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On college basketball

Barren times for teams in Northeast

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / February 29, 2008

What happened to college basketball in New England and the Northeast? There have been feel-good stories all over the country this season, but few in the Northeast.

Memphis's flirtation with an unbeaten regular season; Tennessee ranked No. 1 for the first time (short as the stay will be following the Vols' loss to Vanderbilt Tuesday); the passion of the Pacific-10, where UCLA and Stanford are in a showdown; Texas's rise a year after Kevin Durant jumped to the NBA.

But in the Northeast, March Madness may very well become March Sadness.

Boston College is in a transition year and could miss the postseason for the first time since 1999-2000. In the Atlantic 10, the only lock for the NCAA Tournament is Xavier. Rhode Island has tumbled the last two weeks. Massachusetts has shown signs of life the past few weeks - at the expense of URI with a solid win on the road last week - but the Minutemen will need a serious run in the A-10 tournament to get an NCAA at-large bid. And URI (20-9, 6-8) must find the magic it had early in the season (the Rams started 14-1).

In the Ivy League, Penn and Princeton are having off years and filling the void is Cornell, which is looking to become the first Ivy League champion not named Penn or Princeton since Cornell won in 1988.

In the America East, Maryland-Baltimore County is the front-runner, with perennial contenders Vermont and Boston University struggling around .500.

In the Patriot League, American University is the leader and Holy Cross is back in the pack, a long shot at best. In the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, only Rider (Metro Atlantic) and Wagner (Northeast) are NCAA Tournament contenders.

Only Connecticut, in the Big East, is a Northeast lock for an NCAA berth.

In Philadelphia, the Big Five - Villanova, Saint Joseph's, La Salle, Temple, and Penn - could be shut out of an NCAA bid for the first time in its history, which dates to 1955.

There might be Cinderella stories in the next few weeks. Boston University has won eight of nine and could make a run in the America East tournament. And watching No. 1-ranked Bentley's chase for perfection in Division 2 is a story that deserves attention.

But those are dreams right now. Unless you win the automatic spot that comes with the conference championship, you are at the mercy of the NCAA Tournament selection committee and the dreaded three letters - RPI.

Flawed system

The Ratings Percentage Index was designed as a tiebreaker, but it can be flawed when considering strength of schedule, quality wins, and quality losses. Although most coaches concede they are aware of RPI numbers, some would like to see the committee use common sense.

"There are some good basketball people on the committee and they can make judgments," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "There are teams that you don't want to play, and that would be a better formula."

For example, Calhoun pointed out Big East rival Marquette.

"Marquette plays hard every time," said Calhoun. "They are always a tough team to play, a team that you don't necessarily want to play against."

With an RPI in the top 20, Marquette (21-6) is playing for seeding in the tournament.

Drop down to teams ranked in the 50s and 60s and Calhoun's point is well taken. Defending national champion Florida (21-7) has an RPI of 59. Compare that with South Alabama (23) or Arizona (16), which is 17-10. Whom would you rather play?

The best way to decide the issue, of course, is simply to play. And that's what will happen in the next two weeks.

Bracket peeking

It's still too early to do serious NCAA bracket watching, but among the mid-majors, Kent State from the Mid-American Conference looks like a lock if it doesn't win the automatic bid. The Sun Belt could have two teams qualify in South Alabama and Western Kentucky. The West Coast Conference should have two teams in Saint Mary's and Gonzaga. The Atlantic 10's stock has taken a dip. Early projections had five teams qualifying. Now it looks like Xavier and one from a group that includes Saint Joseph's, Dayton, UMass, and URI . . . BC's Conte Forum will be sold out and loud tomorrow afternoon, but that's because North Carolina is coming to town. Other than for the Tar Heels and Duke, the BC student body has dropped basketball off its radar screen . . . Tough times for Providence (13-14, 4-11 Big East) and coach Tim Welsh. The Friars don't look like they will make it to New York for the Big East tournament and Welsh's days at PC appear to be numbered after 10 seasons . . . Early coaching buzz: There could be 40 openings in Division 1 at season's end . . . Don't dismiss interim coach Dan Dakich taking the Hoosiers on a Steve Fisher-like run in the NCAA Tournament and earning the job. Fisher replaced Bill Frieder at Michigan in 1989 during the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship. Dakich, who was Kelvin Sampson's assistant, is an Indiana guy and has characteristics reminiscent of his mentor, Bob Knight . . . Top seeds right now would be North Carolina, Memphis, Texas, and Tennessee. The Volunteers could get bumped with another loss and Carolina still must play at Duke. The Blue Devils have already beaten the Tar Heels, in Chapel Hill . . . Florida and Ohio State, last year's championship-game participants, are both bubble teams to make the 65-team NCAA Tournament field . . . Tennessee had better be worried about tomorrow's game against Kentucky. The last two teams ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history - Wisconsin last year and Florida two years ago - lost their next two games. Wisconsin lost to Michigan State and Ohio State, and Florida lost to Maryland and Louisville.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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