At just seven total points, the letters IUPUI are pretty useless on a Scrabble board.
And although a triple word score might be out of the question, the Mid-Con's mighty Jaguars just might be making an appearance on another complex grid of rectangles and lines soon: the NCAA's great big March bracket.
It's been three seasons since IUPUI made its first and only NCAA Tournament
appearance, since a Jaguars guard named Matt Crenshaw sealed a
buzzer-beating 66-64 victory in the 2003 Mid-Con championship game, a
decision that denied Valparaiso a repeat championship. Head coach Ron
Hunter responded by screaming, performing a trouser-ripping belly-flop
on the court and shouting, "Thank you, Lord!"
ESPN's all-time Championship Week highlight reel ensures that the
moment will be replayed in perpetuity, but IUPUI has been bubbling
beneath the national radar ever since its breakthrough season. A year
later, Valparaiso gained quick revenge by ruining the Jaguars'
21-victory campaign in a title-game rematch. When Oakland's run from
the No. 7 seed to the NCAAs was the conference story of the year in
2005, Hunter's squad had slipped to a 16-13 overall record.
But while Oral Roberts stole the Mid-Con show last season, it still
had to share the regular-season championship with IUPUI.
It's easy to forget that IUPUI led the conference until the final day
of the regular season, on the strength of a torrid 13 wins in its
first 14 league games. But Oral Roberts caught the Jaguars to end the
regular-season schedule in a tie, and ORU claimed the No. 1 seed on
head-to-head records. Even though the Jags' season ended in an ugly
57-53 semifinal slog against No. 6 seed Chicago State, Hunter labeled
the season an unqualified success.
"I thought last year we really overachieved," Hunter said. "We had
nothing left in the tank at the end. Getting 19 wins out of that
group, I was really excited. I'm telling you, we really got everything
out of the kids. That group was young."
Brandon Cole, the 6-foot-6 wing who averaged 15.2 points per game, ran out of eligibility. But leading scorer George Hill will be around for two more years. The 6-2 Indy native scored 18.9 points per game on blistering 51.8 percent shooting and dished 3.6 assists per contest. Hunter has said in the past that his post-tournament teams have lacked a "warrior" as a leader, but he believes Hill is growing into that role.
"There's no question he is," Hunter said. "Everything was coming from the coaching staff the last few years, while before we had an Odell Bradley [2004 Mid-Con POY] or a Matt Crenshaw running the team. I think we have a couple of those warrior-type guys on the team now, and that's why I'm so excited. We have guys who will do anything it takes to win basketball games."
One of those other battling ballers is 5-11 senior point guard David Barlow (10.1 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2-to-1 A/TO). He'll return to give IUPUI's offense its steady heartbeat.
"That's when good teams win," Hunter said. "When you've got a senior point guard that understands how to play, and you can trust him with your basketball team, that's all you really want."
Hunter may not be ripping his pants quite yet, but he's certainly not hiding his enthusiasm for this year's squad: "This, in my opinion, is the best team I've had since I've been at IUPUI."
Oh yeah, about that name. IUPUI is convenient shorthand for Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis -- it's a commuter school that offers students a choice of degree from either school. And while it combines the resources of a pair of Big Ten universities -- "We're raising by the power of two/Both Indiana and Purdue," goes the school's catchy fight song -- IUPUI was an NAIA school from 1979 through 1993 and made the move from Division II to the top flight just nine years ago.
And it is worth noting that if you tip each of the letters clockwise on your Scrabble rack, it sort of looks like a mini-bracket. See? It's destiny that IUPUI becomes a great basketball school.
"The name used to bother me," admitted Hunter, who has led the program since 1994's D-II days. "It used to be a detriment. Now, honestly, it's a good thing. Kids around the country know who we are now because of the name. We're the only school in the country that if you spell it backwards, it comes out the same way. So I enjoy all the jokes. We have fun with it."
Good signs:It's well-known that a No. 1 seed has never gone out in the NCAA men's first round, but last season's Oral Roberts squad was perhaps the most dangerous No. 16 in the tournament 's history. In the pregame analysis, ORU's slightly superior size and better-disciplined play seemed to counterbalance Memphis' speed. And the Golden Eagles did lead briefly during the late stages of the first half.
"Some people went so far as to predict we would beat Memphis," ORU head coach Scott Sutton said. "We had all the confidence in the world, we were playing great basketball. Then their backup point guard [Andre
Allen], who hadn't been a good shooter all season, hit three 3s in the space of about a minute ... that took all the momentum away from us."
Despite the 16-point pullaway loss, the Golden Eagles arguably gave the Tigers the best test they'd receive before their season-ending sludgefest against UCLA in the regional finals. But what's past is past.
The potent inside-outside combo that powered ORU will return as seniors, with valuable experience under the hot tournament lights. Caleb Green, the reigning Mid-Con POY, dominated the paint all year and
stormed the league for 20.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg. Ken Tutt, Sutton's 6-1 shooting guard, added 14.2 ppg, and his sooner-than-expected return from a foot injury in February sparked a five-game winning streak that
culminated in the school's 's first NCAA dance card since 1984.
