Friday, February 13, 2009

A Century of Tradition: Gunning for Number One

The Terriers' 28-point loss to Vermont Wednesday night had a dramatic effect on the America East standings. With just a few games remaining in conference play, all three contenders for the top seed have three losses. UVM stands a half-game clear at 10-3, with both BU and Binghamton close behind at 9-3. All three teams seek the same things: 1st place in the conference, a NIT autobid and guaranteed home-court advantage for the America East championship game.

This week A Century of Tradition isn't concerned with the benefits of finishing first -- the details of that are discussed here. Instead, let's take a look at what it takes to get to the top.

Most of the final standings from previous years bear little resemblance to the current situation, but one may offer some background on how to win a tight race at the end. In particular, I'm referencing the 1998-99 season.

The 1998-99 season was an 18-game campaign featuring three teams fighting for the top seed and a fourth team playing the role of spoiler. On the morning of February 10th, Drexel lead the pack with a 12-2 record, but 11-3 Hofstra and 10-3 Delaware were close behind. Maine, with a 10-4 record, was unlikely to contend but was a capable spoiler with a 2-3 record against the top three teams. Delaware was slated to host Hofstra on the 10th.

Delaware won that game, 83-60, putting Hofstra two games behind in the loss column, virtually eliminating the then-Flying Dutchmen from title contention. Now there were two spoilers. The original spoiler failed to deliver, as the Fightin' Blue Hens avenged a loss on their home floor by traveling up to Maine and returning the favor. Delaware would win out down the stretch to finish 15-3.

Meanwhile, two-loss Drexel could secure the title for itself by taking care of business -- which Drexel did, all the way up until its last game of the regular season. Hofstra, now locked out from the top two spots after Delaware's victory the previous day, came ready to play and destroyed the Dragons, 78-58. The loss left Delaware and Drexel tied for first with identical 15-3 records, but Drexel's other two losses had come courtesy of the Hens, so Mike Brey and Delaware came away with the top seed. The two teams would meet again in the conference tournament finals, with the top seed prevailing for a third time, 86-67.

Compare the actual outcome from 1998-99 -- as well as the various outcomes which did not occur -- with the possibilities this season, and it becomes clear what each team has to do. Not only that, but it also highlights the importance of tomorrow's game at Agganis. Similar to the Delaware-Hofstra game from ten years ago, the winner tomorrow will be in solid position to contend for the regular season title (in Binghamton's case, a win would give the Bearcats control of first place due to a tiebreaker advantage), while the loser's role in the title chase will be substantially diminished. There's a lot to gain and a lot to lose on Saturday.

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