Dirty Pool With low seeds, fewer invitations and an onerous play-in game, college ball's little guys got sucker punched by the NCAA--but the little guys struck back

March 26, 2001

Stanford's Casey Jacobsen is a first-team All-America. Marvin
O'Connor of St. Joseph's has a name that could have been
confused with those of thousands of St. Patrick's Day revelers.
But as O'Connor sprang for 37 points in a second-round NCAA
tournament game last Saturday night, he made Jacobsen look as
inert as the Tree, the Cardinal's arboreal mascot. After
O'Connor's fifth foul had assured top-seeded Stanford's 90-83
passage to the round of 16 in the West Region and more than
11,000 spectators in Cox Arena in San Diego had come to their
feet to honor O'Connor's effort, Jacobsen pulled the Hawks' star
aside, and this is what he said: "It was a pleasure being on the
same court with you today."

It certainly was big of the NCAA tournament committee to have
permitted the two to share that court at all. Even as the lower
seeds in these NCAAs launched an unprecedented assault on their
putative betters--not since the tournament went to a 64-team
field in 1985 had so many higher seeds (13 of 32) lost their
first-round games--the committee was launching an assault of its
own: on the mid-major, small-time, non-Division
I-A-football-playing schools that save the NCAAs from terminal
charmlessness.

In the words of the Brothers Grimm: "She had no bed to go to,
and so had to sleep by the hearth in the cinders. And as on that
account she always looked dusty and dirty, they called her
Cinderella." Virtually every decision rendered by this year's
tournament committee seemed calculated to keep the charwoman
from the ball. The committee reserved an unprecedented 35 bids
for the six most powerful leagues: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten,
Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC--the same conferences that participate in
college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The committee
established the patronizing "opening-round" play-in game, which
required two small-conference champions to swap what had been
automatic passes into the field of 64 for in-through-the-kitchen
invitations. And it assigned inflated seedings to the big boys
and suspiciously low ones to the mid-majors and smalls,
discrepancies that can be explained only by an overreliance on
the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a measure of schedule
strength that serves as a kind of protective tariff for teams
from the Big Bowl Six.

St. Joe's may not have the most obscure basketball pedigree in
the field, but the Hawks are from the Atlantic 10, not the Big
Backscratch Conference. So even though St. Joe's won the A-10
regular-season title, went 10-4 on the road and wound up with a
25-6 record, it could snag no better than a No. 9 seed. "I don't
want to get on my soapbox again, but college basketball was
served," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said after his team nearly
took out Stanford two days after beating eighth-seeded Georgia
Tech. "We saw college basketball the way it's supposed to be, and
it's not about RPIs and seedings and scheduling home games."

Many fans would be pleased to join Martelli atop his soapbox.
The masses of fans who make the NCAAs such a valuable TV
property plunge into office pools not to see the top seeds march
to some preordained station in the Final Four but to watch the
tournament's crouching (Princeton) Tiger, its hidden (Drexel)
Dragon. But what has made this season's event so memorable is
how the lesser teams have bypassed the soapbox to make their
cases on the hardwood.

Indiana State, a No. 13 seed, ousted fourth-seeded Oklahoma as
one of the Sycamores, Kelyn Block, lost three teeth after taking
an elbow to the mouth from the Sooners' Hollis Price. Block
wouldn't go off for a triple root canal until he had contributed
five points in overtime to send the Big 12 tournament champions
home, 70-68.

Utah State, a No. 12 seed, took out fifth-seeded Ohio State of
the Big Ten 77-68, also in OT, thanks to Bernard Rock, a New
Yorker with a tongue stud and a mural of a body (sample tattoo:
STEAL THE ROCK/PASS THE ROCK/SHOOT THE ROCK/BE THE ROCK).
Hampton, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school playing in
only its sixth season of Division I ball, kept the Big 12's Iowa
State, a No. 2 seed, from scoring for the final seven minutes of
a 58-57 Pirates victory, while the legally blind father of
Hampton guard Marseilles Brown peered at the action through
binoculars and told the refs that he knows blind when he sees it.

Another rebuke of the committee came from Georgia State, the
50-49 conqueror of the Big Ten's Wisconsin. This season Georgia
State beat the SEC's Georgia, which in turn beat the ACC's
Georgia Tech, though you can guess which two teams were seeded in
the top half of their draw and which one, at No. 11, wasn't.
Other rebuffs were delivered by the Midwestern Collegiate
Conference's Butler, whose 43-10 halftime lead in its 79-63
victory over the ACC's Wake Forest made the seedings (Wake a No.
7, the Bulldogs a No. 10) look grotesque. And by Mid-American
Conference representative Kent State, which beat Indiana, a No. 4
seed from the Big Ten, 77-73, as the Golden Flashes' Trevor
Huffman scored 24 points against Hoosiers defensive ace Dane
Fife--the same Fife whose dad, a Michigan high school coach, had
once said of Huffman, "He could be a good Division III player."

