Teams that don't yet have a lock on an NCAA bid face toil and trouble
It's primary season again in college basketball, the time of year when coaches hit the hustings in hopes that they can sway the only electorate that really counts, the members of the NCAA tournament selection committee. "We deserve two teams regardless of what happens," said UNLV coach Bill Bayno, whose Runnin' Rebels just happened as of Sunday to be in second place in the Mountain West Conference, a league that doesn't get an automatic bid this year. "I hope we get five [bids] when it's all said and done," said Marquette coach Tom Crean of Conference USA, where his Warriors had a shot at finishing with—surprise!—the fifth-best record. With just two weeks left in the regular season, seven teams that have spent time in the AP's Top 25 this season—UCLA, Louisville, Gonzaga, North Carolina State, DePaul, USC and Xavier—now find themselves on the bubble or worse. But that should not be surprising. College basketball is like politics: It's not enough to do well in the polls, you have to win votes.
Thirty teams from the eight so-called power conferences seemingly have already secured bids (see chart), as have three schools from other leagues—Kent ( MAC), Tulsa ( WAC) and Utah (Mountain West). Throw in the spots reserved for champions from the lower-rated conferences, and that leaves 11 openings for the 28 teams on the bubble. That's why coaches are so active on the campaign trail, trying to get as many bids as possible for their leagues.
Given the mediocrity of some of the traditional power conferences, this could be a good year for insurgents. The Atlantic 10, the ACC and Conference USA can right now only safely lay claim to seven bids among them, and few of the remaining teams in those leagues are making strong cases for inclusion. Even one of the ACC's staunchest defenders, political commentator Robert Novak, refuses to lobby for the league. "If you can't finish at least .500 in the conference, you shouldn't go to the tournament," says Novak, a Maryland booster who sometimes rides the Terps' plane to road games. (No, he doesn't insist on sitting near the right wing.) Virginia, which was in third place in the ACC with an 8-5 league mark after Sunday's 90-76 defeat of North Carolina, passes the Novak test and should make the field, despite a soft nonconference schedule that has dragged the Cavaliers' RPI down to 61.
Novak's musings aside, any similarities between the campaign to make the NCAAS and the one for the presidency are purely coincidental. It's worth noting, however, that the home state schools of John McCain, Al Gore and George W. Bush—Arizona, Tennessee and Texas, respectively—are all locks to make the NCAA tournament. Princeton, like its most famous basketball alumnus, Bill Bradley, must desperately make up ground. And no matter how things turn out, one thing seems pretty much certain: Arkansas (13-12) is out.
Too Many Rocks, Too Little Chalk
Sitting across from Roy Williams in the Kansas basketball office last Thursday morning, a visitor didn't have to guess how things had turned out for the Jayhawks against then No. 14 Iowa State the previous evening. A look at the bleary-eyed, hangdog expression on Williams's puss was all that was needed. Shortly after arriving home from the game, around 10:30 p.m., Williams watched a videotape of the 64-62 loss, in which Kansas blew an eight-point lead over the final 4:28. Williams climbed into bed at 1:30 a.m., but after 90 fitful minutes he returned downstairs, picked up a Clive Cussler novel and waited for the sun to rise. "One of the toughest things about coaching is that the highs aren't nearly as high as the lows are low," he says. "I still think we're going to be very good, but we haven't shown it yet."
Basketball is religion in the state of Kansas, but there's a crisis of faith among the believers these days. Before beating Oklahoma 53-50 on Sunday, the Jay-hawks had lost five of their last eight games, including blowouts at Missouri and Oklahoma State by a combined 55 points. A few weeks ago Williams even blasted the fans in Lawrence, calling them "a wine-and-cheese crowd," though he later apologized.
Last week's loss to the Cyclones, who hadn't won at Allen Fieldhouse in 19 years, typified Kansas' season. The Jayhawks held the lead for almost 31 minutes but executed horrendously down the stretch, committing turnovers on three consecutive possessions that led to six Iowa State points. Jeff Boschee, a 6'1" sophomore guard who shot 2 for 17, was a convenient scapegoat, but considering that the Cyclones' five starters average a mere 6'3", it seemed unwise that Kansas' smallest player would be called upon to hoist that many shots.
Williams has always preached the virtues of teamwork, but this is a remarkably egalitarian group even by his standards. Through Sunday nine players were averaging between 16 and 24 minutes per game; the top seven scorers were averaging between 6.0 and 10.3 field goal attempts. "When we need two points, there's not one player we know we can get them from," says 6'9" freshman forward Drew Gooden, who at week's end was the Jayhawks' leading rebounder (7.6 per game) and second-leading scorer (10.8) despite averaging just 19-8 minutes. The prospect of finding that one player grew dimmer on Feb. 3, when the school announced that 6'10" junior swingman Luke Ax-tell, a 39.2% three-point shooter, was leaving the team because of an undisclosed illness. Axtell is still in school but isn't practicing, and Williams says he doesn't know if Axtell will return.