Just getting there is what it's all about

The scene is played out, oh, a half-dozen times as March blows in each year. A horn sounds, a basketball court becomes instant Times Square on New Year's Eve and the NCAA tournament legend roars on.

On Monday night, the dream set down on Uppah Charles Street, Lynchburg, Va., and in Lefty Driesell's lap, and it will make sporadic appearances across the land throughout the week.


Perhaps you caught Loyola's pulsating victory over Manhattan on ESPN. Un-be-liev-a-ble. That's what it's like every time a school receives its first invite to "The Dance."

Tumultuous merriment. Remember Towson State and Coppin State breaking their maidens a few years back?


One thing all past and present Greyhounds are commanded not to do is think ahead a couple of days to the tourney selection and pairings show: Sunday, 5:30 p.m., CBS. See, the formula was established back in the days of the center jump: The top seed in each of four regions is pitted against No. 16, 2 vs. 15, 3 vs. 14, etc.

But this is no time for Loyola to speculate on what team it will be a 30-point underdog against next week: Arkansas, Duke, Missouri, Connecticut, Arizona or whomever. Or if it will be granted a coveted No. 15 seed. The battle is won, that's the important thing.

Check out the list of the first 11 teams qualifying for the 64-team, 19-day extravaganza. Besides Loyola, Liberty and James Madison, there are Penn, Central Florida, Tennessee State, Rider, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Southwest Texas State, Southern Illinois and Pepperdine.

Hey, that wouldn't be a bad conference or, lumped together, provide a decent all-star team to go against the likes of the big boys with the high-profile coaches. That's what a bunch of bench brains from the so-called power conferences are thinking this very minute as they head into league tournaments this weekend.

It's true more often than not that a fifth- or sixth-place finisher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten or the Southeast Conference is better than the qualifier from any number of conferences. But what must be remembered here is these 11 qualifiers represent 99 institutions, a third of the schools playing Division I hoops.

It's a small price to pay, making sure the entire membership is involved, especially with all the money involved over the course of the NCAA's contract with CBS.

According to many of the bubble boys, coaches of teams like Nebraska, Michigan State, Illinois, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Texas Tech, Georgetown, Providence, Villanova, Virginia, Georgia Tech, George Washington, Maryland and a few more think they should be "automatics" simply by holding their own in strong and well-balanced conferences.

"Tied for fourth in the ACC, we'd better be in [the NCAA tourney]," said Gary Williams of Maryland, as though his Terps hadn't been doing considerable backing up of late after rushing out to a 5-1 record in the league.


The beefs from teams playing .500 ball in their conferences suggests these high-profile programs are not satisfied with the gobs of publicity and money they have access to in regular-season television packages and from their conference tournaments. Several are spending upwards of $1.5 million a season on hoops, and it's still not enough, obviously.

It's the old law of supply and demand: We demand everything you can supply.

* A couple of the stories detailing the particulars of James Madison making the tourney field by winning the Colonial Athletic Association title over Old Dominion on a last-second three-pointer barely got around to mentioning the name of the school.

It was all Lefty Driesell this and Lefty Driesell that, the former Maryland coach getting back to the tourney after a seven-year absence.

JMU either led or tied for the CAA regular-season title each of the past five years but got zapped in the tournament. In four straight NIT appearances, Lefty's boys went out in the first round.

* The East Coast Conference doesn't get a bid, but after its tournament last weekend, it probably doesn't bother anyone. The semifinal games totaled three overtimes, then Hofstra beat Northeast Illinois in two overtimes in the final to send coach Butch Van Breda Kolf happily into retirement.


* USAir Arena, which plays host to one of the East sub-regionals March 18-20, was sold out a year ago at $91 per ticket (for six games), a total take of about $1.8 million. . . . Maryland is 30-1 to win the ACC tourney, Miami a cool million-to-1 to prevail in the Big East. . . . No matter what happens once teams are out frolicking around the country in the tournament, a strong argument can be made that the best time of all is the week before the tourney even begins with all the excitement, anticipation and, yes, disappointment in the air. Think about it.