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Road to the Summit: Contemplating a season of college basketball

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Tonight, my wife and I are getting ready to hit the road, bright and early tomorrow morning, to Shreveport, Louisiana. That's where Centenary College is, the opponent the night after tomorrow of my alma mater's men's basketball team--the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits.

It will be the first of ten weekends of travel from our home in suburban Kansas City. Travel to Shreveport and Tulsa, Oklahoma, Brookings, SD, Macomb, Illinois and Indianapolis, Brookings again, Fargo, ND, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and suburban Detroit, Brookings, Cedar City, Utah, Brookings, and then Brookings one last time to finish the season.

That's a lot of travel. I'll have to add up the mileage some time. Good thing my wife both loves to travel and likes basketball.

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Good thing too that the SDSU men's basketball team has showed signs of life this year. So far, they've won three games in six tries, which is half of their total wins last year, when they went 6-24. Any way you cut it, 6-24 is a bad, bad basketball team. But that's one thing about college basketball--each year is different. New players come in, returning players take their game up a notch, and a doormat can become a competitive team.

That's the hope, anyway. My wife asked me why we were going to all of the Summit League conference games of SDSU's men rather than SDSU's women, who won 25 games last year and lost in the Women's National Invitation Tournament to eventual WNIT champion Wyoming. My only answer was that the men's team needed the support more than the women did. Even so, we'll be able to catch half of the Summit League games of the SDSU women this year, due to the scheduling in the Summit League. The men play on Thursdays and Saturdays, and the women play on Saturdays and Mondays. The Saturday games feature the same colleges in the same cities for the men and the women. It's not quite as nice (from a traveling fan point of view) as the identical schedules for men and women that SDSU had as a member of the Division II North Central Conference. But I understand why women's basketball needs its own identity, and has its own fan base. (My wife and I have worked as volunteers for the last three NCAA Women's Final Fours, so we definitely put in our time in support of the women's game. My wife has actually volunteered for eleven straight Women's Final Fours, but who's counting, really?)

South Dakota State University is in the last year of a four-year purgatory called "reclassification" from NCAA's Division II to Division I, the highest level of athletic competition in the NCAA. In Division II, SDSU was one of the perennial powers in basketball, making the playoffs more often than not, and winning more than our share of North Central Conference championships in the process. SDSU would be near or at the top of Division II attendance figures as well. Life as a Jackrabbit basketball fan was good. We were a big fish in a small pond.

We quickly discovered that Division I was a much bigger pond, and we were a much smaller fish in that pond. The men struggled through three long seasons of injury, player retention problems, and scandal that have, I think, been documented elsewhere. We watched as our partner in reclassification, North Dakota State, improbably developed the kind of scrappy, competitive men's basketball team in Division I that we in the Jackrabbit Nation expected that we would be.

Some of us may have, perhaps, learned a bit of humility in the process.

I intend to post my experiences as I venture into a new territory--a new major college basketball conference called the Summit League (nee the Mid-Continent Conference). I've watched a lot of basketball in my day, but I'm definitely not an expert on the X's and O's. I watch college basketball to be carried away with the emotion of the game--the highs of an off-balance 3-point shot or last second tip that goes in at the buzzer--and the lows, like some of the truly dreadful drubbings my Jackrabbits have withstood in the past couple of years. Like every year, I hope that this year that there will be more highs than lows.

And, next year will be the first year SDSU will be eligible to make the "Big Dance," the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, the Summit League tournament is in Sioux Falls, SD, just 50 miles down the road from the SDSU campus. This year is all about laying the foundation for a run to the Dance, next year. But, first things first: Centenary College of Louisiana, followed by Oral Roberts University.

It's a good time to be a Jackrabbit.