This is college basketball's season of sacrifices. For the smaller Division I teams, December is the cruelest month. Again and again, year after year, they find themselves alone, far from home, overmatched, intimidated, bloodied, bowed, the foil in a horror show played before hostile fans.
Sounds fun, eh? And here's the wild part: They do it on purpose. They actually sign up for this nightmare. The choice they face is to a) get abused, or b) not get abused. They choose the punishment. They would rather have a bad time. It brings to mind the immortal words of philosopher Shemp Howard, late brother of Curly and Moe. "I hate fun," he once said.
Actually, that's unfair. The small schools aren't really masochists. They wouldn't set themselves up for a bashing without a reason. They need the money that comes with playing a top team in front of a large crowd. "It helps recruiting and helps toughen your team," said Towson State coach Terry Truax, "but I have to be honest. We call them 'revenue games.' "
Towson, Loyola, UMBC, Morgan State, Coppin State -- they're always in some frantic, faraway burg this time of year, taking on chest-pounders from Oklahoma or Syracuse or North Carolina State. It's an improbable, perfect fit. The little teams need the money. The big teams need the record-padding wins and the easy games to work out bugs before conference play begins.
Occasionally, it isn't a terrifying experience. Some games wind up close. Coppin actually pulled off a couple of upsets last year on the way to an NCAA tournament berth. But this year, Coppin has lost at Tulsa, New Mexico State and Texas-El Paso. For every upset there is a 112-68. That was the final score when Loyola played Texas in Austin last weekend.
"We've played 39 revenue games in the eight years I've been here, and won one," Truax said. "We beat Jacksonville at Jacksonville. It isn't an easy thing. You kind of know what your role is. You know where you fit. It's almost like you feel like apologizing if you find yourself ahead in the second half."
Last year, Towson played at Syracuse, North Carolina, Washington, New Mexico and Pepperdine. This year, they're playing at Dayton, Maryland and Virginia. In prior years, they've played Clemson, Florida, North Carolina State, West Virginia and SMU, among others. They have seen the world from the short end of the scoreboard.
"Some of your kids really want these games," Truax said, "but you have to be careful not to have too many. We lost by 50 a few years ago and the team had done its best. They got discouraged. You prepare your team not to get blown out. By the same token, I've never prepared them with the attitude of 'let's just go out and have a good time.' We've played some close games. You never know."
But you do know most of the time. "I guess Syracuse was the toughest place we've played," Truax said. "Our flight in got canceled. We lost by 30. Playing New Mexico in Albuquerque was real tough, too. They call it The Pit. It was a Saturday night and there were 17,000 fans really into it. We were ahead at halftime. Lost by 20.
"The Smith Center [at North Carolina] was beautiful and all, but it wasn't that tough a place to play. The crowd is more like a theater crowd. Maybe they felt they didn't have to get up for Towson State. We probably catch that attitude at a number of places. It makes it a little easier on you."
They need all the help they can get. Towson played nine home games and 18 on the road last season. This season's schedule isn't much better. It is a problem all the small schools face. And the problem isn't just that they're too busy out on the road making money.
The problem is the top teams never play on the road in December except for a televised game, and the small schools won't go where there isn't a crowd (and thus no money). Given a choice between losing at North Carolina or winning at Towson, most will take the beating. And the cash.
"It's getting hard for schools like us to even schedule December home games," Truax said. "Navy has talked a little about not playing us anymore. If we don't play schools like that here, I don't know who we'll play. We almost have no choice."
Some teams really get trapped into a life on the road. Morgan State, for instance, doesn't play a home game this season until Jan. 11. The Golden Bears will play 12 games in nine states before their own fans get to watch them play.
"We're probably on the road more than any team in the country," said assistant coach Lynn Ramage. "But we're hanging in there. We played Georgia Tech tough. Down four with 10 minutes to go. The kids get encouragement from that."
Such moral victories are the most these teams can reasonably expect from such games. It is just a fact of December life at the bottom of Division I. The attitude of the big schools is merciless. ,, "If I could, I'd play eight games I know we'd win by 80," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
Truax laughed. "I dropped a Division II team to play Maryland a few years ago," he said. "The only Division II team on my schedule. A sure win. My athletic director said that was fine. I told him I'd do it, but I wanted credit. I wanted the official listing of my career record changed from 30 wins and 70 losses to 30 wins and a million dollars of revenue."