SportsProf

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Monday, January 17, 2005

So Why Play 'Em, Then?

Peter Newmann, ESPN's college hoops researcher, wrote a nice piece on one-side games and their results. He highlights some real lowlights in terms of games, and I'm still not convinced why a Stanford, rated #1 at the time, played #310 New Hampshire any more than I'm thrilled that Syracuse schedules Cornell every year in its annual fattening up on the Twinkies of college basketball before playing teams that could come close to beating it.

Now, I am not in favor of creating a Division I-AA for college basketball, and I think that part of the great attraction to major college hoops is that on a given day a Bucknell can travel to Pitt and upset a top-10 ranked home team. That type of result doesn't happen that often, and, my guess is that Pitt won't let it happen again in the near future. At least not against Bucknell.

Which makes it very hard for the good low- and mid-major teams to get meaningful games against the top competition. Sure, Syracuse would prefer to schedule Patriot League doormat Colgate and Ivy also-ran Cornell every year rather than, say, Patriot League favorite Bucknell and perennial Ivy power Princeton. Why? Because they're looking for tuneup games and wins, and not for a game that will give them a bloody nose on national TV.

And even if the top programs will schedule the best of the mid-majors, they'll seldom do so on the road. For example, when he first got to Duke, Coach K played Princeton at Princeton, and the game was a disaster for the Blue Devils. They went to Jadwin Gym woefully unprepared (you'll recall that in that season, Coach K's big recruits were players of the year in Canada, Utah and Nebraska, none of which have ever been known as hoops hotbeds). Vince Taylor was the Duke star, and he got picked clean a few times by quick Princeton guards and ended up in foul trouble. The Tigers used their back door offense all night, and won by 22. (Princeton ended up a disappointing 13-13 that year, so it wasn't a memorable Tiger team by any stretch).

Never again.

Huh? Well, the Duke men probably won't play at Princeton so long as Coach K is the coach. They'll play in Durham, but the only place Coach K will play in NJ is at the Meadowlands, and usually come NCAA Tournament time. Which leaves open the dare to Coach K? Hey, Coach K, Dean Smith played Princeton at Princeton in the famous '97-'98 season, in which the Tigers lost only 2 games (by about 7 to UNC in a great game in a packed Jadwin Gym) and then to Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament. So, why don't you do what Dean did and take your team to central NJ in the winter time? It's not as though you're Napoleon and you're traveling to Russia for a land war. It's Princeton, for Pete's sake.

No one denies that the top programs deserve a Twinkie or two, especially if they play in the Pre-Season NIT or the Great Alaska Shootout or have some good games against non-conference opponents who are at their level because the TV money is too good to pass up. You'll need a break or two. And that's fine, so long as you limit your cupcake intake. So, if you're UNC, you'll play Kansas, Illinois, UCLA and a few others, but then why don't you play a good Mid-American Conference team, a good A-10 team, than, say, the college hoops equivalents of the three guys sitting on the couch during the first-night of rush week at the Omega fraternity in the movie Animal House?

Why not?

Probably because they think that there's nothing to gain by doing so. Because, they and their supporters will argue, they have grueling conference schedules and some huge TV games, so why not give the team a few games that they know they can win almost by just showing up than games where they'll have to fight their hearts out because for a Ball State, a Montana, a St. Mary's, a Princeton, well, this could be the equivalent of their NCAA final game, because those opponents will never get there. Truth be told, those games could take a lot out of a Cadillace team.

The challenge, then, to the Top 40 schools, is to play a well-balanced non-conference schedule. Play your traditional rivals, your important non-conference TV games, and then give a chance to well-deserving mid-majors who have earned it. Every now and then, even, take a chance and travel to Philadelphia's heralded Palestra, Princeton's Jadwin Gym, the home venues at St. Mary's, Bucknell, Vermont, College of Charleston, Miami U., and pay your respects.

Because good, whole basketball foods are much better for you than cupcakes.

Who can argue that playing a top-drawer mid-major won't pay dividends down the road, especially in their building? The reasons are pretty clear: your team will get a taste of what it's like to play against a well-coached, reasonably talented team that will play its hearts out to win and won't care that you're Duke or Carolina, and, more importantly, you'll get to play in the face of a hostile crowd. As we all know, even at the newly configured regional venues in the NCAA Tournament, it's not unlikely that the hometown crowd will root for the underdog Coppin State team that is giving Texas a battle in the second round. If you're a Texas or OK State, that December road game at Princeton or Penn or Vermont will be an experience that your kids can draw on come Tournament time.

We all love cupcakes, and, yes, at times, well, you just need one. You're having a bad day, you need a break, you want to share an experience with your kids, well, there's nothing better than a Twinkie or a Tastykake. Or, at least not much.

But as you grow older you realize that if you have a diet of too many cupcakes, well, they're just flat-out bad for your health.

And your RPI as well.

Got your attention now?

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