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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
A Rare Breed, Indeed
John Feinstein -- author of the basketball bestsellers A Season on the Brink (Hoosier mania under Bob Knight) and A March to Madness (AAC hyperhoops) -- reveals college basketball's calmer realm in The Last Amateurs. Rarely meriting mention on SportsCenter, the Patriot League is one of the weakest Division I basketball conferences. But, as Feinstein ably illustrates, the character strength of the players and the drama quotient of their contests are legitimate and compelling. And while unlikely to produce a Final Four entrant soon, the student-athlete Patriot League stands resolute, a humble standard-bearer in an age of semipro "collegians."
Unlike Division I powerhouses who graduate less than half their players, the Patriot League schools -- Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, Bucknell, Army, and Navy -- do not alter admissions standards for basketball players. And it shows: From the 1999-2000 basketball season, all 17 Patriot League seniors graduated. Basketball scholarships are doled out parsimoniously in the Patriot League. Though the talent level is far inferior to that of the major conferences, the competition itself is no less intense.
Early in the season, the Patriot League is feasted upon by Division I's elite in "guarantee games." Last season, for example, Duke thumped Army, 100-42. Colgate submitted to its annual spanking by Syracuse. These games provide a "guaranteed" win for the big conference power and guaranteed money for the visiting Patriot League cream puff. Feinstein deftly shows how coaches motivate their players for these games beforehand and console the players afterward. The heartbreakers are the "guarantee games" that are closer than anyone expects.
After the guarantee games and holiday tournaments, the regular season begins with heightened intensity. Army-Navy is the bitterest in-league rivalry, though last season's most incendiary showdowns were those between Navy and Lafayette -- two teams that ended the regular season with identical 11-1 league records. Even skirmishes between stragglers, however, are gutted out with honest effort and competitive fire. In January, Army beat Colgate before 681 screaming spectators in a battle between two of the worst teams in the conference. The game would receive scant coverage outside the gymnasium. "None of that mattered to the Army players," writes Feinstein. "For them, it wasn't about the glory. It was about the moment. There would be few that would match this one."
The actors of the Patriot League drama are coaches and players whose problems are far removed from Bob Knight's. Coaches need a fresh supply of motivational and consolation speeches before and after guarantee games. Balancing athletics and academics is a real issue for players without a future in basketball. Getting over basketball after the final game of senior year is its own challenge, as is indicated by the sobbing at Senior Nights across the league. However much they love the game, Patriot League players possess a healthy sense of perspective often lacking in the stronger conferences. Chris Spitler, a scrappy walk-on at Holy Cross, was able to leave his heart on the court and land happily in a lucrative banking job months later.
Year after year, the winner of the Patriot League tournament is granted a 15th-seed slot in the NCAA tournament to play what amounts to one last "guarantee game." By refusing to lower academic standards for basketball talent, the Patriot League has ensured that it will always be quickly swept aside by a big-conference bouncer at the Big Dance. In keeping basketball honest, though, the Patriot League has shown that a big loss at the Big Dance is a very small loss indeed.
Brenn Jones is a freelance writer in New York City and a frequent contributor to Barnes & Noble.com.