Conference quandary clouds Towson's future


DAYTON, Ohio -- At 6 feet 8 and 230 pounds, Ohio State center Perry Carter appeared ready to notch one of his biggest nights against smaller Towson State in the Buckeyes' first-round game Friday night in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament's Midwest Regional.

And though Carter had 15 points and 11 rebounds in OhiState's 97-86 win, he said he had no idea how much of a battle the East Coast Conference champions would throw at the Big Ten co-champs.

"Towson is not deep physically," Carter said. "But they havtremendous athletic ability that enables them to stay in games."

The season is over for Towson State (19-11). But unlike last yearwhen four starters were lost from a team that gave top-ranked Oklahoma fits before losing, 77-68, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, all five Towson starters are to return next year. The Tigers will lose only senior Lewis Waller, the sixth man.

That being the case, the Tigers' future would seem to be bright. But Towson's conference situation is cloudy at this point. And the team's chances for a third straight trip to the tournament are in the air.

With Drexel and Delaware departing to the North Atlantic Conference next season, the ECC's membership has dwindled to five teams and its automatic tournament bid is in jeopardy. Towson has applied for membership to the NAC, and a decision could be made this month on its application. Even if the school is accepted into the conference, it's unclear whether the Tigers could be added to next year's schedule.

"I don't know where that stands," Towson coach Terry Truasaid. "A representative group from the [NAC] will be on campus Tuesday or Wednesday. I just hope everything is handled quickly because it's critical in terms of many areas, including recruiting."

Should Towson not be eligible for a conference title next season, Devin Boyd, Terrance Jacobs and Chuck Lightening -- the team's top three scorers who will all be seniors next year -- have indicated they might sit out a season and wait for a another shot to compete for an NCAA berth.

Next season, or the season after, Towson should be a good team, if its entire unit remains intact. Boyd, limited to just 21 minutes Friday after picking up three fouls in first half, still scored 17 against Ohio State (26-3), including some big baskets when the Tigers made a run to cut the Buckeyes' lead to five late in the game. Jacobs (22 points) is the ultimate scrapper and a top-notch defender. And Lightening (6-5, 208 pounds), who led the Tigers with 26 points Friday, went right at the Buckeyes despite the disadvantage in size.

"When you looked at Ohio State, it was obvious what we didn'have it," said Lightening, referring to the size factor. "But we just work with what we have, and we're always confident in our ability to compete."

Even freshman center John James, a 6-8, 190-pound string bean, proved he could play with the big guys from the Big Ten. Going against the Buckeyes' trees of Carter and Treg Lee (6-8, 240), James grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and scored six points. On the boards, the Tigers were more competitive than expected, managing one fewer rebound than Ohio State, 44-43.

"Guys like James and Matt Campbell had super seasons afreshmen," Truax said. "After a game like that, I think they realize they have to spend some time in the weight room in the off-season."

Overall, Truax was very pleased with his team's performance in a season that not many felt it would have a serious chance of repeating as ECC champion.

"I think outsiders would look at this as an overachieving team, but this team had its own expectations," Truax said. "They had a nice, quiet confidence -- but they're not arrogant. They felt all along they could win the conference and return to the NCAAs.

"I'm encouraged for next year -- we have everybody back witthe exception of Lewis [Waller]," Truax added. "We're dangerously close to winning a first-round game and once you do that, you have to take that next step. Towson, if it were fortunate to repeat and return to the NCAAs, is in a position to win a first-round game."

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