Selection Sunday comes with turmoil in college basketball

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS -- In a typical March, college basketball fans would be arguing about whether their favorite team will make the NCAA tournament.

Nothing has been typical this March.

After two weeks of suspensions, firings, forced resignations and player boycotts, the basketball world wants to set aside its troubles and put the focus back on brackets and bubble teams.

For those on the 10-member Tournament Selection Committee making the decisions this weekend, the games -- and the debates -- can't begin soon enough.

''Whether it's a team that's never been in it or one that hasn't been in it for a long time, you don't want to see anything taking away from these great stories,'' said Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood, selection committee chairman.

The biggest newsmakers haven't been the surprise winners such as IUPUI or Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which earned their first tournament bids in school history Tuesday night.

The headlines haven't included Gonzaga or Butler, which were upset in conference title games.

Most of the talk has centered on teams whose seasons already have ended because of off-the-court misconduct, giving a whole new meaning to ''March Madness.''

''I hope it hasn't,'' Livengood said.

Georgia and Fresno State withdrew from the tournament because of academic violations, and St. Bonaventure forfeited six games and was barred from its conference tournament after using an ineligible player.

Georgia also suspended coach Jim Harrick and fired his son, an assistant coach. Now two Georgia players hope a lawsuit will keep the No. 21 Bulldogs eligible for postseason play. A judge is scheduled to hear the case Monday, the day after Livengood announces this year's pairings.

St. Bonaventure president Robert Wickenheiser resigned and coach Jan van Breda Kolff was put on administrative leave after the players decided to forfeit their final two games.

Villanova suspended 12 players for allegedly making unauthorized phone calls with a school access code, forcing it to play in the Big East tournament with only five scholarship players.

''I think it's a cause of concern,'' former committee chairman Terry Holland said, referring to the tumultuous past two weeks. ''We're all concerned with where it will lead.''

For Livengood and his committee, which will announce the 34 at-large teams Sunday afternoon, the scandals have turned their lives upside down.

The usual controversies about seedings, how many mid-major teams get at-large bids, and the ''pod'' system (introduced last year to reward top teams by keeping them closer to home) have been replaced by legal questions and debates about what constitutes a victory.

''It seems like every hour, every half day, something new is happening,'' Livengood said. ''It's incredible.''

Some contend the past two weeks epitomize everything that's wrong with college sports -- schools are more interested in winning than being honest and graduating athletes.

Others, such as NCAA president Myles Brand, disagree.

Brand took over the job in January after leaving Indiana University, and is the first university president to hold the post. He said self-imposed punishments are part of a trend in which school presidents are regaining control of athletic programs while ensuring that rules are followed.

On the court, some top teams -- such as 2002 national runner-up Indiana (ranked as high as sixth this season) and Alabama (No. 1 for two weeks in December and January) -- entered their conference tournaments struggling just to get a bid.

Some outsiders want the NCAA committee to consider not only the Ratings Percentage Index or strength of schedule but also reconsider losses by bubble teams to those schools that violated the rules.

Livengood hoped things will get back to normal by Sunday.

He wants the focus on so-called ''alphabet schools,'' such as IUPUI, that are getting their 15 minutes of fame. He wants players to remember they're trying to win a national championship. He wants fans to embrace the pairings with all the pleasure and rancor of their annual arguments.

And he can't wait for Tuesday, when the tournament's opening game between the 64th and 65th teams in the field could finally turn the attention back to what's happening on the court.

''This time of year, you really don't want anything detracting from the tournament,'' Livengood said. ''You want the players from the 65 teams to have a great experience. That's what we want.''

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