GOING TO THE DANCE
So you want to go to the NCAA tournament? For those teams with
no hope of getting an at-large bid (that is to say, most teams),
the road to San Antonio goes through an obstacle course known as
the conference tournament. Aside from being a leading cause of
peptic ulcers among coaches at so-called mid-major schools, the
conference tournament is a great source of thrilling do-or-die
basketball. Here's a look at four teams that earned their
leagues' automatic bids to the NCAAs last week.
College of Charleston
REBUILT AND READY TO GO
In the aftermath of the College of Charleston's 72-63 win over
Florida International in the Trans America Athletic Conference
tournament final in Charleston last Saturday, it was hard to
pick out the game's heroes. One knew that Cougars coach John
Kresse was in the house because his distinctive New
York-accented voice, a mixture of Rick Pitino's and Jimmy
Durante's, could be heard on a courtside microphone, thanking
the fans for their support. But most of his players had been
swallowed up by the crowd of average-sized citizens.
The Cougars' diminutive stature--the starting lineup includes
two 5'11" guards and a 6'6" center--is only one reason that
Kresse was among the many who had doubted that Charleston (24-5)
would return to the NCAAs this season. There was also the
unsettling fact that the Cougars had lost four starters
(including their first NBA draftee, Kings point guard Anthony
Johnson) from the squad that upset Maryland in the first round
of the 1997 tournament. "When you lose the kind of size and
experience we had last year, you think maybe you have to
rebuild," says Kresse, "but that didn't turn out to be the case.
Now I'm convinced this is a darn good basketball team."
The Cougars may be small, but they are quick and stingy. They
were second only to Princeton in fewest points allowed per game
in the latest NCAA rankings, but unlike the Tigers they don't
have any particular use for the shot clock. And it's not just
guards Shane McCravy and Jermel President who push the pace.
Sedric Webber, Charleston's 200-pound junior center who was
named the TAAC's co-player of the year, leads the Cougars in
scoring (15.2 a game) and rebounding (8.1), and was co-leader in
the conference in steals (2.3). During the TAAC tournament he
bettered his average with 19.0 points a game despite having the
flu, which he wouldn't fight with medication because his
Pentecostal faith doesn't allow it. However, Sedric adheres to
the strictures of his religious beliefs less fervently than his
parents, James and Marion, who have never seen him play at
Charleston despite living only a couple of hours away in
Columbia, S.C., because their faith doesn't approve of
competition. "They may not be here, but they still support me,"
says Sedric. "We're very close."
Webber, who grew up in the Bronx before moving to Columbia as a
teenager, has played not only out of his parents' sight but also
out of position for most of his career. "I always wanted to be
like Scottie Pippen," says Webber, who like the Bulls forward
does everything well--shoots, rebounds, passes and plays
defense. "In fact, I thought about not coming here because his
number, 33, wasn't available."
Short of ripping the number 33 jersey off Marc Himes, who's now
a senior, Kresse did everything he could to lure Webber, who
settled for number 23. He scheduled Webber's recruiting visit to
Charleston during a time when the New York Knicks were in town
for training camp. "I think every New York connection helped,"
says Kresse, who's a New Yorker too. "Sed and I speak the same
language. We walk and talk a little faster than most."
A frantic tempo could be exactly what the undersized Cougars
need to rise above their first-round opponent in the national
tournament. Can they pull an upset again? Kresse has no doubt.
"In the NCAAs," he says, "anything can happen."
RETURN OF THE SPIDERS
Before Sunday's Colonial Athletic Association championship game
between Richmond and North Carolina Wilmington, Ganon Baker, who
played guard for Wilmington from 1993 to '95, faced a dilemma:
While he was doing color for the Seahawks' radio broadcast, his
younger brother Jonathan would be starting at guard for
Richmond. "Jonathan has been working his whole life for this,"
said Ganon. "If I root against Richmond, I'll be rooting to take
his dream away. It can't be a tie, can it?"
It can't, and it wasn't. Not even close. Behind a three-point
barrage led by Ganon's little brother, the Spiders shredded a
Seahawks defense that had held opponents to 58.4 points a game
this year and won 79-64 in an upset at the Richmond Coliseum.
The Spiders, who set a school record for treys in a season, with
226, hit 11 of 16 three-point attempts. Jonathan, who had
dedicated his season to another brother, Reed, who died in a car
crash two summers ago, made all five of his attempts from behind
the arc. "If you allow them to take three-point shots, you're
walking the plank," said Wilmington coach Jerry Wainwright,
sounding a note of warning to Richmond's opening-round NCAA
Richmond (22-7), which was famous for pulling off first-round
upsets in the NCAA tournament under former coach Dick Tarrant
(beating fifth-seeded Auburn, with Charles Barkley and Chuck
Person, in 1984; fourth-seeded Indiana in '88; and second-seeded
Syracuse in '91), may become celebrated again under first-year
coach John Beilein, 44, who has had 20-win seasons at five
schools in his 20 years as a head coach.
Among Beilein's many accomplishments this year is the
reclamation of 6'7" senior forward Jarod Stevenson, who has
emerged as a potential pro prospect after stagnating last year
under former Richmond coach Bill Dooley. A versatile scorer who
developed his skills as a kid while playing against soldiers on
an Army base near Fayetteville, N.C., where his father was
stationed, Stevenson this season led the Colonial conference in
scoring (18.9 points a game) and was second in three-point
accuracy (47.5%). He also lit up a number of ACC teams in
nonconference play, scoring 28 against Virginia, 26 against Wake
Forest and 24 against North Carolina. Said Tar Heels coach Bill
Guthridge after that game, "I wish we had him at North Carolina."
