Pity poor Arnie Ferrin. As chairman of the NCAA's nine-member men's basketball committee, Ferrin is the key man when it comes to deciding which 34 teams will receive at-large bids to the national tournament. (Thirty conference champions receive automatic bids.) Everywhere he goes, Ferrin is assaulted by self-proclaimed experts. During a car trip from Palm Springs, Calif., to St. George, Utah, last week he got an earful. First he stopped at a gas station where the attendant recognized Ferrin by the name on his credit card. "The guy proceeded to tell me what's wrong with the tournament selection process," says Ferrin. Subsequent stops at a drugstore, his mother's rest home in St. George and a nearby restaurant all produced pontificating partisans. "Palm Springs to St. George, and I've had four experts," laughs Ferrin. "We gather the information from every source we can."
He can use the help. In this season of parity, the committee's task will be more difficult than ever. "All that I'm certain of is that there will be more quality teams on the bubble [those on the brink of being good enough to get a tournament berth] than ever," says Ferrin. "The system may never be tested more than it will be this year." He can also be sure that when the selections have been completed, at least a dozen angry teams will be claiming that they got burned.
By March 13, when the bids are announced, Ferrin's crew will have had to consider these complicating factors:
•The St. Mary's vs. Maryland quandary. Just how seriously will the committee take the resurgence of the West? Will teams like Maryland in the ACC, Ohio State in the Big Ten, Iowa State in the Big Eight, and Seton Hall and St. John's in the Big East—fifth-or sixth-place finishers in their conferences and possessors of mediocre records—be chosen ahead of second-or third-place finishers like St. Mary's or Santa Clara in the WCAC, or Utah State in the PCAA? And what about the suddenly potent WAC? Will the committee go four or five deep in that conference to select Utah and New Mexico in addition to BYU, Wyoming and UTEP? Says Lobos coach Gary Colson, "Our conference is awfully good this year, better than I've ever seen it. I think we'll end up with 20 or 21 wins, but I don't know if that's going to be enough."
•The good record-bad opponents syndrome. Strong teams in weak leagues probably have only one route to the NCAAs: win their conference postseason tournament and collect an automatic bid. North Carolina A & T, which at week's end was 24-2, Boise State (22-4), Richmond (21-6) and UNC Charlotte (19-8) are all teams whose records will likely prove meaningless without a league title.
•The dilemma of independent thinking. Will both DePaul and Notre Dame be selected from the ranks of the independents, even after undistinguished seasons? "We've established that we're among the top 64 teams in the country," says Blue Demon coach Joey Meyer. "Instead of worrying about that [the tournament], we have to get it together for a strong finish." If the committee decides to take only one independent, look for DePaul to make the cut because the Demons have defeated the Irish twice.
Believe it or not, Ferrin has enjoyed the topsy-turvy season. "It's just fascinating," he says. "It's been the type of year when it's fun to get up every day and see what happened."
SHARK BITES BACK
The battle between the NCAA and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian has finally reached the court of last resort. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision to hear the NCAA's appeal of a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that had voided the NCAA's suspension of Tarkanian for alleged recruiting violations in the mid-1970s. If the brethren rule in favor of the NCAA—a decision is not expected until late this year or early in 1989—Tarkanian might have to serve the two-year suspension from coaching at UNLV that has hung over his head since '77.
The legal issues are these: Should the NCAA be regarded as a governmental entity, or "state actor"? If so, should it comply with the constitutional requirements of due process afforded to public employees like Tarkanian, who works for a state school? And if the NCAA is a private body, what procedural standards should apply to its investigations?
With the possibility of suspension alive again, Tark the Shark used a boosters' luncheon last week to state his case. He called the NCAA enforcement staff "unfair right from the beginning. If you turned some of those guys loose without due process, they'd be worse than the gestapo. As selective as they are, as arbitrary as they are, as unfair as they are, you'd be at their mercy." Then, with a touch of sarcasm, Tarkanian took aim elsewhere, questioning the SAT scores of Billy Owens, the outstanding Carlisle (Pa.) High forward who plans to attend Syracuse next season. "When he was being recruited, everyone knew he wasn't going to be able to predict [score 700 on the SAT as required by Bylaw 5-1-(j)]. But he made it.... You know how baseball has a designated hitter? I think Syracuse found a designated guy, too. We've got to find these designated testers." Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim laughed upon hearing about Tarkanian's remarks. "That's just the kind of thing you say at a luncheon," Boeheim said. "It's got to be a joke."
Flint, Mich., is known mainly for its production of automobiles. Recently, however, the town has been cranking out sporty, high-horsepower forwards like Glen Rice of Michigan, Roy Marble of Iowa and Jeff Grayer of Iowa State. A number of somewhat less flashy—but dependable—models have also rolled off the Flint assembly line, including USC guard Anthony Pendleton, DePaul forward Terence Greene, Central Michigan guard Tommie Johnson and Michigan State point guard Andre Rison.
How has a town of just 150,000 people turned out all that talent? "Basketball is the all-American pastime in Flint," says Johnson. "Everyone plays." Adds Iowa State coach Johnny Orr, "Flint has a tremendous mix of white-collar and blue-collar. They get big crowds, great enthusiasm. It used to be that no one went into Flint to recruit. Now it's like going to a basketball camp."
