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Alabama, Indiana, Texas Tech on NCAA tournament bubble

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama was ranked No. 1 briefly, Indiana reached last year's national title game, and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight always has his teams ready when it matters.

It matters now.

Those three schools are among 10 or so prominent programs that might not even make the NCAA tournament field unless they impress during this week's conference tourneys.

In a bit of good news for those ''bubble teams,'' one NCAA berth suddenly opened up Monday when Georgia -- ranked 21st and a lock to make the field -- withdrew from the SEC and NCAA tournaments after an internal investigation uncovered academic fraud involving three players.

''I think every basketball player and coach in America is looking at the NCAA tournament and what needs to happen or how it will play out,'' said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, presumably looking harder than most.

No team has failed to get an NCAA invitation after rising to No. 1 since North Carolina State in 1974-75, when only one team from each conference made the field. Now, with an expanded, 65-team field, the Southeastern Conference alone has three available teams considered locks and as many bubble teams, with Alabama trying not to fall all the way from No. 1 to the NIT.

Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee are hoping to erase doubt with strong league tournament performances this weekend in New Orleans.

Indiana can relate. So can Texas Tech and former head Hoosier Bob Knight, North Carolina State, Seton Hall, Minnesota, DePaul and Oregon, among others.

Already no sure bet, the Hoosiers (18-11, 8-8 Big 10) closed the regular season with a 74-66 loss to Penn State, a team that finished 2-14 in the league.

Oops.

The teams meet again Thursday in the Big 10 tournament in Chicago, and coach Mike Davis figures a win or two should convince the NCAA selection committee.

''We'd be six games over .500 if we lose Thursday,'' Davis said, ''but I don't think we're going to lose Thursday.''

Knight and Co. will need a huge run at the Big 12 tournament to make the NCAA field. It won't be the same without him: No Knight-coached team has had to play in the NIT since 1985. Three of his teams won NCAA national championships.

He said Tech (16-11, 6-10) will probably need to win the league tournament to make the NCAA field for the second straight year.

''I don't think at this point and the way things have gone for us throughout the entire league season that the (selection) committee will even take the time to talk about us,'' said Knight, adding that his team would accept an NIT bid if offered. He led Indiana to three national championships.

The SEC's situation is wild enough that stress rather than excessive consumption could lead to a run on antacids in the Big Easy this weekend.

Coaches of the highly rated league have lobbied for placing seven or even eight teams in the tournament, but the SEC's never gotten more than six. Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi State all are considered sure bets with the four hopefuls -- as was Georgia.

''If the NCAA is serious about getting the best teams in the tournament -- and I think that's the goal -- there's no question the SEC should get seven teams,'' LSU's John Brady said.

Not necessarily, according to the team power ratings. Only Alabama (33) and Auburn (39) are rated in the Top 40 while LSU (41) and Tennessee (50) aren't too far behind -- bubble territory for at-large berths.

Making matters tougher, the Volunteers ruled senior guard Jon Higgins ineligible Monday for failing to pass enough classes in the fall. Two bubble teams -- Auburn and Tennessee -- will meet after first-round byes due to Georgia's withdrawal in what could be a loser-goes-to-NIT game.

LSU was the only one to bolster its case in the stretch run, winning its last five -- including victories over the league's other three bubble teams.

''I feel like we're one of the best 64 teams in country and we deserve to be in the NCAA tournament based on what our team has done,'' Brady said.

Auburn's Cliff Ellis thinks being the SEC West's No. 2 seeded team should count for something.

''I don't think No. 3 and No. 4 should jump ahead of No. 2,'' Ellis said.

Gottfried, meanwhile, said a tough nonconference schedule -- including wins over Oklahoma, Ohio State and Xavier and a close loss at Utah -- negates a 7-9 SEC mark.

''I don't think you can negate all that, everything that happened in November and December, because we're one game under .500,'' Gottfried said.

Two years ago, the Tide finished .500 in the league and won 21 regular-season games but didn't receive an NCAA invite because of a weak nonconference schedule.

Gottfried had predicted a win at LSU in the regular-season finale would have ''settled everything,'' but the Tide lost 66-62.

Seton Hall (16-11, 10-6 Big East) also boasts solid power ratings at No. 36. The Pirates lost their final two games after winning nine straight.

No problem, said forward Marcus Toney-El.

''We'll start another streak,'' he said. ''Our glass is always half full.''

Oregon (20-9, 10-8 PAC 10) has the wins but is a modest No 53 in the power ratings and lost its final two games heading into the tournament opener with Arizona State.

''Pure and simple, we aren't in the tournament,'' guard James Davis said. ''We're a bubble team now.''

Join the crowd.



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