The game drew 2,500 fans to the Towson Center and merited many more. The winners shot 60 percent. The losers needed only 90 seconds to make an 11-point deficit disappear late in the second half. Each of the four starting guards scored at least 20 points. The game ended at 85-84, with seven players sprawled on the court diving for a loose ball. Get me a T-O, baby.
That the winner was Loyola and the loser was Towson State will surprise many Basketball Joneses. Towson made the NCAA tournament last year, had won eight straight, is unbeaten in its conference. Loyola has a losing record, is sitting seventh in its conference, had not beaten Towson since 1985. That, by any reckoning, should constitute a favorite and underdog.
The disparate credentials were misleading, though. This was no upset. Towson was quicker, Loyola tougher: The teams were even. Yes, 4-and-22-a-year-ago Loyola was even with Towson, which will probably win 20 and make the NCAAs again this year. And the night ended with Towson coach Terry Truax sounding envious of Loyola's lot. How could this be? Stand by for a lesson in the politics of college basketball.
This is a story about conferences. Towson plays in the East Coast Conference, or ECC. Loyola plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or MAAC. The initials may be confusing, so let's make it simple. Towson's conference is among the weakest in Division I. Loyola's is tough. Most people in Baltimore don't know that. In one recent rating of conference strength, Loyola's was listed 14th out of 33.
While Towson has been beating up on such low-rungers as Rider, Drexel and Central Connecticut, Loyola has played La Salle, Siena, Iona and St. Peter's. These are teams that play in the postseason, teams with tough home gyms, big forwards and fast guards. It isn't the brightest lights, but it is bright. Most people in Baltimore don't know that. Loyola took a big step up when it got into the MAAC last year.
"The only difference between our league and the really good ones," Loyola coach Tom Schneider said last night, "is big men. Our guards and forwards are as good as anyone's. We can sell our league to recruits. We can tell kids we're going to play against high school All-Americans and first-round draft picks."
Truax can't say that. He can tell recruits that he has built a class program that graduates players, that he sent a player to the NBA this year, that he has built up his operation to the point where the talent is matriculating in layers. That the opposition isn't so hot doesn't mean the house is made of cards. Towson almost beat Oklahoma last year, Syracuse this year. The Tigers rate. But they are outgrowing their conference.
The ECC is, to put it bluntly, hemhorraging teams. It is down to seven this year, five next year. The league is shrinking so rapidly that it may lose its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament after this season. (You need six teams.) Eight of the nine players who saw minutes for Towson last night will be back next year to form what should be a terrific team, but they may have no place to go.
"This is something we're obviously very concerned about," Truax said. "It's taken us a long time to get to where we are. I worry. We have a fine school here, but if we don't have that NCAA bid, what's the attraction?"
Towson has tried, without luck, to leave the ECC for a more stable conference. That Loyola was able to hustle into the MAAC left Truax sounding more than a little rueful last night.
"They have aligned themselves well," he said. "It was a judicious move. As for us, I don't know what our backup move is. I'm very disappointed that our league hasn't gone out and sought after more schools. We put a lot of faith in our commissioner to get that done, and it didn't happen."
Down the hall, meanwhile, Schneider was all but singing and dancing about the future at Loyola.
"We have a great schedule," he said. "We have Princeton coming in to play us here next year. We have Xavier coming in to play us here next year. That's three NCAA teams we're bringing in. And I like what's happening with our team. Playing the teams we play in our conference is turning us into a lot tougher team."
His team was tough enough last night to come back from 12 down in the first half, to withstand a potentially shattering Towson rally in the last five minutes, to make the winning basket with 12 seconds left -- guard Tracy Bergan did the honors from the baseline -- even though Towson's defense had denied the set play.
What it meant, in the end, was that the seventh-place team in one conference was equal to -- actually one point better than -- the best team in another conference, proving again that college basketball is among the most subjective games of all, susceptible to the many false images raised by, among other factors, regionalism and scheduling. And the conference in which you play.