It's Tournament Time and Not Everyone Is Happy

Welcome to the frenetic final weekend before the NCAA tournament field is announced Sunday--the day teams die, are born again or simply get shipped three time zones away.

Among the unfolding scenes is the Knightmare in Chicago, where the inaugural Big Ten Conference tournament that Indiana Coach Bob Knight so vehemently opposed opens today with Knight's team reeling and the league apparently giving the school an option on how to to discipline Knight for his outburst against referee Ted Valentine last week--though he'll be allowed to coach in the three days the school has a chance to respond.

At the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., all eyes wait to see if No. 1 Duke and No. 3 North Carolina will meet for the third time this season--an event somewhat less likely than it would seem.

Only seven times in the last 20 years have the league's top two teams made it through the minefield to the ACC final--and two teams that went on to win the NCAA title lost in the ACC tournament, Duke in 1991 and North Carolina in 1993.

And in our own neighborhood, defending national champion Arizona pulls into the Sports Arena and Pauley Pavilion to try to complete an 18-karat conference season, the first unbeaten record since the conference expanded to become the Pacific 10 in the 1978-79 season.

As for this conference tournament business, with the Pac-10 the next-to-last holdout--listen, the Ivy League isn't bad company at any party--the question of the moment is about the value of conference tournaments.

The Pac-10 experimented with a tournament from 1987-90, but it drew well only at Arizona's McKale Center, an unpopular site for every other team because of the Wildcats' dominance.

Arizona Coach Lute Olson in particular is an opponent of a Pac-10 tournament. (After all, his team is usually an NCAA lock.)

"Why follow along?" he said. "If it's not a good idea, why do it? The only way I would see that happening is if someone were to come up with a big financial package, a television package or something. I know our [university] presidents are already concerned about the amount of school missed."

It's all still a bit of a puzzle to the Big Ten, where the resistance of the old guard--led by Knight, Minnesota's Clem Haskins and Purdue's Gene Keady--has been pushed aside by younger coaches from other leagues--and more important, the lure of big money. With the 20,000-seat United Center expected to sell out four days in a row and Kemper Funds, United Airlines and Gatorade among the sponsors, each school stands to make $250,000-$500,000, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said.

How foreign is it to some Big Ten coaches, the idea of playing games three or even four days in a row right before the NCAA tournament begins?

"I've never been through it before--except at the Alaska Shootout," Keady said.

Illinois Coach Lon Kruger has, competing in Southeastern Conference tournaments as Florida's coach.

"The lose-and-go-home mentality prepares you," Kruger said.

Indiana is about to play the games Knight never wanted to see--starting with an Indiana-Ohio State matchup today--and they suddenly matter a lot.

Indiana finished sixth in the Big Ten, losing its final three regular-season games, and has to be slightly on edge about an NCAA bid--though Indiana has a No. 21 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index the NCAA uses to help select and seed the field.

"I'm an opponent of the tournament. I did all I could to see we would not have a tournament," said Knight, who cast one of two dissenting votes. "Once it was decided, I can accept you have a majority interest in having it. We're going to play and do the very best we can.

"A lot of people are in favor of it--more are than aren't. I think in any democratic system, the majority should rule, and that's why we're having a postseason tournament.

"But to declare a champion over three, four games the league champion, why even play a league season? You have to develop Michigan State's or Illinois' record--13-3--that's like playing in four of these tournaments and winning two or three. If we're going to use a tournament to determine the league champion, we should just play four or five separate tournaments all year long."

Predictably, most other coaches' arguments depend on their personal situations.

Poll the lower echelon and the bubble teams, and they're all for another shot. Don't you think stomachs at Arizona State and Washington would churn less Sunday with a chance to make some more points in a conference tournament?

One issue among Pac-10 and Big Ten coaches is whether conference tournaments help prepare teams for the NCAA or drain them.

"Last year we went to the Final Four and we didn't need a Big Ten tournament to do that," Minnesota's Haskins said.

Ditto Arizona.

"I've heard coaches talk both ways on that," Olson said. "My feeling was that it was a detriment. It's draining, and my personal feeling is it doesn't do anything to prepare you.

"The key thing I think is you can be more rested. Particularly us, last year, having to go east for the tournament. I feel like we were fresh, even in our final game."

Try to take the conference tournament away from players, coaches and fans in the ACC, though. It'll never happen. And it seems as though they've managed an NCAA title or two along the way.

DON'T SHOOT HIM . . .

He's only the NCAA selection committee chairman.

Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton says he will leave the room during discussions involving No. 7 Kentucky as the committee wrestles with the selections today through Sunday.

"Be sure to write that if they're not pleased with where we're sent, I had nothing to do with it," Newton said to a reporter from Louisville.

A few issues of note:

SUSPENSIONS--In the Year of the Suspension, Newton said the committee will consider teams as they are now, putting weight on how they have played with their current personnel. Are you listening, UCLA? The Bruins, considered a fringe No. 4 seed, might be a No. 5 or even a No. 6 by Sunday if they don't fare well against Arizona because the committee cares about strong finishes.

NO. 1 SEEDINGS--Duke is being conceded No. 1 in the East in some corners--and the potential for a home-court advantage in Greensboro--after its season-ending victory over North Carolina, but Newton says nothing has been decided quite yet.

Ditto for Arizona, the presumed No. 1 in the West; Kansas, No. 1 in the Midwest; and North Carolina, No. 1 in the South.

"It would have to be a very unusual situation [to change the scenario]," Newton acknowledged. "Like one of those teams losing their first game in the tournament and one of the teams closely pursuing [Connecticut or Kentucky] winning a tournament."

GAMBLING--Because of concern about gambling issues, a seven-minute educational video has been sent to about 100 teams with a chance of reaching the tournament, and players must watch it before playing in the tournament. In addition, sessions are planned for the Final Four and with game officials as well.

"It's a very important and critical issue, and one the committee has been very active in trying to raise awareness," Newton said. "One thing is, this can happen any time, anywhere. Sports betting is a major problem, just as gambling is a major problem in society."

MR. BUBBLE

Some teams with uncertain prospects:

* Arizona State (18-11, No. 48 RPI)--Beat Cincinnati and Stanford, threatened Arizona and Kansas. Close call with games against USC and UCLA left.

* Washington (17-9, No. 43 RPI)--Beat UCLA and gave Stanford a scare, but lost to Arizona State. Washington State finale won't help RPI.

* Clemson (17-12, No. 32 RPI)--Horrible midseason stretch, but Tigers pulled out of it and figure to make field.

* Florida State (17-12, No. 34)--A lock early in season, now ACC tournament is important.

* Fresno State (17-10, No. 71 RPI)--Needs WAC tournament final, if not victory.

* Miami (18-9, No. 42 RPI)--Big East upset to Georgetown probably knocked out the Hurricanes.

* Georgia Tech (17-12, No. 54 RPI)--Needs very strong ACC showing.

* N.C. State (15-13, No. 64)--Beat North Carolina, but needs ACC tournament win now.

* Wake Forest (15-12, No. 30 RPI)--This year, a loss to Princeton doesn't hurt.

* Iowa (20-9, No. 68)--Weak schedule exposed. Seen stuffing ballot boxes for Big Ten tournament vote.

ALL BUT GONE

Best players you won't see in the NCAA tournament, barring stunning upsets in tournaments yet to be played: Notre Dame's Pat Garrity, Long Island's Charles Jones--the nation's leading scorer two seasons in a row--Baylor's Brian Skinner and Northwestern's Evan Eschmeyer.

Best players on the bubble: Ball State's Bonzi Wells and Georgia Tech's Matt Harpring.

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