Islanders keep winning under the radar
This is a story for the college basketball fans who root for the little guy.
For the fans who like Davidson rather than Duke, Creighton instead of Connecticut and Iona over Indiana, we have found a new (or another) team for you.
It's one for which the bus is the primary mode of transportation. It's one that doesn't have underclassmen counting the days until they declare for the NBA Draft. It's one that values playing hard, playing as a team and playing defense.
And even though this team has won six of its first seven games, it's the longest of long shots to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The team? Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. That's the Islanders, not the Aggies.
Through the first month of this college basketball season, Ronnie Arrow's team has done pretty much everything a low- to mid-major team really can do. Already this season, the Islanders have victories over Florida State, TCU, Old Dominion and Baylor. The only blemish this season is a loss to a 6-2 Kent State team (which also beat Florida State and which handed Creighton its first loss Tuesday night).
After Saturday's 15-point victory against Baylor, TAMU-CC found itself in very good company. According to CollegeRPI.com, the Islanders were No. 22 in the Ratings Percentage Index on Wednesday, one spot behind Gonzaga and ahead of several ranked major-conference programs, including ACC stalwarts Maryland, N.C. State and Duke. Yes, the Islanders are ahead of the Blue Devils. At least for now.
Not bad for a school that didn't even have a basketball program a decade ago.
Arrow, who led San Jacinto Junior College to three national titles in the 1980s and led South Alabama to the NCAA tournament in 1989, said there aren't really any secrets as to why the Islanders have been successful so far this season. His team simply has more experience than most of its opponents.
Eleven of TAMU-CC's 17 players are juniors or seniors. The Islanders' starting lineup features four seniors and a sophomore. It's also a very balanced team as Travis Bailey, Corey Lamkin, Thomas Bailey and Corey Stokes all average between 10 and 14 points per game. There is no star. Instead, the Islanders simply know Arrow's offense inside and out, and they execute.
"You can't buy experience," Arrow said. "And when you have experience, you have guys who bought into your program.
"We don't have three high school All-Americans. We can't just show up and think we're going to win. We've got to show up every night and be ready to bring it."
Like almost every lower level team that's off to a good start, TAMU-CC wants nothing more than to play in March with the big boys from the power conferences. That said, there are few teams in college basketball with longer odds of being included in the NCAA's field of 65.
Even the bottom-dwellers in low-major leagues have the chance to get hot in the conference tournament, win three or four games and win an automatic bid. The Islanders, though, don't have that luxury. Not as a Division-I independent. If TAMU-CC wants to play in March, an at-large berth will have to be earned. No conference equals no automatic bid.
Being an independent is a difficult life in college basketball. It sure isn't like being Notre Dame in football.
"I laugh when I hear other coaches talk about scheduling," Arrow said. "They talk about how tough it is to schedule five or six games. Try to schedule 28."
After the exempt tournament the Islanders played host to over Thanksgiving weekend, TAMU-CC will play only 10 more home games this season. Somehow, however, the Islanders got Oklahoma State to agree to come to Corpus Christi. The game against the Cowboys on Jan. 3 and the Islanders' Dec. 22 visit to Alabama are crucial to the slim chances TAMU-CC has of reaching the postseason.
"All we can do is go win games and put it on the table," Arrow said. "Like any mid-major, we're going to have to win 20 to 24 games ... and when we get the opportunity to play the big boys, we have to make hay."
But while winning big games is good for the program -- the Islanders beat Murray State and Texas A&M last season and Texas Tech in 2000-01 -- it doesn't make the scheduling any easier. It isn't surprising that the Racers, Aggies or Red Raiders aren't on the Islanders' schedule this season. The more TAMU-CC wins, the harder it will be for Arrow to get games against quality opponents. Schools from power conferences, after all, don't want to lose games to teams that are perceived by fans to be inferior.
Arrow is surprised that the Islanders still aren't in a conference. Geographically, the Sun Belt and the Southland make the most sense, but neither league has sought to expand. Will that happen in the near future? Could the Sun Belt lose teams to the Western Athletic Conference now that the WAC has been raided by Conference USA? It's certainly possible.
One positive in terms of scheduling is that there are more independents now for the Islanders to play during January and February, months when nearly every other school is playing league games. This season, TAMU-CC has home-and-homes with Savannah State, Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley State.
Next year, schools such as Northern Colorado, North Dakota State and South Dakota State could be added to the list.
Now, however, Arrow is simply trying to get his team to win as many games as possible. While he knows that his team's RPI will almost certainly begin sliding downward come mid-January because of his team's schedule, he isn't giving up hope that this team -- especially if it can continue winning close games -- has a chance to do something unexpected.
"I think anything's possible," Arrow said. "I think of Rudy, I think of Hoosiers, anything's possible. Coaching's an easy occupation. All you have to do is win and win and win some more and good things happen."
That said, Arrow is realistic enough to know what has to happen. The Islanders, after all, don't even have the same kind of talent that his San Jacinto teams did. That's when Arrow coached future NBA players like Walter Berry, Alton Lister, Ladell Eackles and Larry Spriggs.
"We have good players, but not great players," Arrow said. "We're good when we play together, when we play hard and when our seniors show up. It's a great start, now we have to keep it up."
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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