CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the Cal State San Marcos men's basketball team finishes its voyage to little ol' Montgomery, W.Va., culture shock may have set in.
Then again, the Cougars may inflict some hardcourt shock on their opposition this weekend. They are the No. 1 seed in the Association of Independent Institutions tournament, which runs today through Sunday at WVU Tech's Baisi Center.
The average West Virginian - or American, for that matter - could be excused for not being familiar with the school, which is located in northern San Diego County. It opened in 1989 as the 20th of 23 schools in the California State University system.
Enrollment has passed 10,000, but the basketball team is playing in just its second season. It has no gym of its own, and plays home games at a community college, MiraCosta in nearby Oceanside.
But the Cougars haven't been interested in taking their lumps. First, they hired Jim Saia, a seven-year assistant under Steve Lavin at UCLA and an interim head coach for most of the 2004-05 season at Southern California. That happened after the firing of Henry Bibby.
In their debut season, the Cougars went 19-12, falling to Life University of Marietta, Ga., in the AII championship. Saia called it a very difficult season.
"We were 19-12 and had three starters go down with injuries, otherwise we'd probably be in Kansas City [for the national NAIA Division I tournament]," Saia said. "It was one of the most difficult seasons I've had in coaching."
This season, the Cougars have gone 23-5, not including exhibitions against San Diego State, UCLA, Nevada and Cal State Bakersfield. They led CSU Bakersfield with 10 minutes to go.
The roster is composed of 10 seniors, two juniors and zero underclassmen. You'll have that when you bring in seven Division I transfers, one former Division II player and four junior-college imports.
"It's difficult to recruit freshmen here because it's a commuter school and we have a lack of scholarships," Saia said. "When you house freshmen you don't get as much money for scholarships. We've gone with juco and D1 bounce-backs. We try to get the best available players and best student-athletes to get in school here."
CSUSM's women are also playing in Montgomery, and five other schools are sending teams of both genders. The biggest name among the rest, NAIA-wise, is the Chicago campus of Robert Morris University Illinois, which has played in 10 national men's tournaments since 2000. On the women's side, the Eagles are the No. 1 seed.
The AII is indeed a conference all unto itself, though it does not conduct round-robin regular-season schedules. Ted Breitdenthal, who became the founding commissioner in March 2008, said there are 21 teams, playing in both NAIA levels and in various sports, plus a few schools serving their provisional year.
As a catch-all league, there is a revolving-door membership of sorts. That membership included the now-closed Mountain State University, which lost its last game in the 2012 AII tourney semifinal to Life.
"That was a real shocker to us to find out the university was losing their accreditation and had to shut down," Breitdenthal said. "They were down the road from WVU Tech and that could have drawn a lot of people."
The AII's six teams in Division I represent the minimum for an automatic bid into the NAIA national tournament. CSUSM, ranked seventh nationally, could get an at-large berth but has to play in the AII tournament to qualify for one.
So how did WVU Tech land this tournament? Simple: It was the only school to submit a bid. Tech will host the United States Collegiate Athletic Association soccer tournaments at Coonskin Park this fall and the fall of 2014.
Robert Morris is a 100-year-old school based in the Chicago Loop. The other schools are from South Carolina: Allen University is plugged in Columbia between Benedict College and the University of South Carolina; Morris College is in Sumter and Vorhees College is in Denmark, which is near ... nothing, really. It is 52 miles south of Columbia.
Tech (19-11) gets a first-round bye today, playing at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Golden Bears will take on the winner of today's 3 p.m. game between Robert Morris and Allen. CSUSM plays at 3 p .m. Saturday, taking on the winner of the 8 p.m. game today between Voorhees and Morris.
Coach Bob Williams' Bears are 10-3 since the semester break and own a November win over Fairmont State. David Rawlinson has been the undisputed leader of the youthful squad, averaging 20.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists and shooting 50.5 percent from the floor. He is the AII player of the year and a first-team USCAA All-American.
"He's probably the best point guard to play at Tech since Sedale Threatt," Williams said. "In 25 years of coaching, New York and here, he's the best I've had."
The Tech women (15-13) are also seeded second, playing at 6 p.m. Saturday against the winner of today's 1 p.m. game between Vorhees and Allen. Tech's Courtney Sturdivant was named the AII player of the year, averaging 15.7 points and 6.3 rebounds with 3.3 assists.
The championship games are Sunday, with the women playing at noon and the men's championship at 3. The winner goes to the NAIA Division I tournament in Kansas City, Mo., March 13-19.