As he gathered his team for the first day of practice yesterday, Towson State basketball coach Terry Truax distributed a practice plan that included, as usual, a thought of the day: "Injustice to anyone, anywhere is injustice to everyone, everywhere."
The quote, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was not intended to relate to basketball. But, by season's end, the defending East Coast Conference champions might find themselves again contemplating injustice.
The Tigers have won two straight ECC titles, and with 12 lettermen and five starters returning, are the clear front-runners for a third. But with six teams having left the ECC in the past two years -- and the NCAA requiring that a conference have at least three schools who have been members for five years to qualify for an automatic tournament bid -- Towson might be left out come tournament time, regardless of its record.
With a team as talented as the Tigers, it's enough to put a cloud over the conference season. But the players yesterday seemed without a worry.
"We're disappointed, but we just have to earn it the hard way with an at-large bid," said senior guard Terrance Jacobs. "With the type of team we have, I think we can do it."
It won't be easy. Politics come into play when the selection committee picks the 34 at-large teams. With big conferences sometimes getting as many as seven bids , lesser-known schools are overlooked.
Towson's best chance is to win 20-plus games, take the ECC regular-season and tournament titles, beat one of the bigger-name teams on its early schedule and hope the selection committee has a good memory.
"We don't even worry, because we know what we can do and we know what we have to do," said senior forward Chuck Lightening. "Other teams have heard of us, and they have come to respect us. We will have to go out and earn that respect."
"Every game became becomes more significant, non-conference games in particular," Truax said. "Against teams in conferences with high power ratings, that's going to be an opportunity for us. In the past, I felt those games would help better our chances of winning the conference. Now, we'll work hard to win those."