Tuesday, January 27, 2009

No Big Dance for Vanderbilt and Evansville—Why Do I Care So Much?

With each passing week the likelihood of either of the universities I attended being represented in the NCAA Tournament grows smaller. At this point the only hope that Vanderbilt or Evansville has for a tourney bid is to win its conference tournament. I suppose that the Missouri Valley Conference is up for grabs, and with a healthy A.J. Ogilvy an SEC tournament run isn't out of the question for Vandy. Still, I'm not optimistic about either of my schools getting its conference's automatic bid.

I confess that I'm legitimately upset by my teams' waning postseason prospects, so upset that I no longer enjoy watching college basketball. When the season began, I saw a lot of promise in both teams: Vanderbilt's freshman class would be possibly its best ever; Evansville showed considerable improvement during MVC play last season and would be led by a trio of talented seniors. Thanksgiving weekend, Vanderbilt won a tournament in Mexico, picking up victories against mid-major powers Drake and Virginia Commonwealth; at the time, the Commodores' only loss was to Illinois. On December 13 Evansville celebrated a 72–40 win over a Western Kentucky team that had upset #4 Louisville; that win gave the Aces a 7–1 record, the only blemish being a road loss to a talented Butler squad. Even though few experts had tapped Vandy and Evansville as potential NCAA Tournament teams, I felt early in the season that both teams had put themselves in position to be in the at-large-bid conversation come March. Then Vandy was upset by Illinois-Chicago and handily beaten by a mediocre Georgia Tech team before beginning the SEC season 1–4. Evansville dropped two close games to opponents with losing records and already has lost two home games in conference play. As of this writing both teams are 12–7.

I feel as though both of my teams have let me down, which is silly a) because no one directly involved with either team has any idea who I am and b) because I can only imagine that everyone involved with both teams is much more frustrated by their 12–7 record than I am.

And what if either Vanderbilt or Evansville hadn't faltered and ultimately earned that NCAA bid? Vandy has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice since I graduated from its Divinity School; thus anything less than a Commodores run to the Elite Eight will leave me underwhelmed.

Evansville, by contrast, is the type of school that hangs a large banner to commemorate a postseason bid, regardless of the team's performance in the tournament to which it was invited. For the Aces, earning a spot in the Big Dance is a big deal. They last got an NCAA Tournament invite in 1999, my senior year at the school. That semester I spent more hours evaluating the Aces' hopes of earning an at-large bid than I did working on my senior project. I pored over RPI rankings, examined the tourney profiles of several other at-large candidates, and wrote angry e-mails to ESPN.com experts who weren't impressed with the Aces' résumé. I drove back and forth between Roberts Stadium and the University Crescent office so that I could participate in an interview my band was doing for the school paper and watch Evansville's final regular season game against Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State). The Aces won in overtime, clinching the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title. I don't remember much about the profile of the National Biscuit Company that ran in the next week's Crescent. I drove to St. Louis to watch Evansville lose a close game to Creighton in the championship game of the MVC tournament, thus failing to earn an automatic NCAA bid. I was a nervous wreck on Selection Sunday, frightened by the possibility that Evansville might not get an at-large nod. But the Aces got the bid, and I drove to New Orleans to watch Evansville play Kansas in the first round. Though I have several great memories of watching the '99 Aces, and though I enjoyed the road trip to New Orleans, sitting in the upper deck of the Louisiana Superdome dressed in purple and orange watching Kansas beat Evansville by 30 was not a pleasant experience: "We went through all this for the right to play one game in which we weren't even competitive?"

I say that, but I'd love another chance to drive twelve hours to watch the Aces lose a first-round NCAA Tournament game (though I no longer have the time nor the disposable income to make such a trek).

I've written several hundred words and am no closer to making a point than I was before I decided it would be a good idea to write a blog post about my alma maters' basketball teams failing to live up to my unrealistic expectations. So I'll stop now.

But before I go, I should say that the chances of Vanderbilt and Evansville getting some sort of postseason invite after they are bounced from their respective conference tournaments seems very likely, provided they can keep their overall record above .500. Collegeinsider.com today announced that it would be sponsoring a fourth postseason college basketball tournament. Now teams that aren't quite good enough for the NCAA, NIT, or CBI tournaments have something to look forward to in March. 129 teams will now get postseason bids of some sort. To put this in perspective, I would say that the Collegeinsider.com tourney is the basketball equivalent of a college football team being sent to Shreveport for a late December game against a 6–6 Conference USA squad.


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