Most of the first-round upset winners failed to duplicate their
successes in round 2. But as usual Gonzaga, of the West Coast
Conference, made the most emphatic statement on behalf of the
mid-majors. As a result of the mischievous RPI, which ranked the
Bulldogs 75th in the land, they were seeded 12th. Still, thanks
to six three-pointers, five assists and only one turnover from
point guard Dan Dickau, Gonzaga beat No. 5 seed Virginia. After
the Bulldogs defeated Indiana State on Sunday to reach the Sweet
16 for the third year in a row, Cinderella no longer seemed to be
the right word for Gonzaga. Forward Casey Calvary tried to be
helpful, suggesting, "How about Tournament Powerhouse?"

Although she charmed the nation for 48 hours, Cinderella has
seen her future, and, brother, is it grim. NCAA tournament
committee chairman Mike Tranghese, trying to justify awarding an
eighth seed to a 16-14 Georgia team that would lose its opener
to No. 9 Missouri, declared that strength of schedule would
henceforth be paramount among the committee's considerations. Of
course, your schedule can only be as powerful as the schools
willing to play you, and next month the evil stepsisters of
college athletics are fixing to eliminate the last, best
opportunities for smaller schools to play the big boys: The NCAA
membership will vote on a measure that would imperil
early-season events such as the Maui Invitational and the Great
Alaska Shootout, in which a mid-major can take on teams from the
power conferences on a neutral floor with unaffiliated refs.

"The way the selection committee is now using strength of
schedule makes it very important that we keep the [early-season]
tournaments," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, whose 49ers ousted
higher-seeded Tennessee. Yet the power conferences want to
replace those games with more dates among themselves, such as the
Big Ten-ACC Challenge, to inflate their schools' RPIs and swell
their coffers.

If there's a template for what the Big Bowl Six are up to, it's
the BCS. And the conferences' Machiavellian power plays have
already claimed at least one victim. San Diego State athletic
director Rick Bay was duly nominated to take a place on the
basketball committee next season, but Bay inconveniently believes
that college football would be better served by a 16-team playoff
that includes the champions of leagues other than the Big Bowl
Six. So even though the deadline to nominate candidates for the
basketball committee passed in November, Big Ten commissioner Jim
Delany and his counterpart at the SEC, Roy Kramer, took out the
long knives. Insinuating that Bay would be biased against teams
from the Big Bowl Six, Delany and Kramer engineered his
replacement in February with Karl Benson, the commissioner of the
Western Athletic Conference.

Here's what's scary: If Gonzaga and Utah State--and for that
matter Georgia State, Hampton, Indiana State and Kent
State--hadn't won their conference tournaments, they would not
have gotten the chance to expose the big-conference mediocrities
for the overseeded frauds that they were. Dickau believes that
this very knowledge is the crucible in which Gonzaga's success
is forged: "We know if we don't come out to play every night, we
might not make the tournament. Some of these big-name schools
are thinking, We can drop this one to Duke, drop this one to
North Carolina, and we're still going to be all right."

North Carolina State athletic director Lee Fowler will chair the
committee next year, and after all the mid-major commotion of
last week's first round, he sounded a sheepish note. "I
understand how the deck is stacked against the smaller schools,"
said Fowler, who before arriving in Raleigh a year ago spent six
years as athletic director at Middle Tennessee State. "I know the
RPI isn't fair to them. All the wins from mid-majors this year
may make us take a harder look at the better teams in those
leagues."

If Fowler and the committee are really interested in distributing
bids more equitably, here's what they should do:

--Give greater weight to a team's maturity. A hoops dolt could
have figured out that Virginia, which didn't suit up a single
player who'd ever played in an NCAA tournament, had no business
being seeded seven spots ahead of Gonzaga, whose players had
appeared in a total of 19 tournament games. Or that Hampton and
Georgia State, whose rosters were larded with fifth-year seniors
and transfers, deserved more respect. The Big Bowl Six may get
the most talented recruits, but many don't stick around for more
than a season or two. "We have kids for four and five years,"
says Hampton coach Steve Merfeld. "The understanding of roles and
strengths and weaknesses takes time."

--Come up with a good reason for inviting any team that can't
win more conference games than it loses. Though Penn State went
7-9 in the Big Ten, its defeats of Kentucky, Illinois and
Michigan State justified its at-large bid, just as the Nittany
Lions' victory over No. 2 seed North Carolina on Sunday
vindicated the committee's decision. But few middling majors can
make that kind of case. The committee claims that late-season
performance outweighs early-season play, yet in nearly every
case a team that's 7-9 in its league has staggered down the
stretch. "Like a bowl game, the NCAAs should be a reward for
having a great season," says Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian,
whose Bulldogs scored last week's only defeat of a Pac-10 team,
ousting higher-seeded California. "If you finish sixth or
seventh in your league, I don't think you can say you had a
great season."

--Devise a better way to evaluate a team's schedule.
Seventy-five percent of the RPI reflects your opponents'--and
opponents' opponents'--records. In other words, the RPI has
little to do with what you do on the floor or whose floor you do
it on and virtually everything to do with the league you belong
to. When Syracuse plays four preconference games at home for
every one on the road, it should pay a price. "We beat St.
Mary's by 50, and our RPI went down--and it was a road game,"
says Gonzaga's Dickau. "We can't help it that teams won't come
to Spokane to play us."

