Stable league lineups join peach basket in oblivion


It's sixty-five days and counting until the NCAA selection committee announces the 64-team tournament field.

The draw will consist of 30 conference champions and 34 at-large teams, and more than half of the leagues will undergo changes in membership this season or next. If you can name all 16 teams that will play in the Western Athletic Conference in 1996-97, put down the remote control and get a life. If you can't, read on for a primer on changes in the local and not-so-local landscape.

* Atlantic 10: It had nine teams last season and has 12 now, but who's counting? Upwardly mobile Rutgers and West Virginia bolted to the Big East, but the A-10 picked up Dayton, Fordham, La Salle, Xavier and Virginia Tech. Tech will have the biggest impact among the newcomers.

The conference tournament will stay in Philadelphia but move a few blocks, from the Palestra to the Civic Center.

* Big East: No one wants to finish in 13th place, so divisions have come to the Big East, thanks to the addition of Notre Dame, Rutgers and West Virginia. The Fighting Irish are going to get beat up, Rutgers lost last month to Wagner and West Virginia isn't going to make that much of a difference, either.

There will be three first-round byes in the tournament at Madison Square Garden. Syracuse started 11-0, but look for Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and Kerry Kittles to lead Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova to those byes.

* Big South: UMBC's league lost Towson State, but regained its bid to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence.

* Colonial: Virginia Commonwealth wasn't invited into Conference USA, but it would have been in over its head there, anyway. The CAA tournament is held in Richmond, and behind Bernard Hopkins, a senior forward from Overlea, VCU will challenge Old Dominion.

* Conference USA: The newest super conference combines six teams from the Great Midwest and five from the Metro, and picks up Houston next year. It doesn't have an automatic bid, but it could land a half-dozen at-large berths. Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, UNC-Charlotte and Saint Louis made the tournament last year; Alabama-Birmingham and De Paul began the New Year with solid credentials, and Marquette is on the rise.

* Metro Atlantic: Loyola's league is stable for now, but it will pick up Marist and Rider from the Northeast Conference next season.

* Mid-Eastern: Morgan State is on NCAA probation, so the nine-team league won't need a playoff between the last-place teams. After some nightmares in Baltimore the last two years, Coppin State will welcome a shift of the tournament venue to Tallahassee.

* North Atlantic: Four years after it initially wanted in, Towson State is finally the NAC's 10th member. The greatest player in conference history was the late Reggie Lewis at Northeastern, and another Dunbar grad will have an impact this year, as soon as Scooter Alexander rediscovers his shooting stroke.

The first three rounds of the tournament are at Delaware, but the title game will be played at the higher remaining seed.

* Northeast: The NEC will lose two of its top programs next season, when Marist and Rider go to the MAAC. That will only make life easier for defending champion Mount St. Mary's.

* Patriot: With Fordham gone, Navy's league is down to seven teams. The regular-season champion will advance directly into the semifinals. The first two rounds of the tournament will be at Holy Cross, but the title game will be at the higher remaining seed.


From the World Gone Wrong Department: Morgan State began the week with a higher rating in the index system used by the NCAA selection committee than Coppin State. The Bears' considerable strength of schedule has them at No. 210 among the nation's 305 teams, while the Eagles are at No. 225.

Forget the Rose Bowl. The real Cinderella story would be if Northwestern made the NCAA tournament for the first time. . . . Tomorrow's Connecticut-at-Tennessee women's game lost some luster when the defending NCAA champions lost at Syracuse on Tuesday.

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