"I just thought he kept getting better and better," Sutton said of Tutt. "Early in the season, he wasn't shooting the ball like he's capable of shooting. But when he came back [from the foot injury], he was relaxed and confident and he shot the ball very well. He had some games in the conference tournament where he was just amazing."
Oral Roberts heads into 2006-07 looking to replace substantial productivity: three starters and 47 percent of last year's scoring output. They won't, though, be lacking in able bodies. They'll swap outgoing point guard Jonathan Bluitt for Adam Liberty, who was Wichita State's starting PG two seasons ago. Shawn King, a rangy 6-10 Oklahoma juco transfer who appeared on some recruiting sites' top-50 lists, should share the glass-cleaning work with Green. The Golden Eagles' aspirations for a repeat championship depend on how they gel as a unit.
"There are definitely more question marks than last year," Sutton said. "We'll get on the practice floor and see how chemistry goes. But I think we have enough talent, enough returning guys. I would be disappointed -- I really would -- if we don't make it back to the NCAA Tournament."
Safe bet: It's safe to assume that the Mid-Con will add schools -- and soon -- not because it'd like to, but because it very well must.
For the past decade, the Mid-Con has vacillated between eight and nine universities. In April, Chicago State elected to extract itself from the conference, opting instead for D-I independent status while it looks for a league that contains more metropolitan schools. This sent the number back to eight.
But when Valparaiso announced in May that it will bolt for the Horizon League after the 2006-07 season, it forced the league into dangerous territory. Division I conferences must have at least seven members to
maintain their automatic ticket to March's Big Dance, so the perennial one-bid league will have to act in a fairly accelerated fashion to get off the bubble.
According to league sources, the three schools under serious consideration are current D-I indies: North Dakota State, South Dakota State and IUPUI's sister school IPFW (Indiana/Purdue, Fort Wayne). Commissioner Tom Douple and a review committee will spend early August making site visits to the three schools, and a league council will convene this autumn to decide if any or all merit an invitation into the conference.
And what of Southern Utah? It's lonely being the Mid-Con's far western outpost, acting as the annual road trip from hell for the midwestern teams that must fly into Las Vegas and bus 2½ hours north to Cedar
City (and then back again). But the travel nightmares cut both ways: Southern Utah, a school with no travel partner, submitted an unsuccessful application for Big Sky membership last summer.
But that wasn't the end of the paperwork. Louisiana-based Centenary applied to the Southland last year, where it would enjoy a natural rivalry with Northwestern State (an hour's drive south). Given
the tenuous membership situation, any more ex-pats might be disastrous for the Mid-Con, but for now cooler heads are prevailing.
"There's no panic at all," said Southern Utah athletic director Ken Beazer, who maintained that his school is happy acting as the theoretical left side of the conference's arch logo. "Yet, [the Mid-Con] has to look at where they stand with the automatic qualification in basketball. No panic, but something needs to be done to solidify the future of this conference, and I believe they're taking those steps right now."
It's still too early to tell how all this will play out, but the Mid-Con will look plenty different a year from now -- you can bet on that.
Red flag: Historically, Western Illinois is the saddest sack in the league. The women's team is quite accomplished (the Westerwinds finished in the RPI top 100 last year, led by 6-7 WNBA draft pick Zane
Teilane). But the men's team stands as the only Mid-Continent Conference charter member never to achieve a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Leathernecks have battled bravely but have come up short for 24 long years. Often, it's been far short.
That's not to say they haven't had their chances. After a 3-25 campaign two seasons ago, Derek Thomas' recruiting class was nationally ranked by Web sites and magazines. Despite a nice bump up to 11-17 in 2004-05, however, Western Illinois failed to continue its upward momentum. Last season's squad gave back four wins to finish at a soft 7-21, and two of their three league victories came against rebuilt-from-scratch Centenary. As an indicator of where WIU was on the totem pole, they required overtime to dispatch the NAIA's Illinois-Springfield PrairieStars in December.
Like most bad teams, they had their struggles on offense and defense, but WIU's biggest issue was their tragic inability to get "all ball." They were one of the most persistent fouling squads in the nation,
averaging 20.5 per game. And along with an embarrassing minus-6 turnover margin in the game against Illinois-Springfield, WIU committed a single-game league high 31 fouls (helping lead to a minus-6 turnover ratio) in that unintentional overtime thriller. You're not with leather, Leathernecks.
Worth watching: When Chicago State left the Mid-Con, players and fans at Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) must have been loopy with excitement. The Kangaroos have bounced around in the league's shadows for the last few seasons, and a lot of their lack of breakthrough success can be blamed on those pesky Cougars.
In February 2005, UMKC reversed an 0-for-8 nonconference start with a stirring 11 straight victories. But the season came off the rails once Chi-State came to town, as it ended the Kangaroos' streak with an
impossible falling-out-of-bounds buzzer-beating shot. Three weeks later, the Cougars completed the home-and-home sweep with another last-second prayer. Nursing broken spirits, UMKC lost three of its last four and was the first on NCAA-bound, No. 7 seed Oakland's list of victims.
