Burning question: Is UM's fire out?


Could the heartbreak of Memphis be transformed into joy for Maryland?

Did Pacific take care of business, and not join a crowded group of contenders for the at-large bids that the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee will award?

Gary Williams and insomniacs on the East Coast probably knew the answer to the second question around 2:30 a.m. today, when Pacific and Utah State concluded their championship game in the Big West Conference. That league isn't regarded as highly as the ones that Towson and UMBC play in, but Pacific entered with a 22-game winning streak and credentials worthy of being selected as one of the 34 at-large teams by the NCAA.

Pacific's fate will have an impact on the first question, which will be answered at 6 tonight, when the NCAA tournament's 65-team field and its draw is announced on CBS.

To improve a shaky chance at extending its run of consecutive NCAA tournaments to 12, Maryland needed Pacific to win and New Mexico to fall flat before the Lobos beat Utah in last night's Mountain West final, just two of the possible permutations among the dozens of twists that occurred on a typically eventful weekend of conference tournaments.

The Big West champion earned the 25th automatic bid to the tournament. The last six conference champions will be crowned today, but it's doubtful that anything can match the emotion and significance that accompanied yesterday's Conference USA final.

Even if it lost, Louisville was a lock to be seeded no lower than a No. 4. With 14 losses entering the final, Memphis knew that its only way into the NCAAs was via the automatic bid. It was good for Maryland that Darius Washington missed what would have been the tying and winning free throws with time elapsed, but even the most die-hard Terps fans watching that drama unfold on CBS had to feel some empathy for the Tigers freshman.

While both Georgia Tech and North Carolina State produced a pair of impressive wins at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the 10 men on the NCAA committee meeting in Indianapolis have had since Thursday afternoon to consider Maryland's fourth straight loss, a desultory setback to Clemson in the ACC's first round.

The final at-large selection will likely come down to a choice between a middle-of-the-road team from the ACC or Big East, or a team with 20 wins from a lower-profile conference like the Mid-American or Missouri Valley. That scenario would pit teams like Maryland, Notre Dame, Miami of Ohio and Wichita State against one another.

While Maryland staggered in at the end of the season, none of those other teams can trump Maryland's biggest plus, as its best three wins came over Duke and Georgia Tech, which play today for the ACC championship.

Just because the ACC is the top-rated conference according to the Rating Percentage Index doesn't mean that a majority of its 11 teams are guaranteed spots. Bob Bowlsby, the chairman of the NCAA committee, reiterated last week the point that there are no conference quotas, which would be a welcome development to Rick Chryst, the commissioner of the MAC.

In his conference title game last night, Ohio University beat Buffalo in overtime. Both teams played in the same East Division as Miami of Ohio, the only MAC team to win 12 of its conference games. Miami and Ohio both have RPIs above Maryland's, which was 52 at the start of play yesterday, but the Terps are higher than both in the Sagarin ratings, a USA Today measurement that is also considered by the NCAA.

"We've had one team in the NCAA tournament each of the last five years," Chryst said. "Even in 2002, when Kent State went to a regional final, they were our only team. At least the NCAA has recognized the importance of conference regular seasons."

Before the season, the NCAA re-calibrated the RPI, placing greater value on road wins and home losses. The adjustment tended to favor a mid-major power like Vermont, which would have been 13 spots lower in the RPI using last season's formula. With some mid-majors appearing stronger in the computer, a side effect of the new RPI could see at-large teams seeded as low as 13th.

Because they occur too late into the committee's work, the impact of today's games will be diminished. In 1996, for instance, Mississippi State's Final Four off of a No. 5 seed wasn't as surprising as it appeared. It completed a run through the Southeastern Conference tournament on Selection Sunday, when it was too late to move the Bulldogs up a line from their No. 5 seed.

One thing is certain. When the Southwestern Conference champion, either Alabama A&M; or Alabama State, is crowned this afternoon, it can head straight to Dayton, where the two teams judged the weakest by the NCAA meet Tuesday for the right to get into the main 64-team draw. Its opponent likely should be Oakland.

There is also jockeying at the top of the draw, where Kansas and Wake Forest may have played themselves out of No. 1 seeds in their conference tournaments, opening the door for Duke and Kentucky to join Illinois and North Carolina on the top line.

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