Play to Play-in
Some of last week's best action came not from major powers jockeying for NCAA tournament seeds or from bubble teams trying to impress the selection committee, but from several of the less prominent conference tournaments. Some of the highlights:
•In the Southland, Northeast Louisiana beat Texas-Arlington 87-60 last Saturday for the championship, but the tournament's most remarkable performance came earlier in the week. On the night of Feb. 25, Texas-Arlington forward Titus Howard allegedly stabbed a teammate, guard Glover Cody, three times in the back during an altercation. Howard was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and released on $50,000 bail the next day. Cody not only played in both of the Mavericks' tournament games but also set a conference-tournament record with 12 assists in a 97-91 win over North Texas and made the all-tournament team.
•Jackson State forward Creig Charles, the Southwestern Athletic Conference's defensive player of the year, took two key charges and scored 12 points in the last 5:19 of the tournament championship game to help the Tigers erase a 56-51 deficit and go on to defeat Texas Southern 70-66.
•In the Mid-Eastern Athletic, fifth-seeded Florida A&M upset top-seeded Cop-pin State 74-70 in the semifinals and third-seeded Delaware State 84-80 in OT in the finals. Both teams had defeated the Rattlers, who were only 17-13 going into the tournament, twice during the regular season.
•The Patriot, a first-year league, will eliminate athletic scholarships beginning with the 1992 freshman class. In keeping with that philosophy, the first order of business following Fordham's 84-81 overtime victory over Holy Cross in the championship game was not to present the MVP trophy or to name the all-tournament team. It was to hand out the conference's scholar-athlete award, which went to Crusader center Jim Nairus, a senior premed student with a 3.38 grade point average.
•The Big South's top seed, Coastal Carolina, rudely ushered Augusta out of Division I with an 89-54 victory in the title game. Augusta will move to Division II next season. Sophomore forward Tony Dunkin, the league's two-time player of the year, scored a game-high 22 points for the Chanticleers in the finale.
•Mike Iuzzolino of St. Francis (Pa.) made six of nine three-point attempts while scoring 32 points in the Red Flash's 97-82 defeat of Fairleigh Dickinson in the finals of the Northeast Conference tournament. (More on Iuzzolino later.)
On March 6, the champions of these six leagues were to pair off to determine which three would receive NCAA bids. Most of these conferences approach the new "play-in" format with mixed emotions. The MEAC, Northeast, Southland and SWAC lost automatic bids, and MEAC commissioner Kenneth Free said, "We'd rather have the guaranteed bid, but I can see why it had to be done, with the increasing number of conferences. This was the best option."
To the NCAA's credit, it has ensured that the format won't hurt the schools financially. The three losers in the play-in games will receive what they would have gotten had they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. However, that can't completely compensate for having to win an extra game to reach the tournament. Said Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk after his team had won the Patriot title, "We decided not to cut down the nets today. Some of the guys are a little unhappy about that, but we have one more game to finish. Besides, we couldn't because the women's semifinal came right after our game."