- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

Come March, college basketball becomes a changed world at the next level down, that is.
Mid-major basketball probably doesn't look much different from the world everyone knows so well: bitter conference rivalries, packed venues, conference juggernauts, programs in rebuilding mode. Yet there remains that constant drive toward a single goal the NCAA tournament.
But there are plenty of differences, too, and not just concerning venue size, television exposure and recruiting prowess. The biggest: Winning the conference tournament often is the only ticket to the NCAAs. Little if any discussion revolves around at-large berths, rankings or rating systems. There's only one "quality win" to worry about in these conferences, the one in the tournament final.
"I would imagine it would be tough to go through something like that," said Maryland point guard Steve Blake, who has played in the NCAA tournament in each of his three previous seasons without needing an ACC tournament title to get there. "You would just have to play hard."
It wasn't always this way for the ACC and other major conferences. Most had only one NCAA bid, and it went to the regular-season champion. The ACC was the only league that awarded its bid to the tournament winner.
In 1974, a 23-5 Maryland team missed the 25-team NCAA tournament field after losing to N.C. State 103-100 in overtime in the ACC tournament final. Len Elmore, an All-American center for the Terrapins that season, said mid-major tournaments today have the "do-or-die atmosphere" that the ACC championship did then.
"Without that bid and being on the bubble, the level of anxiety rises, which is not necessarily bad," Elmore said. "Teams with something to play for usually play their best."
And although some smaller programs, such as Gonzaga or Creighton, have gained at-large consideration, getting into the NCAA tournament without a conference trophy has become much easier for schools in a "major" setting since the tournament's expansion to 64 teams.
"Coaching at Tennessee and having a recognized team, there wasn't that desire at the end of the season," said Navy coach Don DeVoe, who led the Southeastern Conference's Volunteers to five NCAA tournament and three NIT bids in 10 years. "Here [in the Patriot League], we know and it's clearly defined that the only way in is to win your tournament."
The conference tournament format gives a team like DeVoe's 8-19 Navy squad a chance at a berth. DeVoe prefers a formula in which at-large considerations are seldom brought into the picture.
"There's always a lot of speculation [regarding at-large berths]," he said. "Sometimes that works to your disadvantage. Sometimes kids start to believe that, and it's better from a coaching standpoint to know that you have to win."
Navy will open Patriot tournament play today against second-seeded American, which earned the top seeding in last season's tournament but lost to Holy Cross in the championship game. Regular-season champs may be the most victimized by the win-or-else tournaments, but most coaches wouldn't have it any other way.
"The way it's set up. The regular-season winner gets enough credit," AU coach Jeff Jones said. "That team earns the title as best team in the league. But with a tournament, knowing you still have that chance, I can't think of anybody that wouldn't want the tournament setup."
Said Howard coach Frankie Allen: "You're rewarded for winning the regular season by getting the [top] seed and the prime playing time. The tournament is the very essence of why you play. You want the team playing the best representing your conference."
Allen's Howard team will begin tournament play Monday in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which has never sent multiple teams to the NCAAs. The Colonial Athletic Association has managed the feat just once, in 1986 when Richmond joined David Robinson's Navy team.
Last season the CAA sent George Mason to the NIT in addition to automatic NCAA qualifier UNC Wilmington a feat that wasn't considered a disappointing consolation prize by George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who is looking to guide his fourth-seeded Patriots to the CAA crown starting today.
"If you're fortunate enough to be in any postseason, you have to be excited," he said. "If you can get to the final four of the NIT and get to Madison Square Garden, you gain a lot of recognition, especially in the Northeast where we like to recruit."
Larranaga's son Jon, a senior who leads George Mason in minutes and is the team's second-leading scorer, agrees.
"This time of year, you're leaving it all on the court," he said. "If you're still making changes, you're probably grasping."
And this is the time of year when schools from the major conferences analyze the mystical RPI hoping for an at-large bid. Meanwhile, the mid-majors are forced to prove themselves on the court.
"We don't pay nearly as much attention to RPI as we would at Virginia," said Jones, who took five Cavaliers teams to the NCAAs and another to an NIT championship. "It might make for interesting table conversation, but as far as impacting our postseason chances, we don't look at it."
Besides, the ultimate goal is to reach a place where all the rankings get thrown out and major conference schools put it all on the line and experience what the so-called mid-majors did a week earlier.
"Basketball is a tournament game," Allen said. "It lends itself to that type of atmosphere."

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