No safety net for Coppin as always

March 07, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Their 14-game winning streak is irrelevant. Their 17-1 conference record is irrelevant. The Coppin State men are never on the bubble. They either win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, or they burst.

It happened in 1994, '95 and '96, when the Eagles failed to gain the league's automatic bid despite a combined 45-3 regular-season conference record.

It could happen again today, when they meet South Carolina State -- their only MEAC conquerer this season -- in the tournament final at Richmond, Va.

Coppin deserves to be in the NCAA, especially after last year's stunning first-round upset of South Carolina. But for minor-conference schools, the RPI (rating percentage index) might as well read RIP (rest in peace).

"People don't understand the pressure of this tournament, with everyone coming at you because you're the team to beat," Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell said.

"It's not that you don't come out ready to play. But they're playing on a level where they have nothing to lose. That's how we are when we're playing the bigger schools."

Ah yes, the bigger schools. Coppin terrified them in last year's NCAA, coming within a successful out-of-bounds play of advancing to the Sweet 16. But that's ancient history, as far as the tournament committee is concerned.

"It starts all over again," said MEAC commissioner Charles Harris, a member of the committee. "It's a new game every year. They'll go in based on the merits of this year. There is no carry-over."

No carry-over for a team that is likely to draw another No. 15 seed even if it defeats South Carolina State. No carry-over for a team that stands zero chance of ever receiving an at-large berth in the restrictive NCAA format.

The bubble teams keep losing, one fraud after another, but nothing changes. The NCAA tournament operates under a caste system. Teams like Coppin can reach "The Big Dance," but they're expected to leave after the first number.

Well, guess what? It doesn't always happen that way.

Coppin beat South Carolina as a No. 15 seed last year. The College of Charleston beat Maryland as a No. 12. And South Alabama gave eventual national champion Arizona a horrific first-round scare as a No. 13.

Such games should alert the tournament committee that A) Its seedings are occasionally out of whack and B) Its sacred-cow major conferences don't own exclusive rights to the best college basketball in America.

The committee will grant you "A" -- selection chairman C.M. Newton now concedes that "we probably didn't seed [Charleston] where they should have been," not that it's any comfort to Terps fans.

But "B?"

Forget it.

The major conferences bring in the major money, and are duly rewarded. The committee will argue just the opposite tomorrow if it selects three teams from the mid-major Midwestern Collegiate Conference (Butler, Illinois-Chicago, Detroit). Don't be fooled. Such an outcome would be a fluke.

Butler won the MCC tournament, and Illinois-Chicago and Detroit possess Top 35 RPIs. Even then, the latter two would have been in trouble if bubble teams like Miami and Florida State had gone deeper in their conference tournaments.

The RPI isn't the only measure the tournament committee uses to determine its brackets, but it's perhaps the most important. The formula is purported to be objective -- feed the data into a computer, and all 306 Division I teams fall into place. But like so much with the NCAA, it is not all that it seems.

The formula, developed in 1981, assigns 25 percent to a team's winning percentage, 50 percent to its opponents' average winning percentage and 25 percent to its opponents' opponents' average winning percentage.

Fair enough? Not exactly. MEAC teams usually play difficult schedules, but virtually all of their out-of-conference games are on the road, where they stand little chance of boosting their winning percentage.

The MEAC teams need the guaranteed money to keep their programs running. The big-time powers need the easy wins to pad their victory totals. It's a cozy little arrangement, designed to perpetuate the haves and have-nots.

Coppin's RPI is 111 -- better than Georgetown's, better than California's, better than Boston College's. Mitchell probably could bring it down further if he could schedule home-and-home series or high-profile games on neutral courts. But MEAC teams don't possess that kind of clout, and no one wants to play the Eagles.

Just this season, Alabama coach David Hopps refused to face Coppin in the first round of the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City. Coppin drew Oklahoma instead, and led by three points with 12: 35 left before falling, 83-72.

It isn't always this way -- Princeton is a team from the weak Ivy League, but a team with a well-deserved reputation. Where did the Tigers beat Texas, North Carolina State and Wake Forest this season? At the Meadowlands, a "neutral site" in its home state.

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