Lack of complaints doesn#039;t mean NCAA selection process was easy

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS - College basketball coaches and players had little to complain about. That doesn't mean it was easy handing out the at-large berths in the NCAA tournament.

Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas earned the top seeds in the 65-team field that begins play Tuesday, with Arizona and Texas among the 34 at-large selections.

''College basketball, because of the parity, is getting tougher and tougher to select the 34 teams,'' said Jim Livengood, selection committee chairman and athletic director at Arizona. ''This group did the very best job it could.''

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''The hardest thing is when you can select only 34, the committee has a tough, tough job to do, particularly in those last four or five picks.''

But the most challenging part of this year's tournament may be the one issue the NCAA cannot control - the possibility of war.

NCAA officials were busy making contingency plans for security and possible postponements, but the event will not be canceled, tournament managing director Greg Shaheen said.

''Our objective is to honor and respect the times we're living in, but to understand that life must go on,'' he said.

CBS has said it might switch some games to ESPN if there is a war with Iraq. It also could shift the games to another of the networks owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom, such as MTV, UPN, BET or TNN.

While the tournament draw went pretty much as expected, there were some minor arguments.

There were the usual concerns about teams playing close to home, especially second-seeded Florida, which will play in Tampa despite closing the season with three straight losses.

And there were the expected contentions about seeding in an era where parity has made it difficult to separate the best from the rest. The most glaring argument was that of Texas' No. 1 seed, the first in school history.

Some contended the Longhorns were not deserving of a top seed after Friday's exit in the Big 12 quarterfinals, and that Kansas, the conference's regular-season champs, should have gotten a No. 1 spot.

Instead, Kansas is seeded second in the West Region and will play at Oklahoma City in the first round.

Livengood acknowledged it was a tough choice.

''Was Kansas a No. 1? Maybe,'' Livengood said. ''But you can only go with four.''

The announcement marked the end to a scandal-plagued season in which three schools - Fresno State, Michigan and Georgia - removed themselves from consideration because of possible NCAA violations or academic fraud.

St. Bonaventure wasn't allowed to participate in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament because of an ineligible player, and Villanova ended the season with only five scholarship players after 12 were suspended for unauthorized phone calls.

Georgia, a virtual lock for the tournament, pulled out Monday, a decision that likely opened the door for either Brigham Young or Butler. Brigham Young (23-8) and Butler (25-5) were the last two at-large teams selected.

''I don't think you could really say or predict what effect a team not being in the tournament may have had on a team that is in the tournament,'' Livengood said.

There were few surprises.

Arizona received the top seed in the West, Kentucky in the Midwest, Oklahoma in the East and Texas in the South. It was the fourth straight year that two teams from the same conference - Oklahoma and Texas both play in the Big 12 - were top seeds.

Duke was the No. 3 seed in the West, ending a five-year run of earning top seeds.

The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference each sent six teams to the tournament, and Georgia would have given the SEC a seventh. Five teams each from the Big Ten and Pac-10 were selected, while the Atlantic Coast Conference, Conference USA and Big East are sending four each.

Boston College isn't one of them. As the brackets were being announced on television, the Eagles grew more nervous.

''Everyone felt a little bit uncomfortable,'' coach Al Skinner said. ''But we didn't think, until they announced the last game, that we wouldn't be up there.''

Other schools that were left out included Seton Hall, Ohio State, Tennessee and UNLV. College of Charleston, at 24-7, had the most wins of any team not taken, and Texas Tech wasn't even listed on the NCAA's ''other teams considered'' although Livengood disputed that.

The decision ended Bob Knight's streak of 16 straight trips to the tournament. He made it from 1986-00 at Indiana, and last year with Texas Tech. He didn't coach in 2001.

North Carolina holds the record with 27 straight appearances, but the Tar Heels are not in the field for the second straight season, and UCLA (10-19) ended its string of 14 straight appearances, third on the current list behind Arizona's 19 and Indiana's 18.

''I don't think it ever gets old hat,'' Wildcats coach Lute Olson said. ''When you get to the NCAA playoffs, I think it's the most exciting time in sports.''

For Livengood's committee, however, the similarities made it tough to choose.

The tournament begins Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, with the play-in game. Big South champion North Carolina Asheville, at 14-16 the only team in the field with a losing record, will play Texas Southern, the champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

The winner meets Texas on Friday in Birmingham, Ala.