Teams that don't yet have a lock on an NCAA bid face toil and
It's primary season again in college basketball, the time of
year when coaches hit the hustings in hopes that they can sway
the only electorate that really counts, the members of the NCAA
tournament selection committee. "We deserve two teams regardless
of what happens," said UNLV coach Bill Bayno, whose Runnin'
Rebels just happened as of Sunday to be in second place in the
Mountain West Conference, a league that doesn't get an automatic
bid this year. "I hope we get five [bids] when it's all said and
done," said Marquette coach Tom Crean of Conference USA, where
his Warriors had a shot at finishing with--surprise!--the
fifth-best record. With just two weeks left in the regular
season, seven teams that have spent time in the AP's Top 25 this
season--UCLA, Louisville, Gonzaga, North Carolina State, DePaul,
USC and Xavier--now find themselves on the bubble or worse. But
that should not be surprising. College basketball is like
politics: It's not enough to do well in the polls, you have to
Thirty teams from the eight so-called power conferences
seemingly have already secured bids (see chart), as have three
schools from other leagues--Kent (MAC), Tulsa (WAC) and Utah
(Mountain West). Throw in the spots reserved for champions from
the lower-rated conferences, and that leaves 11 openings for the
28 teams on the bubble. That's why coaches are so active on the
campaign trail, trying to get as many bids as possible for their
Given the mediocrity of some of the traditional power
conferences, this could be a good year for insurgents. The
Atlantic 10, the ACC and Conference USA can right now only
safely lay claim to seven bids among them, and few of the
remaining teams in those leagues are making strong cases for
inclusion. Even one of the ACC's staunchest defenders, political
commentator Robert Novak, refuses to lobby for the league. "If
you can't finish at least .500 in the conference, you shouldn't
go to the tournament," says Novak, a Maryland booster who
sometimes rides the Terps' plane to road games. (No, he doesn't
insist on sitting near the right wing.) Virginia, which was in
third place in the ACC with an 8-5 league mark after Sunday's
90-76 defeat of North Carolina, passes the Novak test and should
make the field, despite a soft nonconference schedule that has
dragged the Cavaliers' RPI down to 61.
Novak's musings aside, any similarities between the campaign to
make the NCAAs and the one for the presidency are purely
coincidental. It's worth noting, however, that the home state
schools of John McCain, Al Gore and George W. Bush--Arizona,
Tennessee and Texas, respectively--are all locks to make the
NCAA tournament. Princeton, like its most famous basketball
alumnus, Bill Bradley, must desperately make up ground. And no
matter how things turn out, one thing seems pretty much certain:
Arkansas (13-12) is out.
TOO MANY ROCKS, TOO LITTLE CHALK
Sitting across from Roy Williams in the Kansas basketball office
last Thursday morning, a visitor didn't have to guess how things
had turned out for the Jayhawks against then No. 14 Iowa State
the previous evening. A look at the bleary-eyed, hangdog
expression on Williams's puss was all that was needed. Shortly
after arriving home from the game, around 10:30 p.m., Williams
watched a videotape of the 64-62 loss, in which Kansas blew an
eight-point lead over the final 4:28. Williams climbed into bed
at 1:30 a.m., but after 90 fitful minutes he returned
downstairs, picked up a Clive Cussler novel and waited for the
sun to rise. "One of the toughest things about coaching is that
the highs aren't nearly as high as the lows are low," he says.
"I still think we're going to be very good, but we haven't shown
Basketball is religion in the state of Kansas, but there's a
crisis of faith among the believers these days. Before beating
Oklahoma 53-50 on Sunday, the Jayhawks had lost five of their
last eight games, including blowouts at Missouri and Oklahoma
State by a combined 55 points. A few weeks ago Williams even
blasted the fans in Lawrence, calling them "a wine-and-cheese
crowd," though he later apologized.
Last week's loss to the Cyclones, who hadn't won at Allen
Fieldhouse in 19 years, typified Kansas' season. The Jayhawks
held the lead for almost 31 minutes but executed horrendously
down the stretch, committing turnovers on three consecutive
possessions that led to six Iowa State points. Jeff Boschee, a
6'1" sophomore guard who shot 2 for 17, was a convenient
scapegoat, but considering that the Cyclones' five starters
average a mere 6'3", it seemed unwise that Kansas' smallest
player would be called upon to hoist that many shots.
Williams has always preached the virtues of teamwork, but this
is a remarkably egalitarian group even by his standards. Through
Sunday nine players were averaging between 16 and 24 minutes per
game; the top seven scorers were averaging between 6.0 and 10.3
field goal attempts. "When we need two points, there's not one
player we know we can get them from," says 6'9" freshman forward
Drew Gooden, who at week's end was the Jayhawks' leading
rebounder (7.6 per game) and second-leading scorer (10.8)
despite averaging just 19.8 minutes. The prospect of finding
that one player grew dimmer on Feb. 3, when the school announced
that 6'10" junior swingman Luke Axtell, a 39.2% three-point
shooter, was leaving the team because of an undisclosed illness.
Axtell is still in school but isn't practicing, and Williams
says he doesn't know if Axtell will return.
Most perplexing of all has been the downward spiral of 7'1"
junior center Eric Chenowith, who lost his starting job on Feb.
