- Jeff Shelman
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Wanted: Independent home games
Utah Valley athleticsRyan Toolson was a big part of Utah Valley's 22-win season.
The early part of March will be filled with talk about how any team has a chance, how any player in college basketball can dream about playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Most of that is accurate. Any team with a conference tournament could get hot, pull a couple of upsets and end up as a punching bag for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament.
But then there are the independents.
Is there a tougher lot in the college basketball world than coaching or playing for a team that doesn't have a conference affiliation?
The players are often overmatched against the competition and have almost zero chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament. (An independent hasn't reached the tournament since DePaul in 1991. Notre Dame was a regular independent invitee but the Irish joined the Big East in 1995.)
For the coaches, scheduling is a complete nightmare. They can get more games than they could ever play during November and December. Finding home games is a challenge, but finding home games in January and February -- when everybody else is in the midst of their conference seasons -- is very difficult.
While most teams across the country are preparing for conference tournaments and, arguably, the most exciting part of the season, the independents are done for the season.
There are certainly schools in low-major conferences that balance their budgets by sending their men's basketball teams across the country for guarantee games that are nearly impossible to win. But at least those teams have the opportunity to play their league peers later in the season.
For this season's independents, a group that is smaller than in the past as schools ranging from North Florida to Central Arkansas to South Dakota State found conference homes, some of the scenarios are difficult. Consider:
• Chicago State will play 18 of its first 20 games this season away from home, not exactly a recipe for success.
• Longwood will play exactly 25 percent of its home games before Thanksgiving. In a three-month span from mid-November to mid-February, the Lancers will play all of six home games.
• Texas-Pan American will play only 10 home games.
• Cal State Bakersfield, playing its first full Division I schedule, has only four home games after Jan. 7.
• Many schools have to schedule games against non-Division I opponents in order to put together any semblance of a home schedule.
Because of scheduling challenges, many of the independents play each other. Cal State Bakersfield and Texas-Pan American play a home-and-home series during the traditional conference season. Longwood and the New Jersey Institute of Technology do the same thing. Trips to Orem, Utah (Utah Valley State) and Savannah, Ga. (Savannah State) and Edinburg, Texas (Texas-Pan American) become fairly common for the independents.
The result? For many schools, it's a multitude of losses. Of the 11 teams that were independents a year ago (several of which have now found that elusive conference home), only two finished with winning records. Six teams -- Chicago State, Longwood, South Dakota State, UC Davis, NJIT and Winston-Salem State -- all failed to reach the 10-victory mark. Texas-Pan American, Savannah State, Longwood and NJIT all ranked No. 289 or worse in the Ratings Percentage Index.
The solution is simple: Try to find a conference. Because once on more equal footing, it isn't impossible for former independents to have success. The most recent example is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Previously a successful independent, the Islanders finally got into the Southland Conference. What happened last season? Ronnie Arrow's team won the Southland tournament, reached the NCAA Tournament and led Wisconsin for much of its first-round game before losing.
But until that elusive conference affiliation is found, life as an independent is as tough as it gets in college basketball.
Winning without affiliation
When schools make the transition to Division I, the head coach can often be a victim. Suddenly coaches have to take players who were recruited for one level and coach them up at another level. Combine that with guarantee games against schools from a major conference and a coach's record can get ugly in a hurry.
That's what makes the work of Utah Valley State's Dick Hunsaker so impressive. Last season, Utah Valley State went 22-7, a mark that was the best independent record since Notre Dame went 22-7 in 1986-87.
After his teams went 54-32 in three seasons of play against primarily Division I opponents, Utah Valley State gave Hunsaker (a former assistant to Rick Majerus at Utah) a five-year contract extension.
Cal State Bakersfield
The Road Runners got their first taste of life in Division I last season when they played seven games against top-level competition. Cal State Bakersfield, which is moving up from Division II, went 1-6 in those games, beating Pepperdine. Keith Brown's team -- which managed to land home games against Fresno State and Oregon State -- has four players back, led by guard Zach Grasmick (6.8 ppg).
Benjy Taylor, simply put, has one of the most difficult jobs in college basketball. Taylor, most recently an assistant at Tulane, is Chicago State's latest coach. While the Chicago area has a ton of players, the school on the South Side has never really been able to gain any sort of momentum. Taylor, however, should have a decent idea of what he's getting himself into. He was previously the coach/athletic director at Division III North Central College in suburban Naperville, Ill. He was also the associate head coach at Northern Illinois from 1995 to 2000.
The Lancers have fully completed their transition period from Division II and are one of three schools nationally to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament for the first time, joining Northern Colorado and UC Davis. Longwood has made some progress over the past two years, but is still a distance from being competitive in many games. Coach Mike Gillian lost three starters from last season's 9-22 team but landed a pair of junior college players expected to play immediately.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology, a school in Newark that focuses on science education, is going to find out quickly just how far it is from the big-time world of college basketball. NJIT, a team that won only three of its final 27 games last season, opens the season at Washington in the NIT Season Tip-Off. NJIT, however, does return three key players in wing Kraig Peters (11 ppg), forward Nemanja Milosevic (8.3 ppg, 7 rpg) and center Dan Stonkus (5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
If guards are truly what determines whether a team will win or lose games, Savannah State has a chance to be improved this season. Diminutive guard Joseph Flegler (10.1 ppg) and Patrick Hardy (5.8 ppg) both return. Now the question is whether Savannah State can build on last season's 12-18 record. Was it progress? Or was it an aberration for a program that went a combined 6-79 over the three previous seasons?
The Broncs are in position to make a step forward in coach Tom Schuberth's second season at Texas-Pan American. A season ago, UTPA went 14-15 overall and four starters return from that group, including guard Brian Burrell (15.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg). Texas-Pan American's experience and coaching continuity could be the ingredients for a winning season.
Utah Valley State
While a difficult nonconference schedule will make it difficult for Utah Valley State to replicate its 22-7 record, the Wolverines do have leading scorer Ryan Toolson back. Toolson, a 6-3 guard, averaged 15.6 points per game last season as Utah Valley State won 16 of its final 18 games. Forward Richard Troyer (7.0 ppg) also returns.
The end of the expansion
Over the past 20 years, the number of schools in Division I has grown dramatically. Institutions that previously had little thought of competing in the same arena as large schools from major conferences have made the move up.
That's going to stop, at least for a while.
Last month, the NCAA instituted a moratorium on schools moving to Division I for the next four years. The NCAA said it was going to take a timeout to examine the growth in Division I.
Since 1986, 47 schools have moved from Division II to Division I. Two others have gone from outside the NCAA and moved into Division I. Eighteen more schools are at some stage in the reclassification process.
The next in line
Seven schools declared that they were going to move into Division I shortly before the moratorium was announced. The University of New Haven (Conn.), Houston Baptist, Bryant University (R.I.), South Dakota, North Dakota, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Seattle are all in the "exploratory" year. Those schools are still eligible to compete in Division II for this season. Two years from now, those schools will have to play a schedule that is almost exclusively made up of Division I teams.
The competitive gap
How far are Division I independents from competing with the top programs in the country? Consider this: Chicago State, Longwood and Savannah State went a combined 1-16 last season against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament. Virginia beat Longwood by 41 points while Savannah State lost by 47 points at Illinois.
The lone victory came courtesy of Chicago State, which beat Wright State 86-70.
Life as an independent is tough, and it's even tougher getting an at-large berth as an independent. It hasn't happened since then-independent DePaul earned a No. 9 seed in the 1991 tournament. And it won't happen this year, predicts Joe Lunardi.
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here to go to the archive.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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