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Tournament a big-league dance now

The nation's major conferences are poised to grab most at-large bids.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


In four days, the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee will sequester itself in an Indianapolis hotel room to pick 34 at-large teams for this year's tournament.

It's always a major chore, but especially so this year.

The major conferences -- the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East and Pac-10 -- could receive as many as 31 of those spots.

Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (it's 65 this year with 31 automatic berths), the six leagues have never garnered more than 25 spots, reaching that number in 1994 and 1997.

That has left multiple at-large spots for leagues in the next tier, including Conference USA, the Atlantic 10 and the Western Athletic Conference as well as the so-called "mid-majors" like the Missouri Valley and Mid-American.

Usually ...

"Our job is to take the 34 best teams in the country. I don't care where they come from," said Mike Tranghese, the selection committee chairman and the Big East commissioner. "Whatever the makeup happens to be is the way it's going to be. We've never spent time talking about it. In fact, it's a taboo subject once the process starts."

Once he and his group begin poring through reams of statistics, various rankings, such as the AP and coaches polls and the NCAA's own Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), the focus of the at-large board will be on teams predominantly from six leagues:

ACC -- North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Virginia, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech appear to be NCAA locks, which would match the number of teams from the league in the past two years combined.

Big East -- Boston College, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Georgetown, Providence and Connecticut seem assured of spots regardless of how they fare in the league tournament.

Big Ten -- Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio State are in the field. Iowa, which still expects top scorer Luke Recker to return from a fractured right kneecap for the post-season, and Penn State seem to merit bids, too.

Big 12 -- Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri, especially with top scorer Kareem Rush to return from a broken left thumb Sunday at Kansas, are in.

Pac-10 -- Stanford, UCLA, Arizona, California and even struggling USC should give the league its largest NCAA representation since 1997 when Arizona won the title.

SEC -- Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia look to be in from what's arguably the toughest, deepest league, which would mean an SEC-record seven berths.

Barring upsets in the conference tournaments, that's 29 at-larges.

"I think that's the way it's going to go because there has been a distinct difference as far as the status of the upper-echelon leagues," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said.

Also look for Oklahoma State to get a bid. The Cowboys not only have won five of six entering today's game at Oklahoma, they likely will receive additional credit for the way they have responded to the plane crash in January that claimed 10 lives from the program's family, including two players.

"I'm very, very sensitive personally to that kind of tragedy and, I guess, as a committee we're going to have to talk about it," Tranghese said.

That would be No. 30 from one of the big six leagues. Villanova and West Virginia also are on the "bubble" out of the Big East, and either one, depending on next week's conference tournament, might improve its stock enough to become No. 31.

Meanwhile, St. Joseph's and Xavier look to be in from the A-10, which could mean only two more at-larges.

So, who's left?

Temple (17-12 entering today's game against George Washington), which has missed the NCAAs once in the past 17 years (1989), has played a tough non-conference schedule but has one quality win (Indiana).

Other bubble teams include Illinois State (Missouri Valley), Wyoming and Brigham Young (Mountain West), Pepperdine (West Coast), UTEP, Tulsa and TCU (WAC).

"I know darn well that many people on the committee, having formulated much of their opinions, are sitting and hoping that the wrong guys don't win our conference tournament, hoping they aren't put in a tough situation," Temple coach John Chaney said.

Creighton (Missouri Valley), Butler (Midwestern Collegiate), UC-Irvine (Big West) and Georgia State (Trans America Athletic Conference) have the credentials for an at-large bid even if they falter in their tournaments.

USF, Southern Miss, Charlotte, Marquette and Memphis probably only can get in the NCAA Tournament by winning the C-USA tournament.

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