Patriot League needs to home in on better system

March 11, 2000|By John Eisenberg

EASTON, Pa. -- Lafayette pounded Navy so badly in the Patriot League tournament final yesterday that the Midshipmen can't blame the loss on the home-court controversy that shadowed the tournament and worked against them.

"They beat us in every possible way," Navy coach Don DeVoe said after the 87-61 loss at Lafayette's Allan P. Kirby Center. "They pounded us into oblivion."

Still, the Mids will spend the summer wondering what might have happened if they had played the game on their home floor, where they put a 28-point beating on Lafayette last month.

"There's no doubt," DeVoe said, "that this game was won as much in the boardroom as on the hardwood. The home court makes that much difference."

Don't misunderstand. The Mids shot 32.7 percent, committed 25 turnovers, got pounded on the backboards and trailed by at least 14 points throughout the second half. They never resembled the team that brought a 23-5 record and a 13-game winning streak into the game.

Quite simply, they didn't show up for the biggest game of their season, with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line.

"We just didn't play, period," forward Chris Williams said.

But given that Lafayette's win made it seven in a row for the home team in the Patriot League final, a streak dating back to 1993, it's obviously a huge advantage to play the game at home.

And the circumstances that led to Lafayette being at home yesterday instead of Navy were as bizarre as they were frustrating for DeVoe and the Mids.

The two teams tied for the league's regular-season title for the second time in three years, this time with 11-1 records. Lafayette got the top seed and the title game at home after the league used a different tiebreaker mechanism for the third straight year, confusing everyone.

Two years ago, a coin flip was used to break the tie and Navy won, played the title game at home and beat Lafayette to advance to the NCAA tournament. The league's seven coaches decided after that season to eliminate the flip and use a more quantifiable tiebreaker -- the Jeff Sagarin Ratings, a private power-ratings index that ranks every team in Division I from top to bottom. In the event of a regular-season tie, the team with the higher Sagarin rating would get the No. 1 seed in the tournament and the title game at home.

There was no need for a tiebreaker last year, as Lafayette won the regular-season title as well as the tournament final at home, but the coaches still voted after the season to change the tiebreaker procedure yet again -- now they would use the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), another power-ratings index that the NCAA uses to help seed and select teams at tournament time.

Got all that? If you're confused, here's what it boils down to -- Navy had to play on the road yesterday because of a run of bad numeric luck almost defying belief.

The Mids had a higher Sagarin rating than Lafayette after the regular season, but oops, that's right, the Sagarin was thrown out as the tiebreaker after last year.

But wait, the Mids also had a higher RPI than Lafayette as the teams tipped off yesterday, so why was the game played at Lafayette and not at Navy's Alumni Hall? Because the RPI rankings generated after the regular season were used instead of the RPI rankings generated after the early rounds of the league tournament, in which both Navy and Lafayette won two games at the Kirby Center.

"It's hard to believe the way all this stuff came down," DeVoe said. "But in the end, we both tied for the league title with 11-1 records, and they played three playoff games on their home court, and we didn't play any at home."

In fairness, Navy was on the right side of that freaky set of circumstances two years ago, when they had the same record as Lafayette and played the whole tournament at Alumni Hall. (The first two rounds are held at a rotating neutral site.) DeVoe wasn't complaining then, but Lafayette was, setting off the many changes that led to this year's controversy.

What the league really needs is to start holding the tournament at a neutral site, putting an end to the annual controversy and bickering. DeVoe said it's a must if the Patriot League "is going to advance at all" from its relatively small-time status.

"We need to add an eighth member and do away with byes and home-court advantages and everything," DeVoe said. "Just play the tournament at a neutral site, like all the other conferences do. This our third trip to the Lehigh Valley in the past three weeks. And the road isn't kind in this game. That's just the nature of the game."

Again, it might not have mattered where yesterday's game was played. Lafayette shot 50.8 percent, beat the Mids to loose balls and played better for 40 minutes.

"I certainly don't want this to sound like sour grapes," DeVoe said. "They deserve to represent the conference after the way they played. They might well have beaten us on a neutral court today."

But no one will ever know, which is precisely the point.

Navy's best basketball team since David Robinson's days deserved better than to have its season decided by some mysterious power rankings and a league that keeps changing its mind.

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