The idea of scheduling a win sounds appalling, but it can be done by paying guarantees to lure feeble opponents onto your home court, and it may make sense for teams like Georgetown and Alabama, which have earned spots in the Top 25 this season despite low strength-of-schedule ratings. If the Hoyas and the Crimson Tide are on the bubble with 18 or 19 wins come Selection Sunday, the fact that they were ranked at one time may create the perception that they belong in the NCAAs. Remember New Mexico two seasons ago? The Lobos' nonconference schedule was so weak that a member of the state legislature publicly blasted coach Dave Bliss, yet 24-8 New Mexico was still given an at-large bid despite being ranked 74th in the RPI.
Now Bliss is up to his old tricks at Baylor, where he took over last year and went 14-15. His Bears were 11-0 through Wednesday, thanks mostly to a hyphen-heavy slate (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Hardin-Simmons, Arkansas-Little Rock) that ranked 316th in strength of schedule. According to Bliss, he lined up a lot of weaklings because he knew his team needed time to improve. "The only way we're going to the NCAAs is if we win the Big 12 tournament," he says. "This way we don't have to pay outlandish guarantees [to better teams] to learn how to win."
Such an excuse can't be used by Stanford coach Mike Montgomery. The No. 2-ranked Cardinal's 84-83 win over Duke on Dec. 21 was the only time Stanford faced a ranked team before Pac-10 play. One rival Pac-10 coach suggests that Montgomery and his team may see the folly of their ways "when they get bumped off by Gonzaga [again] and are out of the NCAAs the first weekend."
The official NCAA position is still that playing good teams will be rewarded in the end. "I tell my coaches it's in their best interest to play some quality non-conference teams," says Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who is also chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee. "If you don't do that, you put yourself at great risk."
We've heard that kind of tough talk before, but the committee's actions haven't always spoken so loudly. It remains to be seen whether all those cupcakes devoured in November and December will still taste sweet come March.
Christmas at UTEP
Not Much of a Holiday
The next time you hear that the NCAA has suspended a student-athlete for accepting a free T-shirt or a ride to the airport or some other minor benefit not available to "regular" students, consider how UTEP freshman forward Antone Jarrell spent Christmas Day. Or as Jarrell refers to it, Double Denny's Day.
While millions of other students were home for the holidays-many of them working part-time jobs to earn cash for the second semester—Jarrell, who hails from Portland, had to stay in El Paso because the Miners were hosting a four-team tournament on Dec. 27 and 28. In other words, he spent his vacation helping make money for his school, the same school that is prohibited by NCAA rules from providing its student-athletes with some basic necessities. "I had never been away from home at Christmastime before," Jarrell says. "I wish I could have been there with my family."
Jarrell and two of his teammates began Christmas morning by bumming a ride to a Denny's. After breakfast the three of them walked about two miles back to campus, where they lifted weights and then went through a full practice. That night Jarrell and the rest of the Miners got together for a team dinner—at another Denny's. It took so long for Jarrell to get his food that, while the rest of the team headed for the hotel where the Miners were staying during the tournament, he had to wait with an assistant coach for the waitress to bring him his Christmas dinner in a box.
"Back home my mom was probably cooking a whole lot of good stuff," Jarrell says. "My sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles were all there. But these are the kind of sacrifices you have to make to get into the NCAA tournament."