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Contrasting Big Ten and MIAC Basketball

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SMU Athletic Director Nikki Fennern joined this crippled Gustie alum in the bleachers for a few minutes as I watched the Gustie women play on Wednesday night at Saint Mary’s. Two minutes into the first half, the announcer jokingly broke into our idle chatter to report the men’s score at Gus Young Court: Saint Mary’s 36, Gustavus 31.

My immediate thought was, “Oh my god, how humiliating.” It was too raw for her taste, but I didn’t apologize. It would have been a humiliating loss for this alumnus to suffer an ugly, unexpected, and disheartening defeat. I knew she wouldn’t appreciate my honesty, but I reasoned she probably couldn’t argue with it too passionately, either. Nonetheless, she appeared to give the fight some thought before concluding it was a losing cause.

While appreciating the fact that my Gusties rallied for a 66-59 victory, think about this:

Since the 1999–2000 season, when the MIAC consisted of only four teams, Gustavus has qualified for the postseason every year. Even though they finished in a tie for fourth place, the Gusties ultimately came in fifth. SMU hasn’t had a winning record since the 1984–85 season. As far as I can tell from my research, it has never qualified for the league’s playoff tournament. The Gusties have never had a losing season in the last decade, going 210-73 (.742). Over the same period, SMU is 63-182 (.257), with no winning seasons. * The combined winning percentage of the two universities is.999. That’s a load of… That means a Gustie victory has meant an SMU defeat and vice versa over the past decade. Fascinating, right?
* Since the 1997-98 season, GAC has qualified for the national tournament six times, most recently in 2005.
* I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes combing through the MIAC and SMU websites and can’t find any information about the Cards. They probably haven’t gone dancing in the last 20 years, but I could be mistaken. If I weren’t confined to the couch for the foreseeable future, I’d contact former SMU great and current Rochester resident Doug Luebbe for confirmation. The Gustie girls felt threatened by SMU’s thirteen cheerleaders as they chanted, “Defense, become the offense.” How do you recite that ten times without cracking a smile? The three of them who forgot their pom-poms while cheering baffle me. Is cheerleading now considered a contact sport in Wisconsin? Just moving on…

So, what am I trying to say? It is common knowledge amongst MIAC basketball fans that the Gusties should triumph over the Cardinals. I’m willing to bet that if the Cards had won, SMU SID Donny Nadeau would have used an upset-themed headline. I should have known, but would the SMU AD also have a problem with that? It’s the same point I was trying to make, just in reverse.

What’s more – at last! – is that we had a conversation that made me consider the bigger picture. Where do the various teams in the league stand in terms of expectations? Given the Gusties’ rich history and SMU’s relative lack of tradition, how many people seriously believed that SMU could compete?

If you’re new here, I’ll explain the difference in expectations, talent, and style of play between the 11 MIAC schools and their Big Ten counterparts. It should help you see the Minnesota college basketball scene through the eyes of the general public. Agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts with me.

The Big 10 has more “good” teams this year than the MIAC, so some of my picks may be ambitious. Please take it in stride.

Academia MIAC – Big 10
The current standings of the league are shown in parentheses.

Michigan State (No. 2) vs. No. 1 St. Thomas (1st)
They are among the best-coached and most consistent squads in either league. Each team’s offense relies on physical rebounding and tenacious defense to get going, but neither team has been solid in half-court situations this season. They are still difficult to beat, even if their talent isn’t always on full display.

Second-Place Bethel, Michigan (7th)

These teams have been underachieving in recent years despite having abundant talent, a well-known brand name, and a distinctive style of play (namely, a dislike of defense and an obsession with the long ball). They have an impressive list of former students but haven’t reached their full potential. In Ann Arbor and Arden Hills, the rallying cry of “Wait ’til next year!” is probably starting to sound tired.

Minnesota Gophers, Augsburg Third (4th)

Seasoned guards and a rookie post now lead a team that struggled last year? It’s worked out well for both teams, but after some recent setbacks, you can tell the fans are on edge. It would be prudent to hold off booking March vacations until we have more information.

Carleton vs. Purdue, Third Place (3rd)

Both schools had promising starts derailed by home losses (to Saint John’s and Duke, respectively), but they have since bounced back well enough to remain in the playoff hunt. The Boilermakers are more evenly matched than the Knights, led by all-around senior Zach “Goose” Johnson. They are both in third place but pose the greatest danger to the leaders.

Wisconsin’s Third-Place Gustavus Adolphus (8th)

The systems have been tried and tested, but their more traditional approach may put off some players and viewers. Mark Hanson and Bo Ryan, two of the best coaches in the league, are known for getting the most out of their teams. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but both teams are testing that theory this season.

Ohio State – Saint John’s (No. 6) (6th)

Each institution is almost dependent on young people. Two sophomores and a freshman lead the Buckeyes, while SJU’s top three scorers are all sophomores. Some shaky results can be attributed to that reliance, but both programs look promising in the future. Will every coach be there to experience it? This is Jim Smith’s 45th season as a head coach, and after this year, Thad Motta may consider a “bigger” opportunity, perhaps in Arizona or Georgia.

Penn State (8th) – St. Olaf (7th) (4th)

These two pieces don’t go together at all, but I’m out of options at this point. Bobby Fong (14.8 points per game) and Alfred Jaryan (14.0) are the two freshmen leading scorers for Olaf (7.9). Two senior players have been instrumental for the Nittany Lions. The Oles have never had a winning streak longer than three games this season, which is to be expected given the team’s reliance on inexperienced players. PSU has recorded two separate 5-game winning streaks.

Eighth-ranked Concordia, Illinois (2nd)

A dominant inside presence is crucial for the Cobbers and the Fighting Illini. John Fraase, a sophomore for Concordia, is the only player in the MIAC averaging a double-double (15.5, 10.9), and Darrin Olmscheid, also a sophomore, is a reliable backup. But Illinois, thanks to equally impressive guard play, has been the Big 10’s biggest surprise up until Thursday’s game at The Barn.

Iowa (8th) vs. Hamline (8th) (10th)

The programs’ backers have been criticizing their up-and-down nature. Is one better than the other? Injuries have plagued the Pipers and have constantly shuffled their lineup, and Iowa’s top freshman, Anthony Tucker of Minnesota, has been suspended for an ugly alcohol-related incident. Can they pull themselves together for the home stretch, or will things continue to fall apart?

Notre Dame (8th) vs. Indiana (11th)

Some intriguing and talented players are on both teams, but not enough to take on top-tier opposition regularly. Fans of both groups are cautiously optimistic despite the recent hiring of new coaches, despite the teams’ shared history of high-profile problems with head cases and defections. How long do you expect the honeymoon to last?

Northwestern (12th) – Macalester (11th) (8th)

Both schools struggle to meet the rigorous academic standards, but the Scots have hit rock bottom while the Wildcats are thriving. The 2003–04 season was the best for Mac coach Curt Kietzer’s Scots team in 20 years. The likelihood of Mac not winning a game this season is high. What went wrong, if anything?

There’s no point in me spending any more time trying to force square pegs into round holes. What advice would you give me? I’m interested in hearing how others react to this and what they think should be done differently.

I’ll take another pain pill and chill out until the Gophers start while I wait for feedback. The operation was successful, but now my foot hurts terribly.

Boese, Brett

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