Acute Florida Gulf Coast University envy. A week into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I got it bad. (And this has nothing to do with the FGCU coach’s supermodel wife and Maxim cover gal Amanda Marcum Enfield, honest).
It’s about being a lifelong hoops purist during the best time of the season. A month ago, FGCU was barely a mid-major in something called the Atlantic Sun Conference, maybe more of a mid-Division II a decade ago. Now they're America’s hardwood cause celebré.
This is what makes the NCAA Tournament so much fun. Joe Average, the little guy, the small school, can make an impact. Jed Clampett crashes the Inaugural Ball again. Texas-El Paso, Loyola-Chicago, Jacksonville (with Artis Gilmore and Pembroke Burrows III), Indiana State (with Larry Bird), George Mason, et al., since 1939, and now Florida Gulf Coast. Can “March Madness” get much madder?
Which brings up today’s $64,000 question (somebody might as well ask):
Where’s Northern Illinois University men’s basketball and the rest of the Mid-American Conference?
Maybe the MAC is still counting its football bowl gate receipts (or bills, whatever), but the league has developed a disturbing reputation in recent men's basketball seasons, as the “one-bid MAC.” The Mid-Am has not earned two NCAA men’s basketball bids in a season since 1999 (Kent State and Miami). Ten years ago, the MAC’s league RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) was as high as No. 10 in the country (2003-04). Now it is rated No. 18 out of 32 D-I conferences. What happened?
This is not your father’s MAC. Realistically, there isn’t a Howard Komives, a Nate Thurmond, a Hal Greer, a Matt Hicks, a Paul Dawkins, a Ron Harper, an Earl Boykins, a Grant Long, an Allen Rayhorn, a Kenny Battle, a Bonzi Wells, a Dan Majerle, a Wally Szczerbiak, a Paris McCurdy, a Paul Graham, you get the idea, in the league today. The MAC has not produced an NBA draft pick in 10 years.
Kent State’s amazing run to the Elite Eight in 2002 might as well be anicent history, not to mention the Ball State, Eastern Michigan, and Miami excursions to the “Sweet 16” in the 1990s. The Atlantic 10 Conference (Butler, LaSalle, St. Louis, Temple, and Virginia Commonwealth) has left the MAC in the dust. Ditto the Mountain West Conference (five NCAA bids this season).
Among the 347 NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs in 2012-13, eight of the 12 MAC institutions rank in the nation’s lower half – Toledo (No. 194), Buffalo (No. 217), Ball State (No. 233), Eastern Michigan (No. 239), Miami (No. 258), Central Michigan (No. 266), Bowling Green State (No. 274), and Northern Illinois (No. 333). In strength of schedule, seven Mid-Am schools finished in the 200s. Against Top 50 RPI opponents, the MAC finished 3-36 (.077 winning percentage) this winter.
How good was league champion Akron (RPI No. 42) this winter? VCU, of the Colonial Athletic Association, nuked the Zips, 88-42, in the first round, then got nuked themselves, 78-53, by Michigan in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Why is RPI important? Created in 1981, RPI is one of the tools utilized by the NCAA for selecting and seeding the D-I tourney field of 68 teams. Scheduling non D-I programs doesn’t sell tickets, impress the NCAA, help your RPI, or make your team better.
Before I retired in 2006, I remember reading an official MAC directive asking for stronger schedules. As the cliché goes, most of the MAC schools didn’t get the memo. Years ago, the Missouri Valley Conference drafted a similar missive with specific RPI numbers for non-conference scheduling, and the MVC has thrived by comparison.
Dave Hackenberg, the longtime and perceptive Toledo Blade sports columnist, addressed this issue recently. “Hack” quoted “a nameless” league athletics director who said the MAC was “lousy” and that only a handful of its 12 programs were fully committed (budgets, salaries, facilities, etc.) to success in men’s basketball. Interesting comment, considering that during the past decade, nine of the league schools boast new (NIU, Ball State, Bowling Green State, and Eastern Michigan) or renovated (Buffalo, Central Michigan, Kent State, Toledo, Western Michigan) basketball arenas.
You witness the energy, the unadulterated joy, the media props manifested by this FGCU team in the NCAA and you wonder.
Yes, starting in 1966-'67, I rode that NIU team bus with the student athletes, coaches, and support staff. For almost 40 years. We laughed, celebrated, and despaired together. I understand “the culture” in the program, on campus, and in the MAC (to win by one on the road, you must really win by 11).
You know my loyalties. I just hate to see our current kids, our fans, our community hanging their heads. Seven consecutive 20-loss seasons was not the vision in the late 1960s when a certain Northern Star sports editor (me) speculated on a new state-of-the-art arena and the Top 25 in the future. It was not the vision in the late 1990s when president John La Tourette left us with a 9,000-seat, $40 million retirement gift on west campus.
Being a Huskie, I somewhat understand the sinkhole that Mark Montgomery and his staff have inherited. Back-to-back five-win seasons are not acceptable. Not even here. As fragile as the current program appears, it has had success and NCAA bids in the past by, basically, overachieving.
People in town scratch their heads. A five-year contract reportedly worth $1.5 million, small home crowds, minimal student interest, and near zero Chicago media coverage. Incongruous to say the least. It's the reverse image of NIU football and the Orange Bowl season. What happened?
Nobody expects NIU to be Duke, Indiana, or Michigan. Can Montgomery get to double-digit wins or even to .500 in 2013-14? In fairness, remember where Joe Novak was after three seasons (3-30). NIU's new president and AD have some tough decisions ahead.
Can the MAC return to NCAA hoops relevancy? The conference brass has some serious issues, too. Teams like Florida Gulf Coast just start you thinking.