In the 2003-04 school year, Longwood began to transition to Division I like Nebraska-Omaha is now. Then over the next four years, the Lancers would play a full Division I schedule as they waited to become a full Division I school. It was not an easy process for Longwood, now having to travel much more than usual. And the Lancers struggled to win, going 1-30 on their first full Division I schedule with the lone win coming over Howard. A couple weeks after that win, Longwood would play at Illinois in a matchup of the teams at the top and bottom of the RPI. Longwood would lose that guarantee game 105-79. After a lot of losing and patience, Longwood would become a full Division I member in 2008-09. The Lancers could now play for the right to go the NCAA Tournament like every school dreams of doing when joining Division I.
Only one problem: there was no conference tournament Longwood could go play in. And without a conference tournament, there is likely no NCAA Tournament for Longwood. The Lancers had hoped to get an invite from the Big South upon joining Division I. But the early struggles by the Lancers were not to the liking of the Big South, which was not interested in another new Division I member who would drag down the conference's already low RPI. Also hurting Longwood was the increased interest in American-style football by the conference. Longwood did not have football, so the conference chose to bring up Presbyterian with their football program even though the Blue Hose were further from becoming a full Division I school. Longwood was stuck in the dark, with no conference wanting them. The struggles of Longwood are part of the reason why the NCAA now requires new Division I schools to have a conference invitation before joining. Nebraska-Omaha has received an invitation to the Summit, and Northern Kentucky will soon join the Atlantic Sun. While my school High Point also had a difficult time in moving to Division I over 10 years ago, it always had a Big South invitation lined up. The Lancers made the move without securing this important invite in the first place. Savannah State has also been in their shoes, going many years before the MEAC was finally willing to accept them.
So the Lancers have had to play in relative obscurity for the past several years. Nobody has recapped Longwood previously during the 800 Games Project. Longwood's best record came in their first year of postseason eligibility, going 17-14. Their last game, unlike what we are accustomed to here, was a win. The Lancers won at NJIT 77-70, and their season ended without a loss but also without a national title. But it always ends with a loss, so where was their loss? Did their "final" loss come before the season even started when they still had no conference to play in? They still had a theoretical shot as an at-large, and could have made their case if they had crushed all their opponents below the Red Line and shocked some of their guarantee game opponents. But while they had a winning record, that scenario came nowhere near close to happening. Was the "final loss" when they lost early in the season to Norfolk State, or in subsequent losses? Was the "final loss" when the selection committee most likely did not even bother to look at them? The struggle of independent schools adds a whole new meaning to "it always ends with a loss."
Another problem when you are an independent is scheduling. In November and December, everybody is happy to play you, especially when they can easily win. Even other mid-majors schedule non-guarantee games against Longwood during this time, since they are also desperate early in the season to find games. But come January and February, everybody is now in conference play. Finding a team to schedule you is not easy. This is why the Great West Conference was formed, as a way to get independents to have schools that they can play during conference season. Longwood could have chosen this route but decided against the Great West. Trips to Houston, Chicago, and Utah are not ideal when no automatic bid is on the line. You want to play local rivals for the right to go the NCAA Tournament when you join Division I. Independents cannot do this, and neither can the teams in the Great West. Longwood has to rely on other independents, mid-majors with a hole in their conference schedule, and non-Division I schools to fill their late season schedule. Finding a home game can be even more difficult. High Point in 2007 agreed to visit Longwood during conference play, and the unfocused Panthers lost one of only ten games all year to a Longwood team that only had nine wins that season. Longwood only has six home games in the 2012 portion of the 2011-12 season, three against non-Division I schools and three against other independent/Great West teams.
But a few weeks ago, the Lancers finally received the news they had been waiting for years to hear. The Big South finally accepted them, and the league will have 12 members next season. The football members of the conference, particularly fans of local rival Liberty, were unhappy with the conference finally giving in. But the conference did the right thing by accepting a long-lost Division I school. The Big South is not superior enough of a conference to simply turn down a school in their geographic footprint because they do not have football or are not competitive enough. The Lancers will finally be able to pitch to athletes that they have a realistic path to making the NCAA Tournament. And for the conference to focus on American-style football is to ignore its history and weaken the quality of basketball being played. It has been rumored at times that the football schools might try to leave for greener pastures someday, so Longwood provides the conference with a backup. And Longwood will finally get the chance to compete for conference titles, and will never miss out on a national title unless it ends in a loss (which, as we know, it always will).
