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USD: Tournament Team With Nowhere to Play

March 12, 1986|Dave Distel

What are Montana State (14-16), DePaul (16-12), Brown (16-10), Pittsburgh (15-13), Providence (15-13), UC Irvine (16-12), UCLA (15-13), Florida (16-12), Georgia (16-12), Louisiana Tech (16-13), BYU (16-13), Clemson (17-14) and Ohio State (14-14) doing that the University of San Diego would like to be doing?

That's right. Playing basketball.

All of the above manifestations of mediocrity are playing postseason basketball. USD (19-9) is not.

A total of 96 teams are playing in the two postseason tournaments, 64 in the NCAA tournament and 32 more in the National Invitation Tournament. Missing both of those tournaments with a 19-9 record would seem to be about as difficult as jumping out a window and missing the ground.

USD must have done something dastardly to be among the uninvited. It must have a reputation for showing up at parties barefoot with cut-off jeans and a tank top, probably with a ribald message scrawled across the back. Its players must be perceived as a bunch of vagabonds who have each played about five years of junior college ball and flunked out of correspondence school.

How else can it be explained?

Maybe USD's real problem is just the opposite. Maybe the collegiate basketball world's postseason party-throwers cannot imagine that a law/business-oriented university with staunch academic standards can possibly be any good at the game. Maybe they think USD could only be a gate attraction if it played its games in a library.

Regardless, it was not invited.

It did not really expect an invitation to the Grand Ballroom. That, of course, would be the NCAA tournament. It is no longer the exclusive affair it once was, what with inviting every Carolina university with a minor in tobacconomics and every Midwestern university with a 4-H club and every Eastern university with an Italian coach or a Jesuit president. However, it remains the best even though it is the biggest.

No, USD did not expect a call from the NCAA.

The NIT was something else. This is somewhat of a sideshow, a little gathering down the hall in a conference room. It is better than going nowhere at all, particularly for a group of fellows all dressed up with 19 wins and 9 losses.

Father Patrick Cahill, the athletic director at USD, is a considerate chap. He thought the NIT just might want to converse with him on Sunday, the day invitations were extended. And so he called New York to leave a telephone number.

"They were nice," he said, "but noncommittal."

This is to say that the voice on the other end did not ask if USD stood for the University of South Dakota and, if so, why was he calling? If not, what did USD stand for?

Hank Egan, the Toreros' coach, gathered his team for a practice on Sunday. He wanted his athletes to stay sharp, just in case Cahill's telephone rang.

It didn't.

The telephone did ring up the road at UC Irvine, a respectable academic institution with a basketball tradition about as long as a slam dunk. UCI would be asked to visit UCLA in the first round of the NIT. UCLA is invited to these things for the same reason Elizabeth Taylor keeps getting invited to the Academy Awards, sort of as yesterday's guest.

It can be conceded that UCLA played a much more difficult schedule than USD, but UC Irvine . . .

"It did surprise me that they chose Irvine," Cahill said. "I know they beat UNLV twice, but I don't think they have any other claim to fame, do they?"

USD, of course, is not claiming fame. It can claim a better record than 23 of the 32 teams in the NIT field.

Maybe the record is not that important. It can't be.

Strength of schedule is a criterion, but I question that NIT entrants such as McNeese State, Southwest Missouri State, George Mason, UT Chattanooga and Lamar have played tougher opponents than USD. And four of those teams have drawn home games in the first round.

It might be argued that USD was not invited because it has such a small arena, but that criterion is easily circumvented. It would be happy to play on the road.

Another criterion, this one unwritten, is that first-round opponents should be geographically close, thus lessening the cost of travel. This makes sense until one notes that Texas A&M travels to Wyoming and Texas Christian goes to Montana for first-round games.

What does make sense?

How about this one? Northern Arizona, a Big Why from the Big Sky, is in the NIT and playing at home against Louisiana Tech. Northern Arizona tied for the Big Sky championship after warming up against the likes of Eastern Washington, Southern California College, College of Santa Fe, Metro State and Fort Lewis.

This team is in the NIT and USD is not?

That's right.

And so it is wait until next year for USD, and next year should be a very good one. A number of outstanding players will be back, among them 7-foot center Scott Thompson.

Obviously, the Toreros should toughen the schedule in 1986-87.

Wrong.

"I'm a little disappointed with our schedule," said Cahill. "It's an easier schedule than the one we had this year. We should be at our crest, trying to play the big boys. But . . . "

Thus, USD will have to win the West Coast Athletic Conference's inaugural postseason tournament to get into the NCAA tournament next year.

Otherwise, there will be another Sunday waiting and hoping for a call from the NIT. And maybe a chance to play in some remote outpost, like the University of South Dakota.

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