CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The transition up to Division I isn’t easy. It usually involves a lot of time on the road, a lot of guarantee games that often include blowout losses, and some changes in evaluating a team.
Most of that is the same with USC Upstate, which is currently in its second season of Division I play. Like a number of teams making the transition, the program had some good years leading up to the jump, including back-to-back seasons with over 20 wins in 2004-05 and 2005-06. They even went 17-11 in their final season of Division II.
Where things look a little different is with regard to who they play in those road games. Many teams new to Division I, if they play a full Division I schedule, will play games against a lot of teams in their geographic area. It would make sense from the standpoint that the travel expenses would likely be lower than if they have to go far away, making the guarantee check ultimately worth a little more.
For USC Upstate, that would mean a lot of the guarantee games would come against ACC and SEC schools. But that hasn’t been the case at all. After Sunday’s game at Boston College, the Spartans have played two ACC and two SEC teams in their season-plus of Division I competition. Instead, they have played all over.
Last season, the Spartans played schools from ten different conferences in their non-conference slate. Only two conferences, the MAC and Conference USA, were home to multiple teams. This season, the Atlantic 10 will be the only conference with two opponents on their schedule, as their ten non-conference games will represent nine conferences.
“We do that from a recruiting perspective,” said head coach Eddie Payne. “We know we have to do that because we have to make money in our second year of Division I. We structure that so we go to good places and do good things.”
Payne, who has previously held the head coach position at East Carolina and Oregon State in the Division I ranks, is in his seventh season leading the program. He’s coached at all levels and is well-suited to lead a program into a transition like this. The prior four years, his son Luke was one of the best players and graduated ninth on the school’s all-time scoring list. Now he’s working with a younger bunch.
In the trip to the Boston area, Payne sprinkled in a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Another reason he has scheduled games all over is to give his kids a variety of experiences off the court. And while the players look at these as business trips, there is an undeniable liking for being able to get another educational part like going to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a business trip, but at the same time we try to have fun,” said senior forward Bobby Davis, the team’s best player as he leads them in scoring and rebounding after posting a double-double (19 points, 13 rebounds) against the Eagles.
Not only is the program making a jump up, but this team is also inexperienced. Davis is one of just four upperclassmen who play significant minutes. Three underclassmen start, and the top reserve is a freshman, talented but erratic guard De’Marion Gordon, who looks like he can provide instant offense off the bench.
All of it makes for another challenge: evaluating the team. Sports are a bottom-line business as much as any other, and college basketball is no different. While a team transitioning to Division I might have a little more room for struggle allowed than, say, an ACC school, wins and losses are still there and still impact teams since they are made up of human beings. And while wins and losses are the usual measuring sticks, a situation like this calls for a change in that.
“You have to measure success in different ways,” said Payne. “You have to, from game to game, change what you call success.”
Sometimes that comes from how well they play in a half. Sometimes that means looking at whether or not they are in a game. It sounds like talk of moral victories, but that’s the nature of the beast for a program in this kind of transition.
“We’re just making it as best we can. I’m an old fart, so I think I can handle it,” Payne joked. “I know I can handle it, I can help these guys get through it, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re playing games that, theoretically, on paper, you don’t have a chance to win.”
Payne says his holdover players look more prepared now that they have a year of Division I under their belt. They are used to playing on the road, used to playing a difficult schedule, and have a feel for what competition is like at this level as opposed to Division II. Also helping is that they are playing teams that play some different styles. While they won’t have everything covered in that respect, and Payne says that wasn’t really the idea, that gives them one more thing to help later on.
“We’ve got a smorgasbord of experiences that can help us in our conference,” Payne reflected.
Payne likes the way his team is coming along, and they’re in a conference where they can win with some good recruiting and improvement before long. The challenges are constantly there for him and his players and not just in winning, but they are literally going to great lengths to try to reach the destination.