Money is root of NCAA selection madness

March 09, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Florida International is going to the NCAA tournament with an 11-18 record. Manhattan almost certainly will get shut out at 25-4.

It's madness, all right, sponsored by the conferences, underwritten by ESPN and driven by the pursuit of cold, hard cash.

As with everything in college sports, the rich get richer, and the poor slobber all over themselves trying to join the fun.

But guess what? There's no better way.

Manhattan is going to scream after it gets snubbed on Selection Sunday, but no one will listen and no one will care.

The NCAA doesn't force the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to award its bid to the winner of its conference tournament.

The MAAC chooses to do so.

Ditto for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is sending North Carolina A&T (15-14) instead of Coppin State (20-9). Ditto for every conference but the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Ivy League.

Those three award bids to their regular-season champions, not that it matters in the Big Ten and Pac-10, where teams that finish .500 are virtual locks for the NCAAs.

Conference tournaments are mostly a good thing -- they open up the NCAAs to 274 of the 302 teams in Division I, making March probably the most exciting month in sports.

But ask Manhattan or Coppin State.

There's a price.

Heading into last night, 11 conference tournaments that determine automatic bids had been completed, and only three were won by the regular-season champions.

Such upsets are meaningless when they occur in the ACC, but the smaller conferences get only one bid, and often don't send their best teams.

Not that they care. The tournaments make money, serve as marketing tools and get the conference on ESPN.

"It's the linchpin for our TV efforts," MAAC commissioner Richard Ensor said yesterday. "All the sponsors for our TV package are tied in to tournament activities -- dinners, receptions, promotions.

"It generates a lot of excitement. Without that, we really don't have a marketing program."

Ensor said the tournament also generates approximately $100,000 in revenue -- about one-tenth of the MAAC's budget.

"The major conferences, they get all the benefits," he said. "They buy home nonconference games. They have all the resources in the world to run a program. We have a lot of burdens we have to carry."

The conference tournament is one of them.

Never mind that Manhattan beat St. Peter's by 21 and 23 points during the regular season. St. Peter's prevailed in overtime in the MAAC final.

At least St. Peter's (19-10) is a presentable NCAA team -- as opposed to Florida International, proud champion of the Trans America Athletic Conference.

FIU barely qualified for its conference tournament, mind you.

We kid you not -- nine teams compete for eight spots in the Trans America tournament. FIU needed a one-point win at Stetson in its final regular-season game to make the Little Dance.

Now, appallingly, it's in the big one.

Even after winning the tournament, FIU's ratings percentage index (RPI) is still only 224. The NCAA uses the RPI to seed the tournament and select at-large teams.

Towson State is 188, UMBC 197, Loyola 211.

Any of them would smoke FIU.

Not that Trans America commissioner Bill Bibb is worried.

"They'll represent us about as well as anyone could have," he said, noting that FIU has won six of its past seven games.

Bibb openly says the Trans America plays its tournament for money -- $75,000 to $90,000. But why not send a true champion and try to win an NCAA game? That's worth big money, too.

"If you can do that often enough, you can run up a lot of money -- I'm talking about in the millions," Bibb said. "But we're not in that situation.

"If we're sending one or two teams and winning games -- and if we could do that for four or five years -- yeah, we'd be better off sending our regular-season winner."

Instead, it's a vicious cycle.

Coppin State is 47-1 the past three seasons in the MEAC, and might have won a game in the NCAAs by now, if only it hadn't been upset twice in the conference tournament.

Meanwhile, the Michigans of the world keep earning bid after bid, leading to more recognition and more television, then better nonconference competition and better NCAA credentials.

Like it or not, this is the way it is.

Skip Prosser lucked out last season when Loyola went 6-8 in the MAAC, then won the conference tournament.

This season, he led Xavier to a 14-0 record in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, then lost in the first round of the conference tournament -- to Wright State, at Wright State, on a buzzer beater.

Xavier figures to receive an at-large bid, but Prosser can't be sure.

"It's like the Judy Collins song," he said. "I've looked at life from both sides now."

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