Welcome to Oregon Basketball and The Season of New, a weekly Pac-12 microsite column from Rockne Roll (@raroll). His column will focus on the various issues facing college basketball through the prism of the Oregon Ducks, a program ostensibly on the rise with top-notch facilities and coaching but still subject to many of the same problems suffered by many of the other high-major programs around the country.
College basketball is frequently a topsy-turvy world. Indeed, one of the great draws of the NCAA Tournament is its unpredictability. Just ask fans of Lehigh or Norfolk State, who saw their teams upset two-seeds in the first round last year, or supporters of Syracuse, a team that needed a late rally to avoid being the first #1 to be picked off by a #16 in the 64-team era. But at the outset of each year, before the “season” has even technically begun, there’s more of an order to things. For these exhibition games, teams from Divisions II and III and the NAIA hit the road to play in gyms that can hold their entire student body five times over. These schools receive a healthy payday in exchange for the chance to start their seasons getting trounced by a high-major Division I squad. There are big benefits to these games for their big-time hosts. Besides selling tickets (and concessions and merchandise and et cetera) a team can try out new lineups, new plays, and new people, in a fairly risk free environment. The beauty of the exhibition game is that it doesn’t count win or lose; if everything goes wrong, the only thing lost is pride.
Or is it? For the past few years, at least one Division I team has dropped an exhibition match. Some take it in stride like the 2010-11 Xavier Musketeers, who bounced back from an exhibition loss to nearly run the table in the A-10 and take a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Others, like Tennessee the same year, go on to finish .500 in conference play and sneak into the Big Dance only to suffer a 30-point loss in the first round. It happens more than you might think. Over the past 15 years of regular season play (not counting exhibitions), Division I teams have dropped 232 games to non-Division I opponents.
Coming into last Friday night, the Miami Hurricanes were predicted to have one of their best seasons ever. There was little to no concern about their sole exhibition match against Division II Saint Leo University. That is, except from ‘Canes head coach Jim Larranaga. “You play like you practice, and if we play like this tomorrow night, you guys are going to be very disappointed in the results,” he said to his team after one practice. The Lions were kind enough to demonstrate the point for him. After jumping out to an early lead, Saint Leo held on through a Miami comeback, and eventually earned a 69-67 win.