NCAA bubble bursting for mid-major teams

Kent State, Creighton, others see chances fade for at-large tourney bid

National notebook

February 21, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

If at-large teams from mid-major conferences thought they were overlooked in recent years by the NCAA tournament selection committee, they might feel totally ignored when bids are announced next month. Those who seemed invitation-worthy a month ago have put themselves in precarious positions.

Take Kent State, a Cinderella team in last season's tournament that reached the Elite Eight before losing to Indiana. The Golden Flashes started this season 17-2 despite losing four of their top five scorers and coach Stan Heath to Arkansas, and were as high as 27th in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI).

Then came three straight losses in the Mid-American Conference. More significantly, Kent State dropped 30 spots in the power ratings.

"We've never had any margin for error; that's the way it is," first-year Kent State coach Jim Christian said earlier this week. "We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves; there has got to be a sense of urgency."

Kent State has plenty of company in its mid-major misery.

Creighton, which got as high as 10th in the national rankings and 21st in the RPI, is now 17th and 43rd, respectively, as a result of recent losses to Evansville and Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference, as well as to Xavier.

"At this time of the year, some teams are playing real loose because they don't have a lot to play for," said Creighton coach Dana Altman. "Some teams are playing a little tired and tight because they're trying to position themselves for the end of the season."

The Blue Jays should be helped by their early season win over Notre Dame, but might need their recent success in the NCAA tournament - and the Missouri Valley's overall success - to get them in. Creighton upset Florida in last year's tournament, and the conference has gone a respectable 7-9 since 1999.

Gonzaga, with its recent history of upsets in the NCAA tournament, could be given the kind of treatment usually tended to teams from the power conferences. While the Bulldogs are 19-6 overall (10-1 in the West Coast Conference), their RPI of 46 could work against them.

Other mid-major conference teams that find themselves in a similar spot are Butler, which has a respectable RPI (44) but has lost to teams below them, including Wisconsin-Milwaukee (62) and Hawaii (98), and still has painful memories of last year's snub. Fresno State (59) is also teetering on the edge.

Which brings us to tomorrow's "Bracket Busters" made-for-ESPN matchups between 18 mid-major teams.

The featured game of the nine scheduled was supposed to be between Gonzaga and Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane is having a surprisingly mediocre season (15-8, 8-6 Western Athletic Conference). A win over the Bulldogs will help Tulsa, but it will likely have to win the WAC tournament.

Doug Elgin, the Missouri Valley's longtime commissioner, is familiar with the importance of the RPI, having served on the NCAA tournament selection committee the past four years. Though it is considered only one of several criteria, the RPI has become perhaps the biggest gauge when judging mid-majors.

"Unfortunately, we all have to live with the impact of the RPI, if nothing else, on the minds of the basketball committee," Elgin said. "The RPI is truly just another piece of data they look at. When you're talking about a team with a 70-plus RPI, the mind-set is that you can't go there."

Kent State, which ended its losing streak with a win at home Wednesday against Buffalo, has little it can do to improve its RPI playing against teams with triple-digit numbers. Short of winning the WAC tournament, the Golden Flashes might be watching this year's NCAA tournament.

"We've tried to stay optimistic; it's a long season and you have to put things in perspective," Christian said. "We've got to get our confidence back, our swagger."

Knight returns to form

It took longer than most figured, but the real Bob Knight has finally reappeared at Texas Tech.

If his inaugural season with the Red Raiders was beyond expectations, this season has been a huge disappointment. Picked in the top half of one of college basketball's toughest leagues, Texas Tech will be lucky to finish above .500 in the Big 12.

Knight is losing patience with his players, in particular star guard Andre Emmett, as well as with the media. Emmett, the Big 12's leading scorer, was one of two players benched before Monday's loss to Texas for missing the team's breakfast and pre-game walkthrough.

Knight's infamous temper, which cost him his job 2 1/2 years ago at Indiana, flared after the game when asked why Emmett and senior forward Nick Valdez had been suspended.

"I've said all that's gonna be said about it; it's none of your ... business," said Knight, whose team dropped to 14-8 overall and 4-7 in the league.

The Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Planting seeds

The Sun's projected top four seeds in each of the four regionals of the NCAA tournament. The predictions are based on team's records and their Rating Percentage Index, or RPI, the power rating given Division I teams each week:

East

1. Kentucky

2. Oklahoma

3. Marquette

4. Syracuse

South

1. Florida

2. Notre Dame

3. Kansas

4. Stanford

Midwest

1. Texas

2. Louisville

3. Duke

4. Georgia

West

1. Arizona

2. Utah

3. Okla. State

4. Wake Forest

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