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November 24, 2010, 03:28 PM ET
Fins To The Left: When Mid-Majors Attack (In Paradise)

by Kyle Whelliston

The music of Jimmy Buffett has been specifically synthesized (in an evil underground laboratory, perhaps) to appeal to a very narrowly-defined segment of the American population: middle-aged men living in cold-weather climates who spend most of their days behind desks. The lyrics invoke images of tropical adventure and intrigue, the likes of which are completely unattainable to their consumers — for 51 weeks out of the year, at least. That the target Buffett demographic so perfectly Venn-overlaps with the majority of college basketball coaches is nothing less than a spectacular coincidence.

This reporter has not found many — or, rather, any — Division I bench bosses who will cop to being “Parrotheads.” But for those in the smaller conferences, the woozy charm of warm islands, and particular Carribean harbors in ports-of-call named for saints, offer rare opportunities to hook the big fish of the Big Six.

On Tuesday, long-suffering Atlantic 10 entry La Salle overcame Providence in Cancun. Nebraska fell victim to a post-Curry Davidson squad last weekend. And the Paradise Jam in sunny St. Thomas saw a rash of neutral-court takedowns: CAA champion Old Dominion over Clemson, the Big West’s Long Beach State over Iowa, and perhaps most startlingly, Saint Peter’s of the MAAC over Alabama. These were the same Peacocks that won 38 games over the last four seasons. Fifth-year head coach John Dunne had not somehow found an offshore loophole to give former two-time national scoring champion “Kee-Kee” Clark supplemental eligibility.

The offshore scheduling exemption is one of those few NCAA rules enacted to protect the disadvantaged that actually did its job. When universities beyond the contiguous 48 states joined up during the time of Alaska and Hawaii statehood, they couldn’t get home games. So the governing body gave mainland schools a small enticement to go visit: games in places like Honolulu or Anchorage wouldn’t count against the 28-game regular-season cap. Without that rule, schools like Hawaii and the Alaska satellites probably wouldn’t be NCAA members at all.

Eventually, there were things like Sea Wolf and Rainbow Classics, and then promoters got ideas. In the last three decades of the 20th Century, exotic events with pretty names sprung up in tropical U.S. protectorates, anywhere there was a tiny offshore NCAA affiliate willing to host. Then the promoters successfully overturned an NCAA rule change intended to limit these events, after six years of legal wrangling.

Now, capitalism is unchecked again, and so is participation: no more two exempt events every four years. A Puerto Rico Tip-Off or a Paradise Jam isn’t a trip of a lifetime, because D-I schools can go offshore every year (just not the same event in two consecutive seasons). And why wouldn’t they? It’s the opportunity to sell hotel package tickets to alums. Everybody can relax on the beach a little — in November — and the head coach can get a few rounds of golf in. He might even sneak “Volcano” in his iPod, and watch a pink champagne sunrise whilst grooving to the beat.

Personally, I don’t understand the whole Buffett thing. But what I really don’t understand is why there isn’t a line of mid-major schools, 200 thick and ten years deep, waiting to play in these offshore Multi-Team Events. The true and specific charm is the neutral court itself and the sparse crowds — many nautical miles from the packed ACC or Big 12 buildings where these same small-conference teams would likely sustain 25-point losses, on-court blowouts aided by loud fans.

Take a team like the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, which hasn’t done anything of any particular note for a half-decade. Last season, their biggest win was against Monmouth. Now they’ve beaten a SEC team. Like the man says, with changes in latitudes and changes in latitudes, nothing remains quite the same.

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