Selectees reward who you play and beat Even smaller schools find that big wins earn berths

March 09, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There was an eerie silence after the seedings were announced last night for this year's NCAA tournament, a feeling that Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton and his nine-man committee had done their homework and left few, if any, with legitimate gripes.

And, in making the 34 at-large choices to go along with the 30 automatic qualifiers, the selection committee had sent a clear message for others to follow in the future: it's not who you are, or what league you play in, it's who you play and how you do.

It resulted in the first spread-the-wealth tourney since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

None of the power conferences received more than five bids, while the Midwestern Collegiate Conference will send three teams for the first time in the league's 19-year history and the Mid-American Conference will send two for the first time since 1987.

"What we've been telling our coaches is that part of the schedule you control, so you should go out and play people," MCC commissioner Jon LeCrone said last night from his league's office in Indianapolis. "[Detroit coach] Perry Watson said the problem is that some people won't play you."

That's only part of the equation. Though neither Detroit nor Illinois-Chicago won this year's MCC tournament -- Butler did -- they had impressive nonconference victories and narrow non-league defeats to quality teams.

Both teams beat Michigan State. UIC also beat Illinois State and Valparaiso, two other teams that would qualify for the tournament, and lost by one to Illinois. Detroit lost to Michigan by one.

"They picked some good teams to play -- and beat," Newton said.

In reality, Newton's last year as the committee's chairman was made easier by three factors: the dominance by the four teams that became No. 1 seeds, the lack of huge upsets in the conference tournaments, and a few teams taking a nose dive over the weekend.

The biggest loser was Arizona State (17-13), which after beating Arizona last month and nearly beating Kansas early, suffered an embarrassing season-ending defeat at Southern Cal on Saturday.

Ball State (21-7) got left out despite beating fourth seed Mississippi and twice beating 11th seed and at-large choice Western Michigan.

And then there was Missouri. Though Norm Stewart will certainly complain that the Tigers (17-14) beat two of the top 16 seeds -- Kansas and Maryland -- they didn't win a single game this season away from home.

"It was one of those tough calls," said Newton. He admitted invitees such as Florida State (17-13), which lost seven of its last 10 but beat Arizona, and Miami (18-9), which split its last 10, had "beauty marks and warts."

Newton said the selection process wasn't as tough as the seeding. As a result, Princeton was given a fifth seed despite being ranked in the top 10 nationally. There were also some interesting sixth seeds, including UCLA and Clemson.

Asked about Princeton's seeding, Newton said, "I think that a fifth seed is a very good seed. I don't know what Princeton was expecting. Princeton is in a league that's very difficult to figure."

What wasn't tough was seeding the top four teams. Despite hedging last month about the likelihood of North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and defending champion Arizona being No. 1 seeds -- "There's still a lot of basketball left to be played," Newton had said -- that's the way it turned out yesterday.

By virtue of their impressive 83-68 victory over the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament final, the Tar Heels were given the No. 1 seed in the East. They will open in Hartford, Conn., on Thursday instead of Washington because Connecticut was picked as the East's second seed and can't play on its home court.

For the same reason, Duke will play Radford in Lexington, Ky., rather than Atlanta -- previously thought to be the site for the ACC championship game loser -- because Kentucky was seeded second in the South Regional. Kansas is the top seed in the Midwest and Arizona is the No. 1 seed in the West, where Maryland is seeded fourth.

With the matchups scheduled between East-West and South-Midwest in this year's Final Four semifinals at the Alamodome in San Antonio, there's a possible rematch of last year's semifinal between the Tar Heels and Arizona. There's also the possibility of a fourth game this season between North Carolina and Duke should both make the March 30 final.

"I'm not caught up with Carolina," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said yesterday. "I'm concerned with Duke. I don't care who we play. It's not about beating one team unless we play them in a national championship game."

Considering the way the season has gone, it would not be surprising if all four top seeds advance to the Final Four for the first time since the tournament was expanded. It also would not be surprising if lower-seeded teams win a bunch of games, considering how difficult it was for Newton and his committee to differentiate.

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