Absent the stars who made it a special place to play a year ago, the Big East Conference has evoked a new, not-so-special image this basketball season.
Parity, with all its pratfalls, has arrived in a major way.
So much so that without the likes of Kerry Kittles, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson or John Wallace, the Big East tournament that begins today at Madison Square Garden will resemble a free-for-all where almost anyone can win, but very few can survive.
Syracuse, which made a magical run to the national championship game a year ago, may need to win three games at the Garden just to get into the NCAA's field of 64 this year.
West Virginia boasts the league's second-best rating percentage index (38) and went 7-3 down the stretch. But at 18-8, it could all turn to fool's gold if the Mountaineers make an early exit from the conference tournament.
Providence had a bid sewn up until a disastrous finish, in which the Friars lost five of their last seven, deposited them among the ranks of the merely hopeful.
Short of the tournament championship and automatic NCAA berth, you can forget Pitt (16-13) and Miami (15-11) as well. In fact, outside of Villanova (No. 8 RPI) and perhaps Georgetown (No. 64) and Boston College (No. 53), there are no NCAA locks in the Big East crowd. There is only bubble mania.
"I think what's happened is, we're beating each other up," said Rutgers coach Bob Wenzel, among those with no chance of NCAA survival. "The league has a lot of young players. Replacing Iverson, Ray Allen, Wallace, Kittles is a difficult thing to do. So I don't think the league is as good as last year. But there are a lot of competitive teams."
I= With the most muddled postseason picture of any major con
ference, Big East teams need a good showing at the Garden and a little luck to collar their usual NCAA allotment.
"An educated guess is we should get four [bids], and if somebody gets hot in the tournament, we could get five," said St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla.
Let the bubble games begin. Here is a look at those teams on the major-conference fence heading into Selection Sunday.
Atlantic Coast Conference: The NCAA Selection Committee will look kindly on Virginia's No. 25 RPI and its clutch win over Maryland this week. So much for the Cavaliers' unsightly loss to Duke due to officiating error. That gives the ACC a well-deserved six teams in the tourney.
Atlantic-10: John Chaney's Temple Owls should be declared champions of Conference USA -- they beat Cincinnati, Louisville and Tulane -- but finished fourth in the A-10's East Conference behind St. Joseph's, Rhode Island and UMass. Xavier, at 21-4, won the West.
Temple's 17-9 record also includes a sweep of 19th-ranked St. Joe's, but the bottom line for the Owls could be last weekend's loss at UMass. That might have gotten the Minutemen, with their No. 35 RPI and their 12 losses, into the big dance as the league's fourth team. Temple could use a boffo performance in the A-10 tourney.
Big Ten: Despite a dismal 3-11 record in the last two NCAA tournaments, the conference figures to get six bids, including Purdue with a 16-11 record and one game left. That would effectively squeeze out underachieving Michigan (17-11), which has fallen to eighth in the Big Ten.
Worse yet, the Wolverines, who climbed as high as fourth in the Top 25, have plummeted completely out of the poll with five straight losses. The question is, can the committee throw out Michigan's still formidable RPI of 27? Can the Big Ten say "seven?"
Big 12: After Kansas (28-1) and Colorado (21-8), there's a whole lot of posturing going on here. Take Tim Floyd, the Iowa State coach, whose record is 19-7 and RPI ranking a bubble-fraught 48.
"The same RPI that has us 48th has this league second [to the ACC]," Floyd said. "We were 10-6 in that league. You can't tell me it's not one of the two best conferences in the country. I was looking at a pre-draft list and six of the 16 names were from the Big 12. And that list didn't include [Paul] Pierce and [Raef] LaFrentz."
If Floyd is sweating, it's not hard to see why. Texas Tech (20), Texas (24) and even Oklahoma (44) have better RPI rankings. Floyd says the league should get six bids, and if that's the case, all of the above are happy
Conference USA: Cincinnati and Louisville are locks, which leaves Tulane (20-9, No. 50 RPI) and UNC-Charlotte (19-7, 36) battling for the third and probable last spot.
Tulane won 11 in a row in midseason, lost four in a row, then won four in a row. UNC-Charlotte was more consistent, winning seven of its last eight and 11 of its last 14. The conference tournament should decide the issue.
Missouri Valley Conference: Illinois State beat Southwest Missouri State in the conference tournament championship to get the automatic bid. But Southwest Missouri has 24 wins, the best RPI in the league (41) and won seven of its last eight. This is one year the MVC should get two bids.
Pacific-10: UCLA, Arizona and California are in; Stanford is the team with sweaty palms. The Cardinal went 18-7, and suffered a critical loss to Washington last month. But with an RPI of 34, Stanford probably will go as the league's fourth team.
Southeastern Conference: South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi figure to receive the league's first four bids. Vanderbilt (18-10) and Arkansas (15-11) are pretty much on the outside looking in.
Assuming it shows well in the SEC tournament, Vanderbilt can make a case for a fifth bid, winning seven of its last nine. Arkansas will need divine intervention. The Razorbacks lost three of their last four and sank to 63rd in the RPI rankings.
Western Athletic Conference: Utah (23-3), Tulsa (22-8) and New Mexico (23-6) are clearly the class of the league in the Mountain Conference. But Hawaii, Fresno State and Colorado State all won 20 games playing in the Pacific Conference. Essentially, it will come down to a fourth team -- either Hawaii (No. 40 RPI) or Fresno State (No. 56).
Pub Date: 3/05/97