But tonight the Lancers are still an independent, and have to travel to Orangeburg to face South Carolina State of the MEAC. Longwood normally would have more reason to be motivated than a team in a conference, but the Bulldogs of SCSU have also faced tough times recently. Since winning at Kennesaw State in late November, SC State has lost 16 straight games. And like many state-supported schools, the university is facing a budget crisis. The school planned on enrollment increasing when it actually dropped. While it still seems unlikely, one member of the Board of Trustees floated the idea of SC State leaving Division I. A school must always understand that it will struggle financially in Division I. You become Division I for exposure and the chance to prove yourself, and if you join to make money you will never survive, as was the case with Birmingham-Southern. With both schools struggling, tonight would be a big game, even if most fans did not realize it with both schools having an RPI in the 30s.
Longwood would get some attention from other fans in the conference. As a High Point fan, I was eager to see the Lancers play, as was the leader of Winthrop's student section. He sat behind the Lancers' bench wearing a Winthrop cap and a Big South sweatshirt. Attendance from the Bulldog faithful was down from previous games, in part because of a struggling team and the lack of an opponent familiar to most MEAC fans. The first half would be closely contested, with the Bulldogs up three at the break. While it was not the same as with games against Coppin State and Howard, SCSU still had fans singing and dancing with the band at halftime which I was finally able to capture here.
SC State was close to finally winning a game, and the Bulldogs came out on the attack and quickly pushed their lead to double digits. The emotional Bulldogs nearly got into trouble when a technical gave Brandon Riley his fourth foul of the game. But SC State persevered and held off each Lancer charge, and pulled away again late in the game. It was not Longwood's night, as it would be a big night for the Bulldogs. The fans cheered and danced around the edge of the court as time expired in a 74-58 win for South Carolina State. The Bulldog players were relieved to finally have ended the nation's third longest active losing streak in Division I.
It was another night as a struggling independent for Longwood. But those days will soon be over, and next year they will finally fight for a conference title rather than for conference membership. Independents struggle to play for anything in the midst of the politics of Division I athletics. Those who play for them have to focus on each game as its own battle, without having much to play for on a broad scale. This is a struggle similar to that of Presbyterian and other transitional Division I schools, only independents have even less of an idea when their time will come. This is a struggle within Our Game worthy of respect, for the teams are fighting when there is little to fight for.
at SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 74, LONGWOOD 58 02/06/2012
LONGWOOD 8-15 (0-0) -- T. Carey 6-13 3-4 18; M. Washington 3-8 2-2 10; A. Carter 7-15 3-4 19; D. Robinson 1-7 6-7 8; J. van der Kooij 0-0 1-2 1; A. Taylor 1-2 0-0 2; S. Shockley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-45 15-19 58. SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 5-18 (0-9) -- K. Toombs 1-9 0-0 3; O. Sanders 4-9 5-7 13; D. Joint 5-11 1-2 16; S. Barber 4-8 0-0 9; B. Riley 5-8 2-2 14; J. Ikhinmwin 2-5 0-0 4; P. Bell 2-5 0-4 4; L. Radovic 4-7 0-0 9; A. Martin 0-0 2-2 2; D. Wooten 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-62 10-17 74.
Three-point goals: LONG 7-17 (A. Carter 2-3; M. Washington 2-5; T. Carey 3-8; D. Robinson 0-1), SCST 10-24 (K. Toombs 1-4; S. Barber 1-3; J. Ikhinmwin 0-1; B. Riley 2-5; O. Sanders 0-1; D. Joint 5-9; L. Radovic 1-1); Rebounds: LONG 22 (A. Carter 12), SCST 39 (O. Sanders 11); Assists: LONG 10 (M. Washington 4), SCST 19 (K. Toombs 8); Total Fouls -- LONG 13, SCST 18; Fouled Out: LONG-None; SCST-None.