While dance blooms, this state will be wallflower


March 14, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

IT DOESN'T GET much worse than this.

Thirty-six states have at least one team in the Big Dance this year, and Maryland isn't one of them.

For the first time since 1992 and just the third time in 22 years, we're one of the stiffs standing against the wall, watching everyone else dance.

The Terps didn't make it -- didn't deserve to make it -- and none of the smaller schools that occasionally rise up came through, either.

Where's Navy when you need them? Towson? Fang Mitchell and Coppin?

They're all out recruiting (or better be) because they obviously need to get better. Meanwhile, we're stuck at home without a dance partner.

We aren't the Free State this week. We're the Dance-Free State.

The rest of the country has the Madness, that sweet delirium that carries you through the end of winter and deposits you at Opening Day. But we, alas, have the Sadness.

Our state has no chance of even being mentioned in the next three weeks unless Dickie V changes planes at BWI. ("I came through Charm City, baby, and they're crying in the Bay. The Maryland crab cakes have gone cold. The Old Line State is All-Endust this year -- wiped right off the table!")

Eight years ago, we had three teams in the bracket -- Maryland, Navy and Coppin. Five other times since 1985, when the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64, we had more than one entry. Almost always, we've had at least one.

But we're lumped with the loser states this year. Maine and New Hampshire and North Dakota. South Dakota and Hawaii and Alaska. They're all without a team, too.

That's our level as a college basketball state this year. We're even with Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and for that matter, Bulgaria.

All places without a team in the tournament.

Unlike Vermont, which has an entry, as do Delaware, Montana, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Hurts, doesn't it? These tournament bids aren't exactly impossible to get. They're a little like National Hockey League franchises, back when there was a National Hockey League. You can get one.

Iowa has three teams in the field this year. Iowa! It hit the lottery with big schools and a little school all coming through.

Of course, the head of the tournament selection committee is also the athletic director at the University of Iowa, who either thought he was seeding the NCAA wrestling championships or just tossing around a little basketball pork.

But whatever his rationale, he's got people in his state dancing like fools.

Louisiana also has three entries, which is fewer than top dog North Carolina (five) and runners-up Pennsylvania and California (four apiece), but more than most conferences.

Maryland? It's like what Art Fleming used to say on Jeopardy! about contestants who got to "Final Jeopardy" with no money to wager, rendering them ineligible for the round:

"They're just watching," Fleming said, his tone slightly sad.

That's Maryland ... just watching.

If it makes you feel any better, Oregon, Arkansas and Missouri are also dance-free this year and accustomed to being busier. But Maryland, just three years removed from crowning the national champion, is as prominent as any of the no-shows.

You could argue that we have gotten spoiled. Between 1939 (when the tournament started) and 1979, the state produced only eight NCAA teams. (Maryland had three, Navy five.) March was almost never mad around here.

But that was in a different era, before the tournament became such a sprawling event and before the Terps ascended to the game's upper reaches. Maryland has been a regular participant since all that happened.

If the shutout has you bummed, consider the silver lining. Now local fans won't mess up their pool brackets by foolishly picking local teams to go far when they're obviously going to lose early.

Terps fans should be particularly relieved about this. If Gary Williams' fast-fading team had somehow slipped into the field, fans surely would have devised some convoluted reason to be optimistic and gone with their hearts over their minds, violating the first rule of bracketology -- and hurting their chances when the Terps disappointed.

Remember that: Office pools in Maryland are going to be that much smarter this year.

But there are no caveats other than that admittedly small one, and the moral of the story is obvious: The state's teams just need to be better, especially the Terps, who have no right to gripe about being left out.

In the meantime, we'll be over against the wall as the Big Dance unfolds, dreaming of doing better than Alaska and Bulgaria.

Maybe next year.

No dancing in state

This is the first time since the 1992 tournament that the state of Maryland won't have a team in the field. The 12-year streak:

1993: Coppin State

1994: Loyola, Maryland, Navy

1995: Maryland, Mount St. Mary's

1996: Maryland

1997: Coppin State, Maryland, Navy

1998: Maryland, Navy

1999: Maryland, Mount St. Mary's

2000: Maryland

2001: Maryland

2002: Maryland

2003: Maryland

2004: Maryland

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