A big college football Saturday is going on as I write. But I’m a basketball junkie at heart and I follow the college sport year-round, so it’s always fun this time of year to see the schools release their schedules.
And in the last couple of years I’ve become intrigued by the pre-season “exhibition” games that Division I teams have started playing against NCAA Division II opponents. These match-ups started happening after the NCAA began to discourage exhibitions against touring amateur teams like “Athletes in Action” or international squads.
(I remember when I was a University Florida student, the Gators had one of those games against the national team of Ecuador, whose best player was a 5-foot-4 guard who wore glasses. I think UF won by about 70 points.)
Playing the Division II teams probably is a more meaningful exercise for a big-time program than playing a group of barnstorming former college players. And for the small school, it’s a great chance to show what you’ve got and play in a big-time atmosphere. The Wingate women’s basketball team will get such an opportunity when they go to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a pre-season game against Duke on Nov. 5 in Durham.
“It’s definitely a bigger stage than we usually find ourselves on,” Bulldogs coach Barbara Nelson said. “We know where we belong, but when you have an opportunity to test yourself against a team that’s in the Top 25 in a higher division, it’s exciting.”
Nelson explained that these games are generally several years in the making and usually are helped along by personal connections. Nelson, a successful high school coach at Providence Day School in Charlotte before coming to Wingate, has had several former players commit to and/or play for the Blue Devils over the years.
“You almost always have to have that personal connection to someone,” said Nelson, who had originally arranged a November 2010 game at Cameron with Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. But Wingate moved up on the list when another school backed out of this fall’s game, Nelson said.
As another example of this, little Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. – with an enrollment of about 1,100 students — will send its men’s basketball team to take on mighty Pittsburgh of the Big East. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon played for Texas Christian in the mid-1980s, when Coker coach Dan Schmotzer was an assistant on the late Coach Jim Killingsworth’s staff at TCU.
Two other Conference Carolinas teams will have similar daunting assignments in November. It will be fun to see how Belmont Abbey, coming off its most successful season in a while, fares against the North Carolina Tar Heels. And I’ll also be interested to see what Coach K and the Duke men’s team do with Pfeiffer’s mass-substitution, helter-skelter game. (Pfeiffer took on the Tar Heels a few years ago, taking the expected beating. But the 140-104 final score sounds like it was a good evening’s entertainment anyway.)
I’m aware of only one occasion where the Division II team has pulled off the huge upset, when Grand Valley State knocked off pre-season No. 8 Michigan State in double overtime in November 2007. But the visitors had reached the Division II Elite Eight the previous season, and had played the Spartans a tough regular season matchup before losing in the final two minutes.
Which is the dilemma for the Division II school – you can’t be so good that you’re actually a threat. “We’ve tried to get one of these games for our men’s team for the last couple of years,” an athletic official at one Division II school told me recently. “But we’ve had some good seasons lately, so it’s been tough to schedule.”