Imagine an NCAA tournament without Jim Boeheim, John Chaney, Bob Knight, Nolan Richardson, Dean Smith and John Thompson.
Yes, it's a scenario that's hard to fathom. Several of those coaches will steer their teams to a bid, but it's a sign of the changing of the guard in college basketball that some traditional heavyweights will find themselves on the outside looking in come March 9, when the 64-team field is announced.
There are 30 conferences with automatic bids, and as many as 19 could be restricted to one berth. With the exception of the occasional College of Charleston, Eastern Michigan or Illinois State, the majority of the 34 at-large bids will be divided among nine conferences.
With 25 days to Selection Sunday, here's the outlook in the major conferences.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE: If any league deserves six bids, it's the ACC, but how far below .500 can Virginia go in conference play and still warrant selection? The Cavaliers are 5-7 after last night's one-point loss to Duke. A record of 7-9 might get Virginia a berth, but it didn't work for Georgia Tech two years ago.
Wake Forest, Duke, Clemson and Maryland are in. North Carolina will be if it keeps playing as it has in the past three weeks.
ATLANTIC 10: Coming off its best season ever, the A-10 contends that it deserves the four bids it earned last year, but it might have to settle for three.
Xavier and St. Joseph's appear to be locks. Massachusetts won nine of 10 to revive its season. Temple is 6-4 in the A-10, but it swept the top three teams in Conference USA. Rhode Island and George Washington are also capable of winning the A-10 tournament, and that's the only way the Colonials could fulfill their preseason billing.
"My son told me last night just to run the table," GW coach Mike Jarvis said. "The reality is, the only way to get in that I know for sure is to win the A-10 tournament."
Easier said than done. GW hasn't won two in a row since Dec. 2-8.
BIG EAST: After a short-lived renaissance, the conference is headed back to 1993, when it got only three bids. That's the only year since the Big East began operations in 1979 in which both Georgetown and Syracuse failed to earn bids, and the Orangemen had probation as an excuse then.
No. 18 Villanova is the conference's only ranked team. Its standing in the RPI -- the Ratings Percentage Index, the strength-of-schedule-fueled formula used to seed teams -- is a lofty No. 7. The Wildcats are coming off a 37-point loss at Kentucky, which gave the Big East a 2-14 record against nonconference Top 25 competition.
Miami and Boston College are the division leaders du jour, but the Hurricanes have an RPI standing of No. 55, and the Eagles' biggest nonconference win came over Vanderbilt. Providence is considered a lock, but it lost by 17 to Rhode Island. West Virginia isn't out of it yet, but losing to Notre Dame last night didn't help.
March Madness peaks March 5 at Madison Square Garden, when the Big East tournament begins with five first-round games. Lose, and stick around for the NIT.
BIG TEN: The Big Ten has been a big flop the last two years, failing to put a team in the Sweet 16 since 1994.
Minnesota didn't even make the field last year, but it's ahead of another undistinguished pack this season. The Golden Gophers are in position to nail down a No. 1 seed, but they still have road games at Purdue (tonight), Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin, and all are angling for bids.
Illinois has 17 wins, and Indiana has 19. The Hoosiers have the second-best RPI standing in the conference -- No. 11 -- but they recently went through a 3-6 stretch. Knight's troops are in seventh place, and it would be hard to justify more than five teams from the conference.
BIG 12: The inaugural season for the Big 12 will be remembered for the dominance of top-ranked Kansas, which has been penciled in as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, but Colorado and Iowa State are also in position for top-four seeds.
Texas and Texas A&M;, two of the four refugees from the Southwest Conference, and Oklahoma are probably fighting for two bids.
CONFERENCE USA: Some teams endure through injuries -- see Kansas and Kentucky -- while Cincinnati shows off its talent by playing through one of its weekly suspensions. The Bearcats, No. 1 in the preseason, were ranked as low as No. 12, but they figure to be no lower than a No. 2 seed.
