Arkansas-Pine Bluff's eternal road trip, Charleston's stunner and more
Pine Bluff's starting the season with 14 straight road games to raise money
Northern Iowa (12-1) headlines a resurgent Missouri Valley Conference
Could the Ivy League actually receive two NCAA tournament bids?
The Golden Lions of Arkansas-Pine Bluff have been eating postgame meals on buses after every game this season. On Monday night, the food tasted a lot better, according to coach George Ivory.
An upgrade in restaurant selection, perhaps? Nope. The road-weary Lions were finally celebrating a win.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff defeated Mississippi Valley State 69-68 in overtime, improving to 1-11 in their 12th straight road game to open the season. The Lions still have two more road games before finally opening their home schedule on Jan. 16 against Southern.
"We've been on the road a long time," Ivory said. "To get that victory made the guys feel good."
Arkansas-Pine Bluff, like many in the SWAC, play several "guarantee" games against larger conference opponents to make money for their athletic departments. The Lions took this approach to the extreme this year, scheduling 11 nonconference games as "guarantee" games, meaning they earned a check for their trouble. The upside of the arrangement is money. At about $70,000 a game, Arkansas-Pine Bluff can pocket money the entire athletic department uses. The downside is the strength of schedule and reality that even the SWAC favorites, as the Lions are, can enter league play at 0-11.
"(The players) understand what we are doing and why we do it, but at the same time, you have to go out and play regardless," Ivory said.
Eight of the 11 nonconference games were against Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten or ACC opponents, a murderous stretch even the best teams in the country wouldn't survive. The Lions lost each game by between 10 and 20 points -- no embarrassing routs, but no close calls either.
" (The money) is for the entire athletic program," athletic director Skip Perkins Jr. said. "Coach has a lot of weight on his shoulders, and he's doing a good job. He doesn't want to be a sacrificial lamb. People can see from our scores we're not getting blown out."
By coincidence, the Lions' first three SWAC games are also on the road, making it a 14-game road trip to start the year.
"You go into a store around town and people say, 'Can't wait to see you play,' " Ivory said. "We can't wait to get home, either."
College of Charleston and Western Kentucky pulled off big nonconference wins on Monday night, with Bobby Cremins' club shocking North Carolina 82-79 in overtime and the Hilltoppers besting Mississippi State 55-52. The true shocker of the night? Both games were hosted by the lower-profile schools.
More major-conference teams are venturing to mid-major venues with the NCAA selection committee (and RPI formula) placing added emphasis on road victories. This results in some truly exciting games that would likely be mismatches on the home court of the bigger program. Earlier this season, Wisconsin-Green Bay handed Wisconsin one of its two losses on the year in Green Bay. Think the Badgers lose that game in Madison?
Anyone who witnessed Charleston's thrilling comeback win and the subsequent court-storming by the delirious crowd at Carolina First Arena experienced a little bit of that Cinderella magic the NCAA tournament has become known for. ("I will remember this moment forever," Cremins said.) Hopefully we'll see more of these moments in the coming years.
Return of the Valley
The Missouri Valley was one of the most reliable mid-major conferences in the country for the better part of the last decade. The league placed a minimum of two teams in the NCAA tournament for nine straight years, and in 2006, four teams reached the tournament and Missouri State stayed home despite a 22-9 record and No. 21 RPI.
The last two years, however, the Valley slipped back to the rest of the mid-major pack and became a one-bid league. There is a decent chance that mini-slide will come to an end this March.
Northern Iowa leads six Valley teams currently ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, which will give league members several chances for quality wins during league play. The Panthers -- who return all five starters from last season's NCAA tournament team -- are 12-1 and have won 11 straight since a puzzling neutral-court loss to DePaul in November. Along the way, Northern Iowa has beaten Boston College, Iowa State, Iowa and Siena, plus it won its first three Valley games.
Missouri State has the next best resume, checking in at 12-2 with four true road wins. Wichita State has a win over Texas Tech and Indiana State won at Western Kentucky, a team that should make the NCAA field.
While not quite up to its lofty 2005-06 standard, the Valley is improved from last season and should be able to put itself in position for multiple bids after what promises to be an entertaining regular-season race.
Multiple NCAA bids in the ... Ivy?
Cornell and Harvard have both navigated road-intensive schedules in the early goings and have respectable RPIs as Ivy League play approaches.
Cornell, which returned all five starters from last year's Ivy League championship team, was expected to have a strong squad this season, and the Big Red have not disappointed. Cornell is 11-2 heading into a date with No. 1 Kansas and is 3-0 vs. the Atlantic 10 (UMass, St. Joe's, La Salle), 1-0 vs. the SEC (Alabama) and 1-2 vs. the Big East (beating St. John's, losing to Syracuse and Seton Hall). Ryan Wittman, son of ex-Atlanta Hawk Randy Wittman, is averaging 18.9 points per game and the Big Red are shooting a ridiculous 43.2 percent from three-point range, which is second in the nation.
Harvard came into the season more under the radar, but thanks to senior Jeremy Lin (18.3 ppg) the Crimson are 11-3 while playing eight true road games. Harvard is 6-0 at home, including a double-overtime win against early surprise William & Mary. The Crimson also beat Boston College and George Washington while losing to Georgetown, UConn and Army -- the last of which is the only true blemish on the resume to date.
The Ivy League has never earned an at-large bid, and as SI.com's Andy Glockner stated earlier this week, it would take perfect marks for both teams from here on out (save for Cornell's game at KU) and a split in their two head-to-head matchups to get on the NCAA bubble. But both teams are sitting in the top 40 of the RPI right now, which is a strange happening for the Ivy.
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