Tournaments to determine majors' slice of at-large pie


Over the weekend, a number of teams in the nine major conferences will suddenly take an interest in the welfare of Boston University and the College of Charleston.

The committee that puts together the 64-team field for the NCAA men's basketball tournament has developed a soft spot for teams that dominate middle-of-the-road conferences but are upset in league tournaments. The trend has meant one fewer at-large berth for the major conferences, some David vs. Goliath story lines and back-patting at the NCAA.

Tenth-seeded Santa Clara of the West Coast Conference knocked off Maryland last year. Two years ago, Manhattan, a 13th seed, came out of the Metro Atlantic and stunned Oklahoma, and the Mid-American's Miami of Ohio was a 12th seed when it shocked Arizona.

All three were at-large selections.

"It certainly justifies the rationale that led us to the decision," said Terry Holland, the University of Virginia athletic director who is chairman of the men's basketball committee. "Rationale is what got us a good choice."

So what is the rationale for mid-majors getting at-large berths when common wisdom dictates they should go to teams on the fringes of major conferences? Is there something the committee looks for beyond all the computer printouts and number-crunching?

"Your road nonconference record is something you control," Holland said. "You can't choose your conference, but we've seen some leaning in the past that we're going to reward the teams who continue to improve their schedule. That proves to us that they want to be in the tournament."

If that's the case, the powers that be might have less to worry about this year, as realignment, balance and lame nonconference scheduling could give the nine major conferences a monopoly on the 34 at-large bids.

Here's what could limit the role of the mid-majors:

* America East: Boston U. is No. 40 in the duplicate of the Ratings Percentage Index, which is used by the NCAA to compare teams. The Terriers, 22-4 overall, have lost only once since Christmas, but their nonconference wins are over Florida A&M;, East Carolina, Harvard, Loyola and South Florida. If Drexel wins the tournament -- hardly a stretch -- Boston U. might be in the National Invitation Tournament.

* Metro Atlantic Athletic: If regular-season champion Iona doesn't win the tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., this weekend, the Gaels will be relegated to the NIT. Yes, there was a win at Rhode Island, but the December schedule -- American, Hampton and Cornell -- was hardly challenging, one reason its RPI rating is an off-the-bubble No. 93.

* Mid-American: How far will a November win at Purdue take Bowling Green? The Falcons are No. 64 in the RPI, but their credentials aren't all that much better than those of Eastern Michigan, which is stumbling down the stretch, Miami of Ohio and Ohio University.

* Missouri Valley: The MVC got two berths in each of the past three years, but headliner Tulsa bolted to the Western Athletic Conference and left confusion at the top.

Southwest Missouri State has some decent nonconference wins and the RPI, No. 49, but Illinois State, a shakier No. 58, is the regular-season champion. Watch No. 92 Bradley, which takes seven straight wins into this weekend's tournament in St. Louis.

* Sun Belt: Co-champions New Orleans and South Alabama are Nos. 61 and 79, respectively, in the RPI. Neither played a %J daunting nonconference schedule.

* Trans-America Athletic: Does anyone expect the College of Charleston, No. 59 in the RPI and clearly the class of the TAAC, not to emerge from the tournament? It's being held at the John Kresse Arena, which is on campus and happens to be named for the Cougars' coach.

* West Coast: Despite the departure of Steve Nash, Santa Clara earned a share of the regular-season honors with St. Mary's, but they're Nos. 97 and 98, respectively, in the RPI.

Among the three independents, Oral Roberts is No. 55, but hurt by the fact that no one with any bargaining power would play the Golden Eagles over the past two months.

Tonight's games

Mount St. Mary's (14-12, 10-8) at Rider (13-13, 10-8)

Site: Alumni Gym, Lawrenceville, N.J.

Time: 9

Radio: WXTR (820 AM), WMTB (89.9 FM)

Outlook: Fifth-seeded Mount St. Mary's comes into the Northeast Conference quarterfinals with nine victories in its past 11 games, and fourth-seeded Rider has lost four of five. The two teams split their regular-season meetings, but the Mount has won three straight at the Rider court, including a 69-62 decision in the 1995 NEC title game. The Broncs have been weakened by the losses of C Kevin McPeak (injured all season) and F Charles Smith (disciplinary action before the start of the season). Freshman Gregory Harris (12.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg), a member of the all-NEC newcomer team, leads a balanced Mount attack.

Towson State (8-18, 5-13) vs. Northeastern (7-19, 6-12)

Site: Bob Carpenter Center, Newark, Del.

Time: 9: 30

Radio: WTMD (89.7 FM)

Outlook: Towson and Northeastern are playing their best basketball of the season as they head into this first-round game of the America East tournament that will send the winner to the NCAA tournament. Tenth-seeded Towson has won three of its past four, including three straight conference victories, and Northeastern won three conference games in a row to gain the No. 7 seed. The Tigers and Huskies split two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road. Junior F Ralph Biggs is averaging 18.6 points and 6.6 rebounds to lead Towson. The other starters are expected to be junior F Derick Newton (14.3, 5.8); junior C Ryan Lexer (11.3, 6.5); senior G Michael Keyes (9.6, 2.4) and senior G/F Florian Schneider (5.6, 1.8), with freshman guards Damon Cason (5.2, 1.8 assists) and Marlin Wise (3.0, 1.9 assists) coming off the bench early and often. Northeastern, which prefers to play a deliberate game, is led by junior F Ty Mack (16.4, 6.7 rebounds), a transfer from Odessa Junior College.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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