Rich rewards await fans who go to court

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard Beale, fictional mad prophet of the airwaves, told Americans to rise up from their televisions and get a life.

Basketball fans should do the same and experience a game in person. There are some fine teams visiting the state in the next week, and we're not talking about Georgia Tech.

Vermont, ranked No. 18 in one replica of the Rating Percentage Index and the toast of the America East conference, makes its annual trip to UMBC on Wednesday. It will be the last time in Baltimore for senior forward Taylor Coppenrath and Tom Brennan, who's retiring from coaching but not his morning drive-time radio show.

Towson has a Colonial Athletic Association game at home tomorrow against Hofstra. The Pride beat St. John's and lost by only five at Syracuse, and its 3-5 conference record is testament to the depth in the CAA.

Bucknell, another member of the top 15 in the mid-major poll conducted by collegeinsider.com, goes to Navy on Sunday. On paper, it's the best team in the Patriot League against the worst, but the Bison know the danger of venturing into Alumni Hall and the David vs. Goliath thing.

Bucknell takes an 11-game winning streak to American tonight. In the span of six days, the Bison won at Saint Joseph's, which went to the Elite Eight last year, and at then-No. 10 Pittsburgh.

There were no students to help them celebrate when they returned to their campus an hour north of Harrisburg, Pa., but the Bison are still reaping the benefits of their Jan. 2 conquest of the Panthers, who have since won at Connecticut.

"When I Googled Bucknell-Pittsburgh the next morning, every paper in the country had something about the game," said junior guard Kevin Bettencourt, an hour after appearing on ESPN's Cold Pizza on Wednesday morning. "You don't see yourself on SportsCenter every day."

Bucknell had a fourth straight losing record last season, but it started three freshmen and two sophomores and did something no other Bison team had done in Patriot League play, beat Navy at Navy.

A 7-9 finish is the goal for some members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which banks on getting five or six teams into the NCAA tournament. In single-bid conferences like the Patriot League, the home-court advantage becomes paramount in the postseason and every game really does count.

The Patriot, which modeled itself on the Ivy League when it opened for basketball business in 1990, but eventually allowed scholarships, doesn't generate enough interest to conduct a neutral-site tournament. This year, its regular-season champion will play host to all of its league tournament games, hence Bucknell's urgency at running the table.

"There are a lot of incentives to finish first," assistant coach Nathan Davis said. "You have to respond every night out."

Davis is calling the shots while coach Pat Flannery takes what is expected to be a brief leave of absence to deal with a medical issue.

Flannery got his first win in Annapolis in 10 tries last year. In matters of the road, the Bison still have to go to Holy Cross, which actually has a higher RPI. The Patriot remains among the conferences that have never won in the NCAA tournament, although Holy Cross threw March scares into Kentucky, Kansas and Marquette from 2001 to 2003.

Bucknell might have the goods this time, thanks to a mix that includes junior wing Charles Lee, the leading rebounder, who went to Quince Orchard High in Montgomery County, and Chris McNaughton, a 6-foot-11, 22-year-old sophomore who had been a member of Gemany's under-20 team.

The Bison received six votes in this week's Associated Press poll, as many as George Washington, Marquette and Maryland.

Dogged Devils

Shelden Williams, 38.

Daniel Ewing, 39.

J.J. Redick, 40.

That's minutes played, but it could have been how old they felt after fatigue contributed to Duke's going three minutes without a point down the stretch against Maryland. Redick may be in great shape, but playing the entire game and spending the second half chasing Nik Caner-Medley, the ACC's hottest player, was a recipe for disaster.

The Blue Devils will get deeper when Shavlik Randolph becomes 100 percent and Reggie Love's injury heals, but do you think Mike Krzyzewski wishes Mike Thompson were still on campus? He was one of four McDonald's All-Americans to land at Duke in 2002, but got little playing time and transferred to Northwestern. Thompson became eligible to play in December and is averaging 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wildcats.

Tap-ins

Before the Terps transformed themselves in Durham, Kansas at Kentucky and Illinois at Wisconsin were the season's best road wins. ... Georgetown can join that company and boost its chances at an NCAA bid at Boston College tomorrow. The day's marquee matchups send No. 16 Texas to No. 6 Kansas and No. 4 Syracuse to No. 20 Pittsburgh. ... Kentucky goes to Arkansas tomorrow, shedding light on the puzzlement voiced by some analysts over the low stature of the Southeastern Conference. Other than Kentucky, hasn't basketball always just been a bridge between football and spring football there? The Wildcats remain the only SEC charter member ever to win an NCAA championship. Arkansas' 1994 title came in the third year after it moved over from the old Southwest Conference.

Planting seeds

Paul McMullen's weekly prediction for the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament:

Syracuse....Austin

Boston College Kansas

Wake Forest Duke

Oklahoma State Kentucky

Alabama Wisconsin

Chicago Albuquerque

Illinois North Carolina

Oklahoma Syracuse

Arizona Washington

Gonzaga Louisville

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