These were my overriding thoughts after witnessing Friday night's encounter between the Duke Blue Devils and the Western Michigan Broncos, a team of no-hopers from Kalamazoo.
The Broncos kept it close for the first few minutes, mainly through aggressive, hard-hitting defense. At 14:13 mark in the first half, the score stood at 9-6 Duke. Six minutes later, the score was 35-12. Western Michigan's Demetrius Ward raised a symbolic white flag at at the 9:29 mark when he heaved (and bricked) a desperation 3-pointer about two seconds into a Broncos possession.
Western Michigan went into the locker room with a 28-point deficit. In the second half, they managed stay closer to a less intense, freely substituting Duke side to score 70 points to Duke's 110.
As an aesthetic spectacle, the best that can be said is that I enjoyed watching the valiant efforts of the Broncos, who are a mediocre team from the Mid-American Conference (MAC), a 12-school alliance of Rust Belt public universities. A particular crowd (and Twitter) favorite was Matt Stainbrook, a doughy 6-9 sophomore center. With his prescription rec-specs, blond curls and non-athletic physique, he looked like a collegiate slacker with a stack of old pizza boxes in the sink. For some reason, I was put in mind of soft-featured Midwestern indie rock hero Billy Corgan, although Twitter wags came closer to the mark by noting that he looked like Seth Rogen or a character from Superbad. Stainbrook missed a dunk badly in the first half and the "you-can't-dunk" taunts never let up. Still, he kept posting up Miles Plumlee and finished with a team-high 18 points on nine-of-19 shooting.
(One of the key attractions of the NCAA's annual March Madness is discovering such bohemian characters from off-the-radar schools. I'd enjoy seeing him again in March, but it's hard to see this team making the field.)
(One other note on the Broncos: Among their assistant coaches is one Larry Farmer. The name rang a bell to this former child sports nut. A check on the Internet revealed that yes, he played for John Wooden at UCLA in the 1970s on the Bill Walton teams that went 89-1 over three seasons, and then he took over the Bruins' coaching reins for three seasons from 1981-84, finishing with a 61-23 record. His subsequent head coaching career went south, however, with unsuccessful stints at Weber State and Loyola University Chicago.)
So, back to Friday's game, and the questions I have about the utility of blowouts: The outcome of this game was never in doubt—to borrow the formulation of Eric Martin, who covered the Duke—UNC-Greensboro game for Triangle Offense and posed similar questions, the game was decided in Duke's favor when it was scheduled.
To recap the Devils' December schedule following their 85-63 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State on Nov. 29:
Dec. 7: 87-64 over Colorado State, in Durham
Dec. 10: 86-80 over Washington, in Madison Square Garden, nationally televised on CBS
Dec. 19: 90-63 over UNC-G, in Durham
Dec. 30: 110-70 over Western Michigan, in Durham
And this afternoon, they'll meet the Quakers of University of Pennsylvania, a traditional Ivy League power—for all the good that will do them. (Your regular beat reporter, Adam Sobsey, will return for this one.)
But Duke's weak December schedule at least included Washington, which was a lucrative nationally televised event. UNC's holiday schedule is far more egregious: This month they're fattening up on Evansville, Long Beach State, Appalachian State, Nicholls, Texas (!), Elon and Monmouth (today).
Average victory margin (in advance of the sure victory over Monmouth): 29.5.
And N.C. State, too, has raced out to an early 10-4 record thanks to the likes of Elon, St. Bonaventure and Campbell, although the losses are against the "name" schools on the schedule, which bodes poorly for the Pack's ACC prospects.
Such résumé-padding is pretty pointless to watch. It's very much akin to the way up-and-coming boxers inflate their reputations by beating up on tomato cans, so they can earn a lucrative title shot with an amazing 30-0 record. But this is college basketball: What purpose is served by these soft schedules? Here are a few we can think of:
1. December is exam time, so it's best for games to be as low-stakes as possible. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski endorsed this line of thinking after Friday night's game, when he brought up the probable expansion of the ACC season to 18 games. Expressing the hope that the ACC doesn't schedule conference games during this late-month period, Coach K argued that the stress of exams and the holidays shouldn't be compounded by meaningful contests.
2. These games are an opportunity for the overdogs to look closely at their personnel and work on certain tactical aspects of their game. Coach K can use an easy game to give extra minutes to the likes of Michael Gbinije or Josh Hairston, and to work on pushing the ball more aggressively, or a new trapping system, without fear of losing. (Also, two minutes for Todd Zafirovksi, who attempted one shot at the end!)
4. Like boxing, where a whole cadre of stiffs earn their living by getting knocked out by up-and-comers (and suffer grievous brain, nose and ear damage in the process), the visiting NCAA basketball underdogs often get paid to come to town to get their butts kicked. These so-called "guarantee games" can net the visiting non-entity between $50,000 and $100,000.
(This practice is particularly lucrative for non-powers in football, but sometimes this backfires for the hosting Goliath, as in 2007 when Appalachian State's football team accepted $400,000 to visit Ann Arbor, Mich. for what was supposed to be an early-season thrashing at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. Instead, the Mountaineers won 34-32. And they didn't refund their appearance fee.)
Meanwhile, these teams' unheralded players—the Matt Stainbrooks of the world—get to try out their stuff against future NBA stars like Harrison Barnes and Austin Rivers.
For Stainbrook, his 18-point performance in Cameron Indoor Stadium will be something to cherish, perhaps alongside his career high of 32 against South Dakota State earlier this season, in front of 1,632 people in Brookings, S.D.
5. These games keep the ESPN schedule full. A remarkable number of these lackluster games can be seen on various platforms of ESPN—ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU. On Friday night, Duke's game against Western Michigan was one of eight men's basketball games available for viewing on ESPN3, the network's webcasting service. On Wednesday, Dec. 28, there were nine games and on Thursday there were 10. On Saturday, Dec. 31, there were 17 men's games on ESPN3. In the same period, there were six women's games on ESPN3.
The ESPN influence (and checkbook) is the primary culprit, I think, in the proliferation of garbage December games. For a rather vivid contrast, look at the schedule that UNC's 1981-82 national championship team played.
If these early-season blowouts are a fact of life, is there a way to make them more competitive?
When teams are mismatched, the only real hope the underdog has is to slow down the tempo. Western Michigan tried to do it Friday night, and were successful for a few minutes—mostly by fouling when Duke was in possession. But even if you have enough players to break up the game with fouls, you still have to shoot the ball within 30 seconds, and meanwhile, the fouls will rack up against your side and send the opponent to the free throw line. Duke was in the bonus early and often, and attempted 26 free throws in the first half (WMU attempted two).
But let's look at the greatest December upset in NCAA basketball history: Chaminade University's 77-72 victory over the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia Cavaliers, who were ranked No. 1 in the country on Dec. 23, 1982.
That was a great moment in the annals of college basketball, but it was possible because there was no shot clock in the men's game then (a 45-second clock was adopted in 1985 and was reduced to 30 in 1993). The chances of such an upset happening again are very, very slim, as long as the rules favor the teams with bigger, faster, more athletic players. (You're out of luck, Matt Stainbrook.)
This afternoon, Duke finishes up its holiday break by playing Penn. Incidentally, Penn has one Final Four appearance to its credit. That was in 1979, the year of the Indiana State-Michigan State, Bird-Magic showdown. There was no shot clock in those days, and there has not been an Ivy League team, and precious few minnows of any stripe, in the Final Four since.
You can find all the data you need on the Western Michigan-Duke game here.