If that's the case, the head counselor is Justus Thigpen, director of Berston Field House, the site of many of Flint's most spirited games. Thigpen, 40, led Weber State in scoring in 1967-68 and had a brief career in the ABA and NBA before returning to Flint in 1972. Soon he became the city's playground guru who put together pickup games in which old-time Flint stars like Trent Tucker, now with the New York Knicks, mix it up with high school hotshots.
"A lot of places don't have someone who cares about developing talent the way Justus does," says Grayer. "Everyone looks up to him. Guys who have a basketball knowledge consider him a hero. Even today he gets out there and plays—and he can still score." Thigpen says the key to premier pickup games is word of mouth. "Everybody knows everybody," he says. "I tell one guy, 'Get the fellas,' and they all show up. They want to play against the top guns."
Not surprisingly, the Flint factory has a new compact model ready for delivery: Justus Thigpen Jr., a sharpshooting 6'2" guard. He will be shipped off to Iowa State in time for next season.
Our Jan. 25 item on Northeastern's Andre Lafleur, who heads the NCAA career assists list, drew this letter from Lisa Allen of Albuquerque: "My husband noticed your column.... It particularly interested him because he is the NCAA career assist record holder, with 936. We thought we would give you some assistance on this one."
Dutifully, we checked out Lisa's claim. Indeed, Billy Allen, a guard who spent two seasons with SMU and two with Nevada-Reno in the late 1970s and early '80s, did rack up 936 assists, 42 more than Lafleur. But unfortunately for Allen, he got them before '83-84, the first season in which the NCAA kept track of assists. "We're not doubting the accuracy of the statistics," says NCAA statmaster Jim Wright, "but because we weren't compiling assists at the time, you'd have to go back and ask every school for their stats, and some of them are pretty shaky." Similarly, blocks and steals didn't become official stats until '85-86. Sorry, Billy. You were too good too soon.
Those in search of a sleeper when conference tournament time rolls around next week might keep an eye on Alabama. In the past two weeks the Tide has upset LSU (72-59), Vanderbilt (88-77) and Auburn (82-77) to raise its SEC record to 6-10....
Kansas, on the strength of forward Danny Manning's 37 points, probably guaranteed itself an NCAA bid with an 82-77 win at Missouri. The victory lifted the Jayhawks' record to 18-10....
In the eight games since he became a regular starter, Indiana freshman guard Jay Edwards has averaged 20.8 points and hit 28 of 48 three-point attempts. "I'm going to keep shooting because I think I'm a great shooter," says Edwards, who just might be right....
Former Wyoming coach Jim Brandenburg made his first trip back to Laramie with his San Diego State squad to face Benny Dees's Cowboys. "We could tell it was really an important game to Coach Dees," said Wyoming guard Reggie Fox afterward. "He wanted to win this game convincingly and put all the comparisons behind him. This should let everyone know that this is Coach Dees' team and not Coach Brandenburg's." Coach Dees's team won 85-59....
Georgia Tech point guard Craig Neal had a school-record 19 assists in the Yellow Jackets' 91-87 win over Duke, giving him an average of 14.4 over his last eight games....
Fan ugliness reached a new low in Tempe, Ariz., where Arizona State partisans greeted visiting Arizona guard Steve Kerr during warmups with calls of "PLO, PLO" and "Why don't you go back to Beirut?" and "Where's your dad?" Kerr's father, Malcolm, was the president of American University in Beirut. He was assassinated there in January 1984. Kerr's response? He scored 20 points in the first half on seven-of-seven shooting. Six of the baskets were three-pointers. He also dished out four assists before intermission, giving him a hand in 27 of the Wildcats' first 33 points. "That was my way of taking out my frustration," he said after Arizona's 101-73 win. "I would rather have gone into the stands and punched them, but I decided to hit a few jumpers."...
Word has it that Tennessee coach Don DeVoe must get his team into the NCAA tournament or lose his job. Given the Vols' 15-10 record at week's end, that's a tall order. Speculation about DeVoe's successor has centered on Gene Bartow of Alabama-Birmingham, Sonny Smith of Auburn and Louisville assistant Wade Houston....
Just four hours before facing Detroit, Evansville forward Marty Simmons cut the index finger on his shooting hand in a mishap at his home. After receiving eight stitches and a heavy bandage, Simmons had 34 points and 11 rebounds in the Purple Aces' 108-90 victory....
Tennessee, the third-ranked women's team in the nation, has scored more than 100 points six times. On each occasion, guard Tonya Edwards—yet another Flint product—got the bucket that put the Lady Vols over the 100 mark....
During pregame introductions at Detroit's home game against Bradley, Titan fans were warned that toilet paper thrown on the court would produce a two-shot technical against Detroit. So when Braves guard Hersey Hawkins was introduced, the fans instead showered the court with Hershey's bars. Hawkins had a sweet game, pouring in 63 points....
NBA scouting director Marty Blake is apparently not a big fan of Notre Dame's David Rivers. "Who's Rivers?" says Blake. "He's a 5'11" scoring guard. Why he's listed as a point guard I'll never know. He's never passed the ball to anybody." ...
These words from philosopher-coach Hugh Durham of Georgia: "It's not how good you play when you play good. It's how good you play when you play bad. And we can play bad as good as anyone in the country."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Seton Hall's 6'9" senior forward had 32 points and 16 rebounds in an 89-72 upset of Pitt. In the Pirates' 84-58 win over Villanova, he tied a Big East record with 38 points and had 18 rebounds.
NORTH CAROLINA (21-4)
GEORGIA TECH (21-6)
NC STATE (20-6)
LOYOLA (CAL.) (24-3)