Big South upbeat, at least on court, for tournament

March 04, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The 1993-94 season has been a breakthrough year for the Big South Conference on the court, but as the league conducts its ninth tournament this weekend, it could be headed for a breakdown off of it.

The good news is that the problems surrounding the conference will not prevent the tournament winner from receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Still, this is not the way the league envisioned the prelude to its 10th anniversary.

For starters, the tournament will be missing its defending champion, Coastal Carolina, which is being investigated by the NCAA. After possible eligibility and recruiting violations were uncovered, the Big South ruled that Coastal Carolina must forfeit 14 conference victories in which ineligible players participated. The school then pulled out of the conference tournament.

Then there is the matter of what to do about Campbell -- like Coastal Carolina one of the Big South's charter members. Earlier this year, Campbell announced it was leaving the Big South. By doing so, the school would be breaking a conference rule that requires members to give two years' notice.

The conference is considering taking legal action against Campbell.

In the meantime, the Big South has submitted an appeal to the NCAA to allow the Big South to retain its automatic bid to the national tournament, a bid that could disappear if Campbell pulls out.

On top of those two problems, Towson State, which has won the regular-season title and earned the tournament's top seed for the second straight year, is looking to relocate to the North Atlantic Conference.

Big South commissioner Buddy Sasser dismissed the distractions.

"You can sit around worrying about things that may or may not happen and waste away half your life," Sasser said.

"This looks like it could be the best tournament we've ever had. We have more teams going with a chance to win than ever before. We have the best power rating that we've ever had," Sasser added.

Indeed, it has been a good year for the Big South on the basketball court. In the Ratings Percentage Index, the Big South stands 26th among the 31 leagues that get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. That means whoever wins the Big South title game Monday night stands a strong chance of gaining a 15th, or possibly a 14th regional seed. Since gaining its automatic qualifier four years ago, the Big South has never fared better than a No. 16 seed, the lowest.

The Big South gained some respectability with huge victories this year, beginning with Towson State's upset of St. John's in the Preseason NIT. Radford also has beaten LSU on the road, and Campbell has scored upset road wins against North Carolina State and South Carolina.

"There are so many positives going on that it wouldn't make sense to dwell on the negatives," Sasser said.

BIG SOUTH MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Who's hot: Towson State comes in as the clear favorite with its first 20-win season since moving to Division I. The Tigers have won 12 of their past 13 games. Second-seeded Campbell, the Big South winner two years ago, finished two games behind the Tigers, but the Fighting Camels have the league's premier player in F Joe Spinks.

Who's not: UMBC suffered through a seven-game losing streak, and the Retrievers have won just once on the road. Winthrop and UNC-Asheville have languished near the bottom of the Big South standings all year.

Players to watch: Towson State guards Scooter Alexander (17.6 ppg) and Ralph Blalock (16.5 ppg) are the keys for the Tigers. Campbell F Joe Spinks (20.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg) should be primed for a fine tournament. The same goes for Liberty G Matt Hildebrand (18.8 ppg, 4.8 apg). Radford, arguably the league's most balanced team, leads the conference in offense, defense and shooting percentage, largely because of forwards Don Burgess (.511 percent shooter) and Tyrone Travis (.563).

Towson State outlook: The Tigers have done well with their three-guard alignment, particularly with the emergence of freshman point G Michael Keyes (6.1 ppg, 56 percent shooting) in the past month. Last year, Towson State lost in a shocking first-round upset to eighth-seeded Winthrop. That doesn't figure happen against UNC-Asheville today, but to win the tournament, Towson State must get consistent production out of its front line. Sophomore F Stevie Thomas (6.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is a key coming off the bench.

UMBC outlook: It's been a long, frustrating year for the Retrievers, who have been hurt by C Sonique Nixon's academic suspension and injuries to guards Skip Saunders and Spencer Ferguson. UMBC has shown some life lately, as it broke a seven-game losing streak at UNC-Asheville last week. Saunders, who missed two weeks with a knee injury, has shot the ball well lately. C Pascal Fleury also has played well inside, but the Retrievers appear headed for an early exit against Radford tonight.

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