You’ve never heard of them.
Never once thought about their school, and certainly not the basketball program.
But there they will be, in about a month, getting their moment in the triumphant glare of the SportsCenter spotlight, students and fans rushing to the middle of the floor to join the players and coaches who have just won their way into a tournament they have no chance at winning.
But that’s the life in the small Division 1 college conference, where just earning a place in what is annually one of the most exclusive clubs in sports is a championship in and of itself.
Of course, there’s the other side of the jubilant pandemonium taking place there in the middle of the floor. While the championship team cuts down the nets that will forever be on display in a trophy case that probably doesn’t look all that much different from the one your high school may have had, dreams are dashed and tears fall in a depressive unity with slumping shoulders and sagging sighs. In their hearts they know they probably weren’t going to win that first-round game as a 16 seed, but that was never the point. This loss, the one in the conference tournament final, is a different kind of loss than an NCAA Tournament loss. Always will be.
And so it happens sometimes, a dominant team is stunned in its tourney final, and all of a sudden it is realized that the 26-4 regular season record means nothing. The league won’t get two bids into the Field of 64, and none of it seems fair.
But this season, and for a team just down the road from us, what’s potentially unfair may be better viewed as a second chance. It is where midseason three-game losing streaks can be forgotten with just three days of perfect basketball. Put it together for three very specific days, and it can be as though the 29 games before were nothing more than a series of scrimmages designed to give teams extended scouting reports of each other. Reports that may mean everything for one very important week.
That could be the life of the Campbell Camels over the next few weeks. Six short days ago, the Camels weren’t that far removed from the best start in the program’s history, and despite a few hiccups here and there, were still 12-6 and among the leaders in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Since a 72-57 thumping on the road at East Tennessee State, though, the Camels have tumbled down the league standings. They’ve now fallen to 12-9 overall and just 7-5 in conference play after Lipscomb’s Josh Slater hit a step-back 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds remaining to lift the Bisons to a come-from-behind 60-59 victory on the road.
After losing their 9-point lead to a team that got 54 of its 60 points from just three players, the Camels find themselves tied for fourth in the A-Sun with eight games to go — the next two coming in a span of three days some 530 miles south from their Buies Creek home.
The season, for some programs, would be on the line. For some of the big boys, faced with this predictament, the only postseason tournament destination would include the letters “N,” “I,” and “T.” (We’re looking at you, North Carolina.)
But the Camels would still have another chance to spin the wheel. (OK, OK, so do the Tar Heels). As things stand now with a month to play for the conference tournament’s seeding, Jacksonville, Lipscomb and Belmont are the only teams looking down at the Camels. But with perhaps the league’s best player in Jonathan Rodriguez, Campbell has already proven it can beat two of them (Jacksonville, at home on Dec. 19, 73-57; and Lipscomb, on the road on Jan. 23, 86-82).
The script wouldn’t be an original one. Top-seeded Jacksonville, perhaps having just beaten the Camels at home on Feb. 25 in the penultimate game of the regular season, gets Campbell again in the tournament semifinals less than two weeks later on March 5 in Macon, Ga. The Camels would take those odds.
Finishing first over four months and 30 games means practically nothing at this level. And maybe there’s something wrong with that.
But for the Camels and teams like them all over the country, it’s just right.