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It's Tournament Time and Not Everyone Is Happy

March 05, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD

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.

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