Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book Review: "Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball"

They say timing is everything, and Michael Litos’ timing couldn’t have been better when he embarked on a project to chronicle a season in mid-major D1 college men’s basketball. The inspiration came to Litos while he was sailing on a 42-foot catamaran in the Caribbean, which is where I usually get most of my good ideas.

Following one of the cardinal rules of writing, Litos stuck to what he knew; the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in his book “Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball” (Sourcebooks, Inc; 2007, 275 pp.). Based in Richmond, Virginia, he followed one of the local colleges, Virginia Commonwealth University, a CAA member, very closely.

It was while Litos was sailing during the 2004 CAA conference tournament and cut off from any news sources where he could learn the results that it became clear to him how important that event was. Unlike BCS conference post-season tournaments, mid-major conference teams almost always have their NCAA or NIT tournament fates decided during these three or four-day events.

In-depth coverage of a competitive mid-major conference had the potential to be an interesting story, but Litos’ timing removed any doubt. He picked the 2005-06 season to travel around the CAA, which just happened to be the year conference member George Mason became the first mid-major school to reach the Final Four since 1979 (Larry Bird’s Indiana State team and the Ivy League’s Penn Quakers made it that season).

If you are seeking a book focused on how the Patriots hopelessly shattered NCAA brackets (including mine), you’ll need to go elsewhere; there is only a single chapter in “Cinderella” devoted to their run. What you will find, however, is akin to a prequel, showing how George Mason became the first CAA school to receive an “at-large” bid to the NCAA tournament since David Robinson’s Navy team was selected in 1986.

This book focuses on the various pressures that teams competing at the mid-major level must deal with every season, from scheduling top opponents to avoiding those RPI killing losses that keep schools at that level out of the NCAA tournament. The best source of insight into this is Tom Yeager, the only main character in this story without a vested interest in one particular school.

As Litos reports, Yeager is torn between wanting all of the teams in the CAA to be competitive, but not enough so they knock each outer out of contention for a coveted NCAA bid, which is how the previous season had played out.

Throughout most of the 2005-06 season, the “it” mid major conference was the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), and throughout the book Yeager and CAA coaches often measured themselves against their MVC counterparts. Those comparisons are supplemented by discussions of what exactly is a “mid-major” school or conference, starting with the forward by ESPN college hoops analyst Jay Bilas and ending with Litos’ epilogue.

If there is one conclusion you can draw after reading “Cinderella” it’s that the definition of mid-major is almost purely in the eye of the beholder. The primary measuring stick is that of financial resources available to a school’s basketball program. Other important factors are a team’s success on the court, the conference they belong to, and the number of television appearances they make, but there is no clear formula for sorting out which schools are at that level. That phrase also implies that there are “low-major,” which would likely be even more of a subjective judgment than determining mid-majors.

The primary reason I enjoy reading books like this is the opportunity to be introduced to people I otherwise wouldn’t learn about. Michael Litos crossed paths with a number of interesting people during his tour through the CAA and, like any good writer, he provided readers with some insight into who they are beyond sound bytes and quotes in press releases. Litos shows people at their best and their unvarnished worst.

After reading “Cinderella,” I sympathized with the pain, both physical and emotional, that Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor endured through a solid yet frustrating season. I felt that I’d like to have George Mason coach Jim Larranaga as a next-door neighbor; one would likely take a break from mowing the grass on Saturday mornings to lean over the fence and ask how your family was doing. Hofstra’s coach Tom Pecora impressed me as someone who is a trustworthy and grounded as he is focused and meticulous in preparing his team for their games.

There are also glimpses of some key players, like George Mason’s Tony Skinn (he of the low-blow in the CAA tournament and subsequent suspension for the NCAA opener), Antoine Agudio and Loren Stokes, Hofstra’s best players, and Old Dominion star Alex Loughton, among others.

Although the pace was a bit uneven at times, Litos does the best thing a writer can do with material as interesting as this is; he doesn’t get in the way of or insert himself too deeply into the story. He allows the participants to provide much of the narrative and concentrates on weaving the pieces together in a way that holds the readers’ interest.

I enjoyed reading, “Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball” and, if you are a hoops fan or just like rooting for an underdog, I suspect you’ll enjoy it too.