Lower-level Division I teams embrace, enjoy epic road trips
ITTA BENA, Miss. (AP) Mississippi Valley State was hanging fairly close with nationally ranked Michigan State earlier this year before Spartans' guard Miles Bridges took a pass, sprinted down the lane and threw down a vicious one-handed dunk over Jamal Watson.
After that, Michigan State cruised to a 100-53 win over the Delta Devils in one of their 14 consecutive road games to start the season. MVSU coach Andre Payne recalled how following the November game he took an upbeat approach to the drubbing.
Payne went around the locker room praising each player until he saw Watson. He couldn't help but grin.
''And guess what?'' Payne said. ''You'll get to be on SportsCenter tonight!''
The room burst into laughter. Two months of road games requires a little gallows humor, though Mississippi Valley coaches and players say the experience is often much more rewarding than demoralizing.
MVSU (0-13) and Texas Southern (4-9) are among a handful of lower-level Division I teams that lead a nomadic existence during non-conference play, traveling to play road games with guaranteed payouts.
The odds of winning are usually not good, but there are some benefits. Among them:
- Most players at these schools would rather play a Michigan State than another lower-level mid-major.
- The money is better for a school's athletic programs.
- Once conference play starts, coaches say their teams will be more than ready.
- The schedule can be a plus in recruiting.
The schedule is one reason Mississippi Valley guard Isaac Williams was intrigued with the Delta Devils' program.
''It feels like being in the NBA, honestly,'' Williams said. ''You're travelling all over and when you come out on the floor there's 20,000 fans booing you and they shut the lights off for the starting lineups.''
Making the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal for most teams, and in the Southwestern Athletic Conference - historically a one-bid league like many others - the biggest weekend is the conference tournament in March. Everything else is a tuneup.
This season, Mississippi Valley's non-conference basketball schedule consists of 13 games over eight weeks in 12 cities that range from Seattle to Lynchburg, Virginia.
None of them are at home.
They head into their Christmas break after losing to Drake 101-69 on Thursday night.
''We're 20 points down when we walk through the door, so we've got to be 20 points better just to have a chance,'' Payne said.
Texas Southern can relate. The Tigers won't play their first home this season until 2017. They open their season with 16 straight road games before making their home debut on Jan. 16.
Forward Derrick Griffin said it's sometimes an exhausting whirlwind.
The Tigers were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Saturday for a game against LSU, just a few days after a trip for games against Cincinnati and Louisville. Less than 24 hours after playing LSU, Texas Southern was back on the court against TCU in Fort Worth, Texas and a few days later played Baylor.
''It's tough on your body,'' Griffin said. ''But it makes you better.''
Veteran Texas Southern coach Mike Davis doesn't mind being the underdog. The 56-year-old has been on the other end of these David-vs-Goliath games during stints as the head coach at Indiana and UAB.
Texas Southern lost 11 of its first 12 games last season against a stacked non-conference schedule before bouncing back to win the SWAC's regular-season title and finishing with an 18-15 record.
The Tigers made the NCAA Tournament in both 2014 and 2015.
''If you're a tough guy, it can be great,'' Davis said. ''In our situation, you have to truly believe in the process. It's tough to lose, but you've got to separate yourself from the emotion of it, fix your weaknesses and get better.''
In the process, Texas Southern and MVSU boost their athletic department coffers.
Payne says that Mississippi Valley's schedule - which includes road games at Indiana, Gonzaga, West Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa State - will earn the program a total profit of about $800,000.
That's pocket change for Division I's biggest programs. But at Mississippi Valley - a small, cash-strapped school in the middle of the Mississippi Delta - it's roughly 20 percent of the athletic department's entire budget for all 13 sports.
''I'm a team player, so I understand why we do this,'' Payne said. ''And since this is the situation, we make the best of it.''
Payne said it's a constant challenge to balance the need to push his players to get better while also making sure their egos aren't so bruised that they lose confidence.
''When I took this job, I knew I was going to be the basketball coach,'' Payne said. ''What I didn't know is that I'd also be a little bit of a psychologist and preacher, too.''
''But I love the challenge. Our players do, too.''
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