Far be it from us to tell the NCAA men's tournament selection committee what to do, but...well, it's not that far from us: Take New Orleans and Western Kentucky. SI's William F. Reed explains why these two teams from the Sun Belt Conference deserve bids to the tournament.
At week's end New Orleans was 81-36 since 6'11" center Ervin Johnson began playing for the Privateers four years ago. But not until this season has Johnson, a senior who is averaging 18.8 points and 13 rebounds, gained as much recognition for his basketball prowess as he has for his name. The difference between this New Orleans team, which was 20-2 through Sunday, and last season's, which lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament to Southwestern Louisiana, is that Johnson has some help.
Melvin Simon, a 6'8" junior forward, is knocking down 13.6 points and 7.5 boards a game. And bookend junior guards Reni Mason and Gerald Williams, a pair of 5'9" transfers, form the team's best backcourt in years. Mason, who came from Louisiana Tech, and Williams, who played at Tyler ( Texas) Junior College, are averaging a combined 17.1 points and 7.4 assists. Their size—or lack of it—hasn't hurt the Privateers on defense because, says coach Tim Floyd, "The big guys inside cure a lot of mistakes on the perimeter."
The 39-year-old Floyd came to New Orleans five years ago after having spent nine years on Don Haskins's staff at UTEP and two more as the coach at Idaho. When the Privateers finished 23-8 in 1991 to earn their second trip to the NCAA tournament in school history, Floyd became one of the hottest coaches in the country. He received so many feelers that New Orleans signed him to a contract that expires on March 27,2000.
The Privateers' two losses this season were to Notre Dame (45-43) and No. 4 Arizona (72-69). That should impress the members of the selection committee, though they should also consider this comment from Floyd: "I'm not so sure that Western Kentucky's not the best team we've seen this year."
Floyd is not simply promoting his conference. The Hilltoppers, who were 18-4 at week's end, had an eight-point lead over New Orleans on Feb. 2 before finally succumbing 89-80. However, what brought Western to national attention was its 78-77 upset of Louisville on Feb. 16 at Freedom Hall. Playing against a Cardinal team that two days earlier had ended UNLV's 59-game home court winning streak, Western controlled play from the outset and had as much as a 14-point lead in the second half.
Like the Privateers, the Hilltoppers have a pair of hard-to-defend guards, 6'5" Darnell Mee and 5'8" Mark Bell, and a hot coach, Ralph Willard, who's in his third year in Bowling Green. A longtime friend of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, Willard, 46, was on Pitino's staff during Pitino's two years with the New York Knicks and accompanied him to Lexington. After a season with the Wildcats, Willard, armed with Pitino's recommendation, landed the job at Western.
Willard is charged with returning the Hilltoppers to the glory they enjoyed under "Uncle" Ed Diddle, who won 759 games (fourth on the Division I alltime list) from 1923 through '64. Under Willard, Western was a Diddlesque 53-29 through Sunday. The Hilltopper fans' only fear is that Willard will follow the examples of Gene Keady and Clem Haskins, who used Western as a launching pad to big-time coaching positions at Purdue and Minnesota, respectively.
The Hilltoppers play an up-tempo style that makes them seem like a watch-pocket version of Pitino's Kentucky teams. The system especially suits Mee, a willowy ball hawk who is averaging 20 points and 6.8 rebounds, and Bell, who is scoring 16.5 points per game while leading the team in assists. Says Reni Mason of his rivals at Western, "I tell you, they're two of the best perimeter players in the country. You can never let up on them."
If Western Kentucky reaches the Final Four at the Superdome, it will be astounding. If New Orleans does, it will be historic. The last time a team played in a Final Four in its home city was 1972, when UCLA won the national championship at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.