#rushthetrip Day Six: Division I Basketball, Off the Beaten PathPosted by Bennet Hayes on February 12th, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
Last Thursday night, I was able to see the second best team in the country play – on their famed, raucous home floor, no less. Monday night I had a date with the second worst team in all the land, and we met up in the fourth smallest gymnasium in Division-1. This Southern Utah-Sacramento State matchup did stand out from all others on my itinerary (and probably not in the most flattering of ways), but games like this one cut to the core of why this trip exists. On their own, small-conference programs rarely find the spotlight (although Sacramento State can tell you that when they do, it’s kind of fun…), but college basketball would not be the same without them. The Tournament wouldn’t be the Tournament without 1991 Richmond, 2001 Hampton, or 2013 Florida Gulf Coast; consider college hoops without its flagship event, and the sport would certainly need some redefining.
My focus typically lies with the home team when I’m visiting a new venue, but the host Hornets had to share my attention with their visitors from Southern Utah last night. Yes, Rush the Court is fast becoming the Thunderbird Times, but don’t pretend that you could avert your eyes from a train-wreck in progress, either. Nick Robinson’s team entered Monday night with a Ken Pom ranking of 350 (out of 351), still seeking their first D-I victory of the season. When #351 Grambling snapped a 45-game D-I losing streak midway through the action in Sacramento, Southern Utah was suddenly facing a must-win if they sought to avoid the true basement of the rankings.
The Thunderbirds’ fate was all but sealed during a disastrous first-half, a development met with a predictable amount of displeasure by Robinson. The former Stanford star’s aggressive side-line pacing was only interrupted by his choleric barks, while on the court, a disheartened Thunderbird team looked utterly lost en route to a 16 point halftime deficit. I had assumed the 34-year old Robinson would be the cool, young coach that players easily connected with, but initial impressions made him look more like Bobby Knight than Shaka Smart. Robinson didn’t get any less old-school in the second half — even yelling reminders to his players that “this is Division 1 basketball!” — but an improved effort from his team left me with a reformed belief in the effectiveness of his fiery approach — even in defeat. Unusually unsuccessful teams are frequently awarded praise for “never quitting” almost by default, but Robinson’s bunch really did play a full forty minutes on this night. They won the second half (by four), and despite breaking a streak of five consecutive single-digit losses, sent notice that a win may be coming soon.
The Hornet’s Nest was a fun change of pace. Anyone who caught a glimpse of that Dylan Garrity game-winner against Weber State could tell you that the Nest is mostly just a glorified high school gymnasium, but considering the opponent, Sac State fans did a pretty good job of filling the place. Capacity is listed at 1,200 but is probably somewhere closer to 900 (as rumor may have it); 663 came out for this game, and by and large, did a pretty good job of making noise in the small, bandbox gym. With the win, Sac State improved to 8-2 at home overall (5-1 in the Big Sky) – proof that home court advantage can exist in even the smallest of venues.
Aside from a brief radio interview with the Southern Utah radio broadcaster, there was little in the way of postgame media responsibilities for Robinson. No lengthy press conference necessary here, and within twenty minutes of the final buzzer the Thunderbirds had boarded their bus, doors closed, seemingly ready to depart. I walked by the parked bus en route to my car and couldn’t help but notice the vehicle’s Utah plates, a subtle reminder that we were a long ways from college basketball’s big-time. Slightly more evident, though, was an incensed Robinson standing in the lighted aisle of the bus. His verbal assault (with a few violent hand-gestures thrown in for good measure) lasted not just seconds but minutes, and while the source of his displeasure won’t ever be known by anyone who wasn’t on that bus, it seems obvious that inspired losing efforts aren’t satisfactory for the ultra-competitive Robinson. I’m not sure I would have understood the vitriol after an initial inventory of the Thunderbird talent, but standing there in that parking lot, I found myself actually appreciating Robinson’s fire. After all, as he himself had noted earlier in the evening, “this is Division 1 basketball.”
Next stop: Boise (Tuesday).