February 7, 2008 9:25 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
CLEVELAND -- There are a lot of subtle differences between higher-strata conferences and the leagues at our level. For instance, when a team in the ACC or Pac 10 is having a bad year, the media is still going to write about it, no matter what. The stories usually come with the angle of, "what's going on at Kentucky?" or "how come Florida State is such a disappointment all the time?" When you're playing in a certain price range, failure is interesting enough to generate national column inches.
That isn't the case down here. If a team is having a bad year, they're out of sight and out of mind. To wit: we have a non-televised BracketBuster coming up at Old Dominion, with Bucknell providing the opposition. The visiting Bison have represented the Patriot League as automatic qualifiers two out of the last three years, and ODU has gone to the NCAA twice since 2005 as well. The Monarchs were so good last year, they got in as an at-large team. But in 2008, both are struggling in the shadows, twin examples of how hard it is to maintain success -- and the public interest -- when you don't have SEC-type resources. George Washington, which has been to the NCAA's three years running, isn't even near the national radar right now because of its 5-13 record. There are no five-minute "what's wrong with the Colonials?" pieces on College GameNight. Why is that?
(While we're on the subject of Bucknell, our best wishes to Pat Flannery and Co. Get well soon, coach.)
The conferences down here are different not only from a publicity standpoint, but because of what the selection committee demands a non-BCS league table should look like. Conferences are given higher seeds depending on the shape of their standings... if a league has a clear frontrunner, a Davidson or a Butler, the league champion is rewarded with a lower seed number. If there are six or seven solid teams, as is the case in the MAC or Atlantic 10 this year, the conference stands to be punished for its parity. But that's what a limited-entry market like the NCAA Tournament requires: separation.
And that's why a night like last night, with top teams in those league getting knocked off and creating multi-loss logjams in the standings, is bittersweet. Sweet because it's great to see leagues full of strong, tough teams that are capable of winning on any given night, but a bit sour because it limits the number of NCAA bids. A perfect conference in the eyes of unattached fans (like us) is one where every team finishes .500 after two months of close, thrilling games. But this is a bid-driven world, one that requires stratification for widespread respect. It's just the way things go.
The MAC East. We'll say it again: the Mid-American Conference got a huge late Christmas present, early birthday present, whatever... with three primo BracketBuster games against opponents with fantastic profiles, this league will have every chance it needs to shake off its one-bid yoke.
All three of those teams just so happen to be from the East division, the Ohio side. Kent (Saint Mary's), Akron (VCU) and Ohio (George Mason). Along with Miami (Valparaiso), there'll be four East teams represented on the ESPN family of networks come Feb. 23. The Western teams will play in the non-televised portion of the slate.
So last night, the Michigan MAC displayed its displeasure. In our game, West first-place Western Michigan buried East first-place Akron 86-66 in a blizzard of jumpers as the snow came down thick outside University Arena. Junior forward Derek Drews shot his way out of a monthlong slump with a 14 performance that took advantage of what I like to call "theoretical man-to-man defense." Each Akron defender was marking a man, but there was a foot or two worth of separation, allowing wide-passing lanes and wide-open looks. Three of Drews' four 3-pointers happened in a short first-half stretch, and were all from the exact same spot on the floor, just left of the arc-top.
And over in Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan (8-13, 4-5) was wire-to-wiring Ohio 63-56. No Bobcat scored in double-figures, and the team shot 35 percent. Kent State was the only one of the TV Three that survived last night, but the Golden Flashes needed overtime to overcome the in-division, Indiana-based Ball State Cardinals, coming from behind to win 64-61.
This conference does find new and interesting ways to eat itself. I thought this postgame mantra from Akron head coach Keith Dambrot once again said it all, and is the most eloquent and succinct primer for the extremely symmetrical MAC that anybody could ever come up with.
"I can't tell the difference between the East and West," Dambrot said. "Everybody in this league recruits the same guys... and there's not much difference between teams in this league. Whomever is playing at home is winning. If you have juniors and seniors, teams win, and if you have freshman and sophomores, teams lose."
The Atlantic 10+4. Who knows... maybe it was a letdown from the big Holy War win, but second-place Saint Joe's allowed Duquesne to shoot 60 percent last night, falling by 14 in one of those pro scores that are generated in just 40 minutes (Pittsburgh Pisces 102, Philadelphia 76ers 88?). Shawn James, who you might remember from his paint-patrolling days at Northeastern, had the first triple-double in school history: 17 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks. That's the big-boy kind.
Formerly high-flying Dayton won its second game in six tries, knocking off Charlotte at home, 69-64. And you just might have noticed that Richmond, a team that came out of nonconference play 7-6, is winning a lot of games recently. Three of its last four, in fact, to move to 5-3. After a six-point win over Temple last night (Chris Gonsalvez scored nearly a third of Richmond's 64 points with 20), Chris Mooney's Princetonian party crashers are in fourth place. Seriously, what's going on in Virginia these days? VCU and William & Mary (9-3 after a home win over Hofstra) are in the upper reaches of the CAA, and now the Spiders making a move in the A-14. It's Commonwealth crazy!
So now, a total of nine teams in the A-14 are .500 or better. Eight are in the RPI top 100, but this isn't quite the ACC or SEC yet, you're not going to see teams from this league going to the Dance on their own merits with 8-8 league records. For a bushelful of bids, there needs to be increasing amounts of stratification, but the new level-protecting league scheduling policy might work to conspire against such a thing happening. We have the gigantic Xavier-Saint Joe's tilt on Sunday, and the next five games will be the "for real" litmus test for Rhode Island. The Rams have three tough games on the road, followed by X and UMass at home. We may have three solid frontrunners 10 days from now in Xavier, URI and Saint Joe's... but the way things are going, don't count on it.
Shooting! Last night was kinda freaky around college hoops, with four teams shooting 60 percent or better. Two of those performances came at our level -- along with aforementioned Duquesne and its 60.4 percent mark, soon-to-be-mentioned Vermont shot 61.4 percent. Three other teams shot at least 55 percent, too. Witness Sam Houston State's return to form on the road with a 59.3 percent night in a Southland win at Texas-San Antonio, and La Salle's 58.3 versus George Washington.
But there was a flipside too, because of Defense! Ten teams around Division I shot a third or worse, including Toledo at Miami (31.9) in a 29-point loss and Holy Cross' 31.5 versus American in front of a disinterested home crowd. But then there was Evansville, which shot 30 percent flat... and won by eight! That shooting percentage doesn't count the 26 free throws the Aces hit in their MVC home win over Wichita State.
Also on your wild Wednesday...
How 'Bout™ Vermont? We expected an America East barnburner for last evening's G!O!T!N!, but not for the nets to catch fire. Forwards Marqus Blakely and Tim McCrory both double-doubled, and the Catamounts shot 61 percent on the road to defeat homestanding Binghamton 83-78 at the Mid-Majority Events Center. Vermont now sits alone in second at 7-3, with a rematch against two-time champs Albany coming up next Monday.
And How 'Bout Stephen F. Austin? The RPI's Southland favorite (57), the 18-3 Lumberjacks have won six of seven, including last night's 71-62 win at Fun Island, also known as Corpus Christi. They're getting it done Butler-style, with ball control and defense... they're still languishing in our performance-based index because of their lack of free-throw shooting, rebounding and general inside presence, but for now they're winning, and that's all that really matters.
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