USI’s men’s basketball team opens its season on Saturday at home at 1 p.m. against Davis & Elkins, a school from West Virginia that plays in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (the league Kentucky Wesleyan fled to a couple of years ago). The G-MAC, as it’s called, has yet to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. But its teams are still in the Midwest Region, which means one thing for USI: this is a must-win game.
Of course, all games are must-win games. But often fans (and sometimes players and even coaches) don’t worry as much about these non-conference contests. Many are supposed to be gimmes — easy victories. Besides, it’s the conference schedule that counts, the thinking goes. And it does, but only up to a point. Lose a non-conference game and, if you find yourself on the NCAA Division II tournament bubble come March, your season may just burst into nothingness.
This could have happened to USI last season. Even with all-American center Aaron Nelson piling up all those double-doubles in points and rebounds and even with two victories over rival Bellarmine, home and away, the Eagles’ NCAA tourney hopes were never a given (not that it ended up mattering anyway as USI lost in the first round again, but that’s a story for another post). But they got in with the help of wins they earned over the likes of Lake Erie.
Remember Lake Erie? Second game of the season. At the PAC. USI was coming off a 70-61 season-opening win at archrival Kentucky Wesleyan. But the Eagles blew a 15-point lead in the second half against a Lake Erie squad that ended up finishing 10-18. In fact, USI trailed by two points with one second left in the game when senior point guard Lawrence Thomas hit a 3-point basket to win it.
USI coach Rodney Watson still says something to the effect of, “If we’d lost that game instead of winning it, we would have needed divine intervention to get into the NCAA tournament.”
Think about that during the Eagles’ first eight games — all non-conference opponents — of the 2014-15 season. If USI goes 8-0, it will make the postseason a much more likely possibility.