While Louisville and Marquette are coming off a couple of rough weeks, North Carolina-Charlotte and Tulane have worked their way up the ladder. Memphis still has the talent to rise up and beat the likes of Michigan and Louisville, but Larry Finch needs a tournament title to get one last NCAA bid.
PACIFIC-10: Arizona gets co-leaders USC and UCLA at home this week, and by Saturday the Wildcats probably will have locked up their 13th straight bid. The Bruins and Trojans aren't on quite as solid ground. Cal has more wins, 16, than anyone else in the conference.
Fifth-place Stanford is No. 22 with an anchor -- three straight losses have imperiled a third straight bid for the Cardinal.
SOUTHEASTERN: No conference has delivered like the SEC the last three years. Arkansas and Kentucky have won titles, and Florida and Mississippi State have made the Final Four. Last year, all four of its participants reached the Sweet 16.
Defending champion Kentucky could be a top seed, South Carolina has come on to likely earn an attractive seed, and Georgia and Mississippi are near-locks. Both Arkansas, which has an RPI standing of No. 64, and Vanderbilt could wind up in the NIT if the NCAA follows procedure and really does ignore past performance.
WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE: Remember the stink that was raised when the Bowl Alliance ignored Brigham Young last football season? The WAC, which expanded this year to 16 teams, could be in for another angry postseason.
Utah is ranked No. 5, but its RPI standing is only No. 20. New Mexico and Tulsa are considered locks. Hawaii, Fresno State and Texas Christian have some decent wins, but the coaches acknowledge that they're concerned about a lack of name recognition.
"With the size of the league, I think it's a sure bet that we would get six teams," said Billy Tubbs, the TCU coach. "The thing is, once you get past the top eight or 10 teams, there are probably 60 teams out there, and there's not much difference between them."
The powers that be
Some high-profile programs still have work to do if they expect to make this year's NCAA tournament.
The Razorbacks were the last team selected in 1996, and Nolan Richardson justified his 10th straight bid by getting to the Sweet 16. Arkansas' RPI is No. 64, and it's not going to rise appreciably, since it has only two more games against teams with winning records in SEC play.
John Thompson could be coaching in the NIT for the second time in five years if the Hoyas don't finish with a flourish. Tonight's game against Providence is Georgetown's first at the USAir Arena since Jan. 27, but the Hoyas go back on the road for three of their last four.
The Hoosiers were flying high in November, when they beat Connecticut and Duke, but as they slipped to seventh place in the Big Ten, Bob Knight all but disowned his upperclassmen. There are coming road games at Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State.
The Minutemen struggled to a 6-9 start, but they've gotten healthy and steadied themselves under first-year coach Bruiser Flint. The nation's hardest nonconference schedule concludes Saturday, against No. 10 Maryland.
North Carolina (15-6)
The Tar Heels have won five of their past seven, so Dean Smith's unprecedented 23rd straight bid appears safe except that the last four games are against Wake Forest, Maryland, Clemson and Duke.
Last year's runner-up has won six of its past nine, but Jim Boeheim's team won't be helped by the lame cast in the Big East, or by its weak December nonconference schedule.
The Owls stand fourth in the Atlantic 10's East Division heading into tomorrow night's showdown with St. Joseph's, but John Chaney teams usually close strong and the NCAA will probably reward an ambitious nonconference schedule.
The 1995 champions and '96 busts have worked their way to the top of the Pac-10, but this week they have the always-unpleasant Arizona-Arizona State road trip, then return home to face USC and Duke. Can first-year coach Steve Lavin keep the egos in check and the Bruins on track?
If the season ended today, here's what the top four seeds in each region might look like.
1. Wake Forest 3. Iowa State
2. S. Carolina 4. Villanova
1. Kentucky 3. Michigan
2. Duke 4. Colorado
1. Kansas 3. Clemson
2. Cincinnati 4. New Mexico
1. Minnesota 3. Arizona
2. Utah 4. Maryland
Pub Date: 2/12/97