Dream on, Bill. As Ganon Baker learned, wishful thinking won't
get you far with the Spiders.
BE GENTLE. IT'S THEIR FIRST TIME
Even after he had collected his celebratory piece of the net at
the Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va., last Saturday, Radford
senior forward Kevin Robinson wasn't sure his last-second shot,
a 10-foot hook that beat UNC-Asheville 63-61 and launched
Radford (20-9) into the NCAA tournament for the first time, had
actually beaten the buzzer. "I wasn't sure I got it off in
time," said Robinson. "I've never won a game at the buzzer, not
at any level."
Radford, a former women's teachers college in Virginia, had also
never won a game at this level. The last time the Highlanders
had played in the Big South Conference tournament final, in
1988, they lost to Winthrop 71-56. In seven of the last eight
years they had been bounced from the semifinals.
This time they carried the momentum of a 10-game winning streak
into the final, but then, looking as if they all had spent the
night before like Robinson, who had been too antsy to sleep,
they nearly threw it away. Radford committed 10 turnovers on its
first 23 possessions, missed 13 of its first 15 shots and fell
behind 21-4. But thanks to 6'6" senior guard Corey Reed, who
made four three-pointers--launched in his awkward,
from-throat-level style--and Robinson, who scored nine of his 11
points in the last four minutes, the Highlanders got rid of
their tournament albatross.
When it was over, Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach passed Reed
in the hallway outside the interview room and in a gesture of
conference solidarity said, "Represent us well."
Replied Reed, a coach's son and a chemistry major with a 3.89
grade point average who will start work on a graduate degree at
Virginia Tech next year, "I'll do my best, sir."
VICTORY WAS IN THE STARS
Perhaps it was fitting that a kid from Neptune, N.J., was
looking to the heavens for omens on the night before Davidson's
Southern Conference tournament final against Appalachian State.
Said Wildcats guard Mark Donnelly, who wears his favorite
number, 5, on his jersey, "This is my fifth year, I'm on the
fifth floor of my hotel in room 505. Hopefully the stars are
aligned for us this time."
Certainly the stars had been uncooperative in the past. Two
times in the last four years the Wildcats had roared through the
regular season only to reach the conference finals and lose. In
1993-94 they went 13-5 in league play but then lost by a point
to Tennessee-Chattanooga; in 1995-96 they were 14-0 in the
conference before getting upset 69-60 by Western Carolina. On
Sunday, however, Davidson (20-9) beat Appalachian State 66-62 in
Greensboro, N.C., to earn its first NCAA bid since 1985-86,
thanks in large part to the 17 points, nine rebounds and
infectious energy of junior sixth man and tournament MVP Ben
Ebong. "Think of all the times we came to this point and fell on
our face," said Donnelly after the game. "I don't know if it
would be as gratifying if there weren't so many struggles to get
Unlike the dominating Wildcats team of two years ago, which won
its league games by an average of 16.1 points, this one had a
number of close calls. "We had to fight and scrap and claw for
everything we got," says coach Bob McKillop. "This team has a
remarkable resilience about it."
Part of that is thanks to the electric Ebong, a 6'6" native of
Nigeria who grew up in Omaha, Neb., where his parents moved when
he was a year old. Though Ebong has a penchant for mishandling
good passes and is about the only Davidson player who can't
shoot the three (five Wildcats made three-pointers against
Appalachian State), he provides a huge lift off the bench and
the kind of frontcourt depth that will make Davidson dangerous
in the NCAAs. "Ben sets the tone with the aggressiveness he
plays with," says Donnelly. "It'll snap you out of any fog."
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
The final week of our poll--yes, our work is done here, it's up
to the real committee to take over now--mostly just scrambled
our seedlings a bit. Only reeling New Mexico (loser to BYU and
Utah) and Arkansas (beaten by both Mississippi and Alabama)
dropped out, with Cincinnati and Illinois taking their places.
This week's major conference tournaments could greatly influence
the field, especially since the committee puts such emphasis on
how teams did in their last 10 games. By that measure, Duke's
win over North Carolina would seem to assure the Blue Devils the
No. 1 seed in the East by virtue of their record 15 wins in ACC
play. The Tar Heels' two losses in eight days would seem to
relegate North Carolina to the South, no matter what happens in
the ACC tournament.
Here's what we'll be watching for this week as selection Sunday
approaches. Where will the committee put Kentucky? The Wildcats,
thanks to their win in South Carolina, look like the strongest
No. 2 seed. Our pollsters thought that earned them a ticket out
of the East, where they'd face Duke. So we moved them to the
We're also watching the WAC tournament to see if Utah earns a
No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. A loss could send them down a notch or
two. Also, the inaugural Big Ten tournament might help clarify
whether Purdue, Michigan State (loser to the Boilermakers in
East Lansing) or Illinois (winner at Indiana for a share of the
Big Ten title) is the real league power. Having gotten a taste
of how difficult the process is, we wish the committee luck.
1. Duke (27-2)
2. Stanford (24-4)
3. Michigan State (20-6)
4. Princeton (25-1)
1. North Carolina (27-3)
2. Connecticut (26-4)
3. TCU (26-4)
4. South Carolina (21-6)
1. Kansas (31-3)
2. Kentucky (26-4)
3. Purdue (24-6)
4. Cincinnati (23-5)
1. Arizona (26-3)
2. Utah (25-2)
3. Mississippi (21-5)
4. Illinois (21-8)