--Eliminate the play-in game--or order two also-rans from the
Big Bowl Six to contest it. When eight schools bolted the WAC to
form the Mountain West Conference last year, the committee
awarded the MWC an automatic bid but insisted on keeping 34
at-large slots, thus swelling the tournament to 65 teams. As a
result, two automatic qualifiers from lesser leagues--Winthrop
of the Big South and Northwestern State of the Southland
Conference--had to play each other just to make the field of 64.
"I don't understand why the committee is so sold on keeping 34
at-large teams," says Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall, who spent
last Friday at his home in Rock Hill, S.C., watching the
tournament on TV three days after his Eagles had lost to
Northwestern State 71-67. "Why not cut it to 33 so an opening
game isn't necessary?"

We know this comes as a surprise, Coach, but the answer ends in
a lot of zeros. The NCAA's current deal with CBS is worth $220
million annually--in two years it will spike to almost $500
million a year--and that cash gets apportioned according to how
many tournament games each conference wins. Every bid is a kind
of lottery ticket, with about $90,000 guaranteed and more
awarded for each round a team advances. So simply by worming its
way into the draw, a school guarantees its conference nearly a
hundred grand more in revenue. The plutocrats who run college
sports don't want the Big Souths of the world pocketing that
money.

Of course, no outfit in sports emits more highfalutin cant about
a level playing field than the NCAA, which invokes that ideal
every time it enforces one of its Draconian extra-benefits rules.
Yet the Big Bowl Six shamelessly leverage the system to their
advantage. "The 'darling' aspect of the lesser conferences,
giving them their 'day in court,' so to speak, has made the
tournament," says former Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, who
chaired the tournament committee from 1978 to '81 and now does
work for the Maui Invitational. "But the biggies are trying to
take over college basketball the way they've taken over college
football. All of this smacks of the dollar sign."

For evidence that bottom-line bogarting can make a mess of even
the most hallowed sporting events, the committee needn't look
far beyond the NCAA's new headquarters in Indianapolis. Greed
has turned the Indy 500 into just another car race. And in a
state that regards as sacred writ the Hoosiers legend, with its
underlying principle that every underdog deserves its day, the
decision to split the Indiana high school tournament into size
classifications has stripped Hoosier Hysteria of its all-comers
charm and led to plunging interest and revenue.

Among the parties who scored first-round victories last week, we
should include one whose effort went into the books as a loss.
Josh Sankes, the 7-foot center for 15th-seeded Holy Cross,
transferred from a Big Bowl Six school, Rutgers, after coach
Kevin Bannon allegedly ordered him to run naked following a
botched free throw drill three years ago. Only this season did
Sankes reveal that he suffers from a mild form of cerebral palsy
that causes tremors, especially when he tries to keep still
under stress. So there was Sankes on Thursday, using Don
Nelson's old painter-at-the-easel style, sinking all five of his
free throws on the most nerve-racking stage in his sport. His
last foul shot tied the Crusaders' game against Kentucky at 58
with 6 1/2 minutes to play.

Sankes's achievement didn't lead to a Holy Cross victory over the
Wildcats, the No. 2 seed in the East, much less to the glory that
Duke, Michigan State and their like will strive for over the next
two weeks. But it was a triumph nonetheless, the kind that the
panjandrums of college sports should not jeopardize. To turn the
tournament into a staging ground for their avaricious turf wars
is to desecrate a sacred event of which they are but trustees.

"We go out every night and give our all like everybody else in
America," O'Connor said last Saturday night. "I mean, there are
over 300 teams in Division I basketball, and you don't even hear
of half of them. I just think that everybody should get a
chance."

We all know what became of Cinderella. The suits in college
basketball's back rooms might want to ponder the fate of the
evil stepsisters: "For their wickedness and falsehood, they were
punished with blindness all their days."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Dirty Pool Though college basketball's little guys got sucker punched by the NCAA, some, like Hampton and its coach, Steve Merfeld, had good reason to celebrate [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO The Butlers did it Wake Forest had a higher seed but was outhustled by hungry Bulldogs such as Brandon Miller (foreground, left). COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH High-flyin' Hawk O'Connor put a scare into Stanford's Jason and Jarron Collins with 37 points before St. Joe's succumbed by seven. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Uprising Hard drives by Gonzaga's Dickau (opposite) sent Virginia packing, and Kent State's Rashaun Warren helped stop Indiana. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Rubbernecker Contrary to appearances, Charlotte's Rodney White didn't lose his head against Tennessee, but the Vols lost the game.

"There are over 300 teams in Division I basketball, and you
don't even hear of half of them," said O'Connor. "I just think
everyone should get a chance."

Cinderella no longer seems the right word for Gonzaga. "How
about Tournament Powerhouse?" suggests Calvary.

"All the wins by the mid-majors may make us take a harder look
at them," says Fowler, next year's committee chair.

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