Game #9-016: Saint Andrews at Winthrop EaglesNovember 10, 2012 4:00 pm
Some of our favorite mid-major teams do very well. Some struggle. In Our Game, there are a wide variety of teams in their fortunes both as a school and as an athletic program. There are schools like some of the better teams in the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley that live just as well as some above the Red Line. And there are those not doing much better than a lot below the Black Line. Regardless of how we feel about the status of our favorite mid-major team, all of our teams can be thankful for one thing: we are not St. Andrews.
St. Andrews Presbyterian College has always been a struggling school below the Black Line. The school originated as a merger between two small private junior colleges in southeastern North Carolina in 1958, creating a new four-year school in Laurinburg, North Carolina just a few miles north of the state line with South Carolina. Resources have always been a major issue for the fledgling school of less than a 1,000 students. One of my dad's friends from graduate school started his teaching career at SAPC before getting a new job at a smaller college in Vermont that he found to be more stable. The Knights' basketball team and the rest of the athletic programs usually finished near the bottom of Conference Carolinas in Division II.
But things got worse five years ago as the school's finance problems caught up with them. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accrediting body, voted to strip SAPC of accreditation due to "failure to meet accreditation standards dealing with financial resources, stability, and control." The future of the college was in immediate jeopardy, as students would not be able to receive financial aid or be able to seek a meaningful degree if this crisis was not resolved. The school tried to tread water through a number of appeals and lawsuits, which were all ultimately rejected. The final option to keep the school alive was taken a year ago when St. Andrews agreed to be merged with Webber International University, a business school in Florida whose athletic teams compete at the NAIA level. The new St. Andrews University would become the liberal arts college outreach of Webber International, and accreditation through SACS would be provided by Webber. This was a satisfactory outcome for the students of St. Andrews and would keep the school running.
But it would not be a satisfactory outcome for the NCAA, which viewed the merger as making St. Andrews a new school as a part of an existing NAIA institution. The NCAA would decide to strip the former SAPC of its NCAA membership. While the new SAU looked for the next step, they spent last school year as a traveling partner in Conference Carolinas. After the season was over, SAU joined the NAIA and the Appalachian Athletics Conference, schools mostly well to the west of St. Andrews' southeastern North Carolina campus. In the local newspaper
, St. Andrews AD Glenn Batten felt that moving to the NAIA would be an improvement and made some dismissive comments about the NCAA. Batten felt that the NAIA would allow St. Andrews to become more focused academically, and went as far as to say "Looking at the teams fielded by the NCAA, you might as well call them what they are: pro teams."
Much of what Batten was referring to is stuff that happens above the Red Line. It seems kind of odd to group schools below the Black Line in Division II with that group. Had the NCAA not rescinded the Knights' membership, they probably would have been happy to continue as a non-Division I member.
But now the Knights would be starting anew as a NAIA member, with a mostly new roster of players recruited to play NAIA basketball. Yet if St. Andrews was concerned about staying away from "pro teams" in Division II, St. Andrews would be playing three guarantee games against Division I schools: my own High Point Panthers, East Carolina (above the Red Line in C-USA), and tonight's game at Winthrop. As a NAIA school, St. Andrews would get to play two games while the NCAA teams were in exhibitions. Their first game was a 43 point loss at home to NAIA power Pikeville College of Kentucky. When looking at their schedule, I noticed that the Knights would play at Morris College only four days before they would play Winthrop. Morris, where my dad teaches, is only three miles from where I live. Morris is also a struggling school at times (although not as much financially as SAU) and gets hardly any coverage in its local newspaper which prefers to cover high school sports. But I was excited to get the opportunity to see an opponent of High Point and two other Division I teams play so close to me.
In the first half of the doubleheader at Morris, the St. Andrews women were able to pull away for a 19 point win. This was a major milestone for the Knight women, who did not win a game in their final two seasons in Division II. Before the men's game started, a local high school assistant coach who worked at the junior college I volunteered at last season sat down behind me. He looked at the Knights during warmups, and based on his first observations declared, "This is going to be an easy game. Morris wins by 20". I found this hard to believe, considering how little Morris spends on athletics and their local recognition, that they could beat any college team in a blowout. And despite their struggles, St. Andrews had been in Division II recently. They did have an athletic program that they cared about; surely they could be competitive at the very least with one of the weaker NAIA teams historically?
But the coach behind me was right. The homestanding Morris team was able to have its way most of the night against the Knights. Morris had bigger and faster athletes than the declining former Division II program, and during the first half simply overpowered St. Andrews. With Morris pulling out to a 24 point halftime lead, I mentioned to the coach behind me that ST. Andrews would be in four days playing Winthrop. "Oh no", he said, "they better just call that game off". Despite sloppy ball control in the second half and poor free throw shooting, Morris would still come away with a convincing 110-83 win over St. Andrews.
Winthrop might not be considered a "pro team" by the standards of most sports fans. But the Eagles have a 6100-seat arena, 9 NCAA Tournament appearances with one Round of 32 appearance in 2007. Even before their accreditation crisis, St. Andrews would have been in way over their heads playing Winthrop. But today would be the debut of new Eagle coach Pat Kelsey, who replaces Randy Peele who was fired after two conference titles in five seasons. And Winthrop fans were unusually eager for a game against a non-Division I opponent. When I got to the arena, there were lots of alumni tailgating parties strewn across the massive parking lot around Winthrop Coliseum. Winthrop appears to be one of the few non-football schools I have seen to make a big deal out of Homecoming, and had an attendance of 2600 for today's game, well above last season's average. Many schools in football try to pick an easy Homecoming opponent to boost attendance for the year and to make the alumni happy. Here in basketball, it seems that Winthrop could not have picked an easier Homecoming opponent.
I came in hoping that the visiting Knights could pull off a surprising result. I even wore a shirt that read "Knights" on it (which actually refers to a minor league baseball team that plays eight miles north of the Winthrop campus). But I also had expectations of a massive blowout, possibly along the lines of the 50+ margins of victory High Point has had when playing NCCAA teams. St. Andrews had lost by 27 to Morris, and Morris would be way over their heads playing at the Winthrop Coliseum. The Knights did however have their chances early on in this one. After a quick three to start the game for Winthrop, SAU guard D.J. Carnegie was fouled shooting a three. But rather than tying the game in the first minute, Carnegie missed all three free throws and would be heckled by the Winthrop fans all game because of that. Better free throw shooting might have kept St. Andrews in the game early against a Winthrop team that was getting off to a poor-shooting start in its opener.
But the Eagles were able to gradually pull away throughout the first half as expected. Winthrop never dominated any stretch of the game against St. Andrews, but consistently showed that they were the better team. Winthrop lacked big men that could eat up the SAU defense like what Morris did in spurts, but Eagle fans were shown promise for the season through the play of sophomore Derrick Henry who had a big night with 26 points. Gideon Gamble also made a few nice drives to the basket and Winthrop never left the game in question, leading by 25 at halftime before winning 80-48.
After last Tuesday's game at Morris, St. Andrews showed some improvement and some nice play out of Demetrius Monroe who had 17 points. When we watch these games against non-Division I teams, we should not look at these schools as faceless non-D1's, but rather schools and teams with stories behind them like those in the "My School" segment that was run on here a few years ago. Even by our standards, schools like St. Andrews do not live glorious lives. But there is always hope for the future like with any institution. Hopefully Batten is right and St. Andrews can grow as an academic institution in the NAIA. Once the school gets back on track, maybe they can move up again and be competitive against all of those "pro teams" while still providing a quality education. That is what everybody hopes for, whether we are above the Red Line, below the Black Line, or are mid-majors like us.