- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

It's March Madness without all the hoopla.

The NCAA Division II tournament lurks in the long shadow cast by its Division I basketball brother. In fact its name implies that it's a second-class NCAA citizen.

Sure, programs that chase the lower-profile title don't have the budgets, facilities, television packages or number of fans of those that participate in the more famous brackets. However, the hunt isn't any less thrilling and some might even say it's purer and less corporate than Division I's road to the Final Four.

"It's the same thing," said NBA All-Star Ben Wallace, who led Virginia Union to the Division II semifinals in 1996. "The crowds may not be as big, but the intensity is just as high. You either win or go home. It's the same experience. Regardless of what level you are playing on, you don't want to miss an opportunity to win."

Both divisions provide basketball scholarships, although Division II programs can offer only 10 three short of the Division I limit. That's where most similarities end. Division II will hold its premier event, the Elite Eight in which Bowie State is a participant this year at 4,700-seat Lakeland (Fla.) Center. However, since host Florida Southern was eliminated earlier in the tournament, the event could struggle to fill the arena. In contrast, the Final Four will have no problem selling out the Louisiana Superdome.

While it operates in relative obscurity, 295-team Division II has a rich history that has produced some NBA notables, such as Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson (North Dakota), and former New York Knicks greats Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois) and Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State). Recent products included Detroit's Wallace, Washington's Charles Oakley (Virginia Union) and Orlando's Darrell Armstrong (Fayetteville State).

Tim Washington also has NBA dreams as he leads Bowie State into its national quarterfinal tomorrow. Washington, a transfer from Division I American University, leads a roster stocked with Division I and junior college transfers who came to Bowie for a fresh start.

"We have players that could play at D-I level," said Washington, the Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year as a freshman at American. "But they had some little issues or they came back home or something like that."

Washington led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament this season, and last week Bowie State won the eight-team South Atlantic Region. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs meet No. 6 Massachusetts-Lowell in the Elite Eight at noon tomorrow in Lakeland. The three-round tournament concludes Saturday with the championship game on CBS the only Division II contest televised nationally this season.

"I don't miss the attention," said Stephen Moss-Kelley, a 6-foot-6 guard who began his career at Division I Eastern Washington. "You don't have to look over your shoulder every five minutes. The Division I level is really like that. People don't understand that. They think it's all peaches and cream, but it is so much of a business at that level."

Washington embodies what most of the top programs at Division II have become over the last two decades. He left American when coach Art Perry was fired after his freshman season. The 6-9 power forward strongly considered transferring to George Washington before choosing Bowie State largely because he could play right away. NCAA rules require players transferring between Division I schools to sit out a season while those moving to Division II are immediately eligible.

Programs like Bowie State provide a fresh start for Division I players and is the next step for junior college stars to continue their careers.

The Bulldogs are nearly all transfers, including ones from Virginia Tech and Rutgers. Their reasons for landing at Bowie State a 5,000-student historically black university range from academic troubles to playing-time issues to disenchanted players looking for a clean slate.

"I recruit kids basically the second time around," said Bowie coach Luke D'Alessio, who turned Bowie from a perennial loser into a power in four seasons. "I'm getting kids that are looking for a second chance. And those guys are usually a little bit more hungry. I don't have to wine them and dine them like a Division I school. This is a second chance."

D'Alessio recruits top high school players, but stands little chance when Division I programs get involved. It wasn't always that way, like when the Lakers' Jackson set a Division II tournament record when he made 22 field goals for North Dakota in a win over Parsons (Kan.) in 1967. Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was named tournament MVP in 1965 and '66 while leading Evansville (Ind.) to a pair of national titles and Knicks' Hall of Famer Earl Monroe averaged 41.5 points while taking Winston-Salem State to the 1967 championship.

Temple's John Chaney coached Cheyney (Pa.) State to a championship in 1978. Jim Phelan coached Mount Saint Mary's to the Division II trophy in 1962. The University of the District of Columbia captured the 1982 championship behind 7-foot center Earl Jones, who became a first-round draft pick by the Lakers.

"You couldn't get near Connecticut Avenue when we played John Chaney," said then-UDC coach Wil Jones, of packing the modest Northwest Washington gym. "We were that good. Earl was the leading scorer in the nation, averaging 30 points. Earl was jumping over the backboard and dunking over his head. That was before everybody was doing it.

"The atmosphere was like it was at Georgetown [which lost the D-I championship game in '82 to North Carolina]. I thought we were the best team in the city. We could've played with Maryland and Georgetown."

UDC reached the '83 title game before falling to Wright (Ohio) State. But that was near the end of the heyday for D-II. Television continued to emerge as the driving force to D-I, and the lower division could no longer recruit and compete with the resources of big-time programs. Many top D-II programs including Mount St. Mary's, American and Evansville upgraded to D-I.

"The gap is money," said Jones, who left UDC in 1998 and most recently coached at D-I Norfolk State. "Programs can afford new dorms and new arenas. D-II schools can't do that. They have to be community schools."

Bowie State has a basketball budget of $176,000, which includes its coach's salary, travel expenses and the eight scholarships it provides. D'Alessio's job was part-time before the university upgraded it to full-time last year. The Bulldogs travel exclusively by bus during the regular season and often share their ride with the women's team.

There are no training tables, and D'Alessio's office doubles as the team's locker room. There are no athletic dorms and players live with the rest of the students.

"It was a big difference coming from Virginia Tech to here," said Jon Smith, a 6-8 senior in his only season at Bowie after being the Hokies' sixth man last season. "The dorms, the cafeteria, it's like night and day. Dorms are smaller and louder. We had a great cafeteria at Tech. When I first got here, I wasn't real happy."

Smith, the team's second leading scorer behind Washington at 14.3 points per game, said he doesn't miss the media coverage his old team received. The Bulldogs draw between 1,000 and 4,000 for home games, but have played in front of crowds in the hundreds on the road.

Bowie gets a taste of big-time hoops each season at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, which drew 21,786 to its championship game at RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., earlier this month. The Bulldogs won the conference title and locked up an automatic NCAA berth with a 72-71 victory over national-power Virginia Union.

"A lot of people don't recognize how big the CIAA tournament is," said Detroit's Wallace, who transferred to Virginia Union from junior college. "People start talking about crowds and you say something about the CIAA tournament, that's like one of the biggest if not the second-biggest college crowd that anybody draws."

The CIAA tournament is a celebration of basketball at historically black colleges. The Bulldogs, however, were brought back to D-II reality during their NCAA regional outside Atlanta. Their opening-round win over Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) College drew 204 fans, while the title game against Presbyterian (S.C.) had 543 fans in the stands.

"We couldn't care if anybody was in the gym," D'Alessio said. "We were in the championship game and trying to go to the Elite Eight."

It is just part of another March Madness without the glare.

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