In 2005-06, the emerald-and-white-clad Cougars struck again. UMKC overcame another early-season slump, earning a high tourney seed by virtue of taking four of the final five regular season contests. When the league convened in Tulsa for elimination matches, Chicago State quickly slammed the door on UMKC with a first-round No. 6 over No. 3 seed upset. In that game, UMKC had an eight-point lead with seven minutes remaining in regulation, but Chi-State's sudden switch to a full-court press quickly wore them down.
Perhaps, as with a kryptonite allergy, the disappearance of green in the Mid-Con will clear the way for UMKC to make a serious run at its first-ever title. Oral Roberts may have the best scoring duo, but UMKC
guards Quinton Day and Tim Blackwell, along with 6-6 six-rebound man Dee Ayuba, might have a triumverate to match them. Last year, the Kangaroos' power trio came together for 46 points per game, a point and a half shy of the combined output of ORU's Tutt, Green and departed senior Larry Owens.
But there aren't any hard feelings about all the upsets. New Division I independent Chicago State will come visit the Kangaroos on Jan. 4 to play a nonconference game, right before Mid-Con play begins in earnest.
Things to watch
Centenary: Expectations were low for former Arkansas assistant Rob Flaska's first year at the helm. He was stepping into a program coping with a tragedy -- the sudden death of senior forward Chad Maclies in his dorm room last May. He had to work with eight newcomers last season, many of whom weren't his recruits. The result: a 4-23 record. In 2006-07 Flaska, will introduce his first full class of six, and he hopes he has a super guy in 6-8 Xabi Zusperreguy, a juco transfer who hails from France.
IUPUI: The Jaguars say "ooee-pooee" to the idea of turnovers -- last season, they coughed the ball up on a mere 17.3 percent of their possessions. That was good for 10th nationally, and they had five players (one for each acronym letter) who featured an
assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1.
Missouri-Kansas City: Back in the 1930's, there was a campus controversy over the Kansas City University debate team's marsupial mascot -- it wasn't a suitable animal representative for a fine upstanding institution like KCU, some said. Then K.C. native Walt Disney drew a kangaroo shaking hands with Mickey Mouse for the cover of the school's humor magazine, and that was that. They've been the Kangaroos ever since.
Oakland: The Oakland A's always go on a 10-game winning streak after the All-Star break, and the Oakland basketball team always follows up a horrible regular season by riding a seven-seed to a league championship and an NCAA berth. Alright, so that only happened once,
in 2005. The Golden Grizzlies' attempt at an encore performance was cut short when they took a 6-11 Mid-Con record into the conference tourney as a seven, and were nipped by IUPUI in the first round. They'll try again in 2007 with sparkplug senior guard Calvin Wooten (19.2 ppg) and Lithuanian junior forward Vova Severovas (14.9 ppg, team-leading 6.7 rpg last season).
Oral Roberts: Even though they didn't catch IUPUI for the regular-season title until the final weekend, ORU scored more points than anyone in the Mid-Con (77.6 PF in league games) and gave up the fewest (65.9 PA). That latter number is due in large part to the efforts of conference defensive POY Owens, who also contributed 12.5 ppg of his own, and managed a 13-point, 11 rebound double-double in the Memphis game. Replacing Owens' defensive intensity will be a
Golden Eagle priority.
Southern Utah: According to AD Beazer, the Thunderbirds often leave Cedar City for road trips at 4 a.m. in the morning to catch east-bound flights, and then arrive back at campus at 3 a.m. after their return trips. Extreme travel may be a contributing factor to their six losing seasons in nine Mid-Con campaigns, but they always shoot well from distance. Perhaps inspired by the long trajectories of their flight paths, the 10-20 T'Birds (8-8 Mid-Con) were the nation's best 3-point shooting team last season, hitting 42.9 percent of their attempts.
Valparaiso: Valpo's farewell tour won't be an easy one: The Crusaders lost all three of their double-figure scorers from last season, including go-to guy Dan Oppland (19.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg). Then in mid-July, Jimmie Miles, the early favorite for starting point guard next season, was arrested and jailed for his alleged involvement as a courier in a stolen cell phone ring.
Western Illinois: The 'Necks' 6-7 do-everything Fred Oguns (13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 apg in 2005-06) was the most intriguing thing out of Nigeria since frighteningly personal e-mail spam, but he's out of eligibility. Their other double-figure scorer was David Jackson, a 6-4 guard who came into his sophomore season needing to upgrade his shooting percentage from a paltry 38 percent, but ended up shooting 37 percent on his way to 14.5 ppg. That will need to improve dramatically in his junior year if WIU wants to make a Mid-Con move.
Our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, agrees that IUPUI should make its return to the NCAA Tournament. What seed did the Jags land?
* -- NCAA Tournament
Note: Chicago State has left the conference to become an independent.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.