Hughes?). They played in the Savvis Center/ScotTrade Center, and before that they played elsewhere. Like a lot of big-time thinking schools, they used to play off campus in a multipurpose arena that was also the home of the St. Louis Blues. I remember a hard-core Marquette fan sitting right behind me the last time the Golden Eagles played Valpo at the Athletics Recreation Center on the Valpo campus remarking at the end of a nail-biter to one of his friends, "You hate to play these teams that practice on the same court they play on" as if not doing so was some kind of badge of honor. But Chaifetz Arena is on the campus of St. Louis University, and though it may get rented out from time to time, it basically belongs to the Billikens.
The point is, you have to look past all the trappings, the bells, and the whistles, and pay attention to what happens on the court when the ball goes in the air. You don't earn NCAA invites by building a big arena and state of the art practice facilities. You have to win, and SLU still plays in a mid-major conference, albeit one that often gets multiple bids. The upside of playing in a multi-bid conference is you don't absolutely have to win the conference tournament to get in. The downside of playing in a conference dominated by Xavier and Dayton and maybe a couple of others is that you're not the Big East, who seems to get just about everybody in.
The place was mostly empty when I got there, 40 minutes before tip, but it was probably two-thirds full by the time the game started. The visitors looked like they were still getting unpacked during the first few minutes, content to pass the ball around the perimeter a couple of times, then launch a three point attempt. The home team was a lot more energetic, and it had the feel of a typical big school guarantee game where the home team was just too powerful. But then, as sometimes happens, the Dukes started to wake up a bit, though they didn't make a run until they threw a full-court trapping press that fell into a half-court trapping press at the home team. A nine point lead actually turned into a one point deficit before the home team made the necessary adjustments to go into the halftime with an 11 point lead.
The second half saw the Billikens extend the lead to 17 points by the first media timeout. I figured the game was over. The lead expanded to 20 points before the Dukes made an 8-0 run that had me thinking "rewrite." But it did not last long as the Billikens reasserted themselves. The final score was lopsided: 68-41. All the feel of a big-time school against the little engine that could, where the big-time school takes a few possessions off for whatever reason and lets the little school back into the game before they rise up and push them back down.
I don't know a lot about St. Louis University men's basketball, so I can't adequately assess their program. I do know how it feels, as a fan of a mid-major, to covet all the big-time advantages. Valpo fans were super-excited to hear about the brand new video scoreboard added to our venue this year. It was tempting to think that this would help bring in more big-time recruits. As we grouse about the uneven playing field in Division I College Basketball, we secretly envy what the big schools have and dream of ways to acquire those advantages so we can better compete. It is easy to think that new scoreboards, bigger arenas, luxury boxes, new and bigger practice facilities are all that it takes to succeed. Pretty soon we find ourselves thinking of corners that can be cut and less than savory ways to raise the money needed to do these magic upgrades. Envy is intoxicating.
But these things are means to an end, they do not guarantee success. And one only needs to look to a tiny campus in the heart of a state capital with two Big Ten teams close enough to overwhelm them in popularity to realize that the only thing that truly matters is the hard work that takes place on the court of play where wins are stacked up, all the truly important challenges are finally met head-on, and there is no law, natural or otherwise that bans you from the National Championship game in consecutive years. In March, the only thing that matters in the Gateway City is punching a ticket to the Big Dance and then making the most of it. And that includes surviving a conference tourney and working harder than most to impress a fickle committee. St. Louis is 14-4 (3-2) with an RPI of 52 as I type this, with a decent non-conference schedule. Their worst loss was to 113 Loyola Marymount. And Duquesne is 95 in the RPI, so they're no slouches either. Every conference has the occasional blowout between normally evenly matched foes. Maybe the Dukes just had an off-night. It's early in the conference season, and this may yet be the year that the Billikens make an impression in March on the Big Stage. I truly hope they make it. They look like a team that can make a run if they can play consistently over the long haul. It surely would help justify the extravagant-looking arena they built for themselves.
at SAINT LOUIS 68, DUQUESNE 41 01/21/2012
DUQUESNE 12-8 (3-3) -- T. McConnell 3-9 0-0 7; E. Evans 4-9 2-2 12; M. Talley 1-6 0-0 2; S. Johnson 0-4 1-2 1; B. Monteiro 3-9 0-1 6; J. Jones 0-6 0-0 0; K. Pantophlet 2-4 0-0 5; D. Martin 0-1 0-0 0; M. Datt 4-6 0-0 8; D. Herrera 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-55 3-5 41. SAINT LOUIS 15-4 (3-2) -- D. Evans 5-12 3-4 13; M. McCall 4-9 1-2 11; K. Mitchell 4-8 0-0 10; B. Conklin 3-6 5-6 11; J. Jett 1-2 3-5 5; K. Cassity 4-6 0-0 10; C. Remekun 0-0 0-0 0; R. Loe 2-3 0-2 4; C. Ellis 1-5 1-2 4; J. Barnett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-51 13-21 68.
Three-point goals: DUQ 4-15 (E. Evans 2-4; B. Monteiro 0-1; S. Johnson 0-2; J. Jones 0-3; T. McConnell 1-2; M. Talley 0-1; K. Pantophlet 1-2), SLU 7-18 (K. Mitchell 2-4; K. Cassity 2-3; C. Ellis 1-4; D. Evans 0-1; R. Loe 0-1; M. McCall 2-5); Rebounds: DUQ 26 (M. Datt 7), SLU 35 (D. Evans 10); Assists: DUQ 7 (E. Evans 2), SLU 14 (B. Conklin 4); Total Fouls -- DUQ 20, SLU 11; Fouled Out: DUQ-None; SLU-None.