Utah Valley athletics
Ryan Toolson was a big part of Utah Valley's 22-win season.
The early part of March will be filled with talk about how any team has a chance, how any player in college basketball can dream about playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Most of that is accurate. Any team with a conference tournament could get hot, pull a couple of upsets and end up as a punching bag for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament.
But then there are the independents.
Is there a tougher lot in the college basketball world than coaching or playing for a team that doesn't have a conference affiliation?
The players are often overmatched against the competition and have almost zero chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament. (An independent hasn't reached the tournament since DePaul in 1991. Notre Dame was a regular independent invitee but the Irish joined the Big East in 1995.)
For the coaches, scheduling is a complete nightmare. They can get more games than they could ever play during November and December. Finding home games is a challenge, but finding home games in January and February -- when everybody else is in the midst of their conference seasons -- is very difficult.
While most teams across the country are preparing for conference tournaments and, arguably, the most exciting part of the season, the independents are done for the season.
There are certainly schools in low-major conferences that balance their budgets by sending their men's basketball teams across the country for guarantee games that are nearly impossible to win. But at least those teams have the opportunity to play their league peers later in the season.
For this season's independents, a group that is smaller than in the past as schools ranging from North Florida to Central Arkansas to South Dakota State found conference homes, some of the scenarios are difficult. Consider:
• Chicago State will play 18 of its first 20 games this season away from home, not exactly a recipe for success.
• Longwood will play exactly 25 percent of its home games before Thanksgiving. In a three-month span from mid-November to mid-February, the Lancers will play all of six home games.
• Texas-Pan American will play only 10 home games.
• Cal State Bakersfield, playing its first full Division I schedule, has only four home games after Jan. 7.
• Many schools have to schedule games against non-Division I opponents in order to put together any semblance of a home schedule.
Because of scheduling challenges, many of the independents play each other. Cal State Bakersfield and Texas-Pan American play a home-and-home series during the traditional conference season. Longwood and the New Jersey Institute of Technology do the same thing. Trips to Orem, Utah (Utah Valley State) and Savannah, Ga. (Savannah State) and Edinburg, Texas (Texas-Pan American) become fairly common for the independents.
The result? For many schools, it's a multitude of losses. Of the 11 teams that were independents a year ago (several of which have now found that elusive conference home), only two finished with winning records. Six teams -- Chicago State, Longwood, South Dakota State, UC Davis, NJIT and Winston-Salem State -- all failed to reach the 10-victory mark. Texas-Pan American, Savannah State, Longwood and NJIT all ranked No. 289 or worse in the Ratings Percentage Index.
The solution is simple: Try to find a conference. Because once on more equal footing, it isn't impossible for former independents to have success. The most recent example is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Previously a successful independent, the Islanders finally got into the Southland Conference. What happened last season? Ronnie Arrow's team won the Southland tournament, reached the NCAA Tournament and led Wisconsin for much of its first-round game before losing.
But until that elusive conference affiliation is found, life as an independent is as tough as it gets in college basketball.