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Planting Seeds of Upset? : Midwest Regional: Northeast Louisiana, which almost beat LSU in opener, will play USC in NCAA tournament.

March 18, 1992|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking an easy opening game, Louisiana State basketball Coach Dale Brown scheduled Northeast Louisiana, which had lost five of its top six players from last season's team.

Brown got more than he bargained for Nov. 22: Northeast Louisiana led by eight points with two minutes remaining before LSU rallied to win, 77-76.

"That game won us respect in the state," said Mike Vining, Northeast Louisiana coach. "It let us know that we were right in our assessment of our talent level, and what we had to do was make sure we were ready to play every night. LSU was a big game, and we were ready to play."

But Northeast Louisiana is still a long way from gaining the respect of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Seeded 15th in the 1991 NCAA tournament after winning its second consecutive Southland Conference title, Northeast Louisiana was matched against Duke in a first-round game. It turned out to be a mismatch as the Blue Devils beat the Indians by 32 points to begin a run to the NCAA title.

Northeast Louisiana didn't fare much better when the seedings were announced for this year's tournament Sunday, being seeded 15th in the Midwest Region. The Indians (19-9), who have never won an NCAA tournament game, will face second-seeded USC (23-5) in a first-round game Thursday night at Milwaukee.

"I thought last year we should have gotten a lot better seed," Vining said. "Not only did we go through the conference with a 13-1 record, but we had an average margin of victory of 17 points. We were put in a play-in game, and we won that by 20 points. But that meant nothing (to the selection committee).

"I guess we'll have to win a game to get a better seeding. But as long as you're 15th, it's kind of a vicious circle. Which is going to come first, respect or a victory? Putting you down at the bottom makes it more difficult to win a game."

Northeast Louisiana has lost in the NCAA tournament appearances to Duke, Purdue, Nevada Las Vegas and Iowa.

If the season-opening loss to LSU made the Indians realize their potential, then last month's embarrassing 84-75 defeat by Sam Houston State, which had lost 21 of 22 games, might have turned Northeast Louisiana's season around.

"Our team saw how bad they could be when they were not ready to play," Vining said. "'They got out of the dressing room within five minutes after I got into the locker room. They did not want to be in there. That was a sign of how embarrassed they were."

Vining called a meeting in which he criticized each player individually.

"I called roll and told each one of them what I thought was wrong with their performance," he said. "Then I made each one of them talk and have them say what was missing."

Vining altered his starting lineup after the loss to Sam Houston State, moving Ryan Stuart, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, to small forward.

Northeast Louisiana hasn't lost since, ending the regular season with six victories in a row, including an 81-77 decision over Texas San Antonio in the championship game of the Southland Conference tournament. Texas San Antonio had beaten Northeast Louisiana twice during the season to win the conference title, but Stuart scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Indians earned their third consecutive NCAA bid.

Stuart, who averaged 21 points to lead the Southland Conference, was voted the league's player of the year, newcomer of the year and tournament most valuable player.

Born in the Bahamas, Stuart quit his high school team because he wasn't playing, then worked in his father's electrical store for two years after graduation.

After growing from 5-6 to 6-2, he began playing basketball at the Freeport YMCA, where he was spotted by a recruiter from Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Tex. Stuart averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds as a sophomore and transferred to Northeast Louisiana.

He is one of three former junior college players who start for the Indians. Keith Johnson, 6-foot junior point guard from Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Tex., has averaged 12.1 points, 5.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds this season and set a school record with 80 steals. Louis Davis, 6-2 junior guard from Copiah-Lincoln JC in Wesson, Miss., has averaged 14.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

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