5. Through Sunday, Chenowith was averaging 9.5 points and 6.5
rebounds per game--down from 13.5 points and 9.1 boards last
season. "I'm still doing good things for our team," he says.
"It's just that a lot of other guys are doing good things, too."
That's an admirably upbeat view, but it does little to mask that
this is one season when Kansas' best just isn't good enough.
Penn Takes Command
THE QUAKERS GO TO WAR
If students at Penn want to see Michael Jordan (the Quakers'
point guard, not the Wizards' new part owner) put on a show,
they can tune in to the school's student television station and
watch Out of Bounds, a variety show on which Jordan is the
cohost and recently donned bell-bottom pants, a vest and a tall
Afro wig to play a character called the Chocolate Man. Or they
can check out a Penn basketball game, in which Jordan also runs
the show for the Quakers, who last week took a giant step toward
locking up the Ivy League's automatic NCAA tournament bid with a
55-46 win at Princeton. During the victory, Penn coach Fran
Dunphy tried to call an offensive play by extending his thumb,
but Jordan, a 6-foot senior, was already holding up four
fingers. "We ran four," says Dunphy, whose Quakers had a
two-game lead in their conference after last weekend. "He's
earned that right. He's very bright, and he's as much of a
competitor as I've had the opportunity to coach."
A two-time All-Ivy selection and the favorite to be the league's
player of the year, Jordan is unquestionably Penn's top player,
but he's not the only reason the Quakers (16-7) are capable of
stealing a win or two in the NCAA tournament. His roommate, 6'5"
senior guard Matt Langel, is a 38.1% shooter from three-point
range, and his perimeter sniping perfectly complements Jordan's
ability to penetrate. Geoff Owens, a 6'11" senior center, is
fifth in the league in rebounding (7.1 per game), and in 6'8"
freshman Ugonna Onyekwe, a native of Nigeria whose family moved
to London when he was 14, Dunphy has perhaps the most athletic
big man he has coached in his 11 years at Penn. Owens and
Onyekwe are both good shot blockers, which gives Quakers guards
the luxury of aggressively defending their opponents' best
shooters. Witness that Princeton, which had been shooting 39.4%
from beyond the arc, made just 4 of 17 three-point attempts
The Quakers' confidence is considerably higher than it was early
in the season, when Penn started 5-7 thanks to a murderous
schedule that included road dates at Kentucky, Auburn, Kansas
and Temple. While the Quakers were in California for a two-game
tournament in December, Dunphy met for 20 minutes with Jordan
and Langel in his hotel room, where he reminded them that it was
their job as captains to make sure none of their teammates got
discouraged. "I put together this schedule so we would be
tested," Dunphy says. "Yes, we would have liked to have won some
more of those games, but hopefully we grew from those
Indeed, Penn is standing taller every day, and with the NCAAs
approaching, Jordan & Co. look as if they're ready for prime time.
THE OWLS HOOT AT THE BEARCATS
Temple is one of the few teams that can match up with
Cincinnati's front line, but the Owls did more than contain
Kenyon Martin and Pete Mickeal (27 points combined) in their
77-69 upset of the Bearcats at the Shoemaker Center on Sunday.
Temple also shot 52.1% to become the first opponent in 63 games
to make at least half its shots against Cincy....
Tennessee guard Tony Harris has a history of poor shooting in
the NCAA tournament, and his cold hand during the Volunteers'
85-72 loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday was hardly a harbinger of
better things to come this March. Harris was 1 for 14 from the
floor, including 0 for 8 from three-point range, and scored only
UCLA's losses last week to Arizona State and Arizona dropped the
Bruins to 4-8 in the Pac-10 with six games remaining. UCLA
hasn't had a losing record in the conference since 1948, the
year before John Wooden arrived.
For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
INS, OUTS AND MAYBES
With only two weeks left before most of the major conferences
begin their tournaments, the field of 64 for the NCAAs is
starting to take shape. Here are the 33 teams that--unless they
go into a horrible slide and lose very early in their league
tournaments--are a lock to make it. With 20 other bids slotted
for winners of lesser conferences, that leaves 28 good teams to
vie for 11 at-large spots. Here's how the teams stand:
In (barring a total disaster)*
Cincinnati, Kentucky, Arizona, Stanford, Texas, Duke, Tennessee,
Temple, Maryland, Auburn, Indiana, Kansas, Syracuse, Florida,
LSU, St. John's, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Michigan
State, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, Illinois, Ohio State, Kent,
Tulsa, Dayton, North Carolina, Oregon, Purdue, Utah, Seton Hall,
On the bubble (and looking good)
Louisville, Missouri, Wisconsin, Pepperdine, Notre Dame, UNLV,
DePaul, Gonzaga, Indiana State, Saint Louis, Arizona State, Miami
On the bubble (and looking bad)
Villanova, SMU, California, Tulane, North Carolina State, Fresno
State, Marquette, Ball State, UAB, Bowling Green, USC, Penn
State, West Virginia, St. Bonaventure, Xavier, South Florida
Out (barring a miracle)
UCLA, Iowa, Michigan, Wake Forest, Georgetown, TCU,
*Listed in order of RPI ranking