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Countdown to the madness (Part 1)

   by Larry Ness - 03/04/2006

Penn became the first team to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament field for this year when the Quakers held on to beat Yale on Friday. The Ivy League, the only one of the 31 Division I conferences to not have a postseason tournament, annually sends its regular season winner to the Big Dance.

A total 15 conferences began their tourneys this past week and five more NCAA bids will be secured by Sunday. The Atlantic Sun, Big South and Ohio Valley Conferences will play title games on Saturday, with the Missouri Valley and Southern Conferences having theirs on Sunday.

Typically, most of the at-large bids come from the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big-10, Big-12, Pac-10 and SEC) but a number of the conferences that began play this week could produce at-large bids. While the Patriot League rarely sees surprises (10 of 15 top seeds have won), if 23-4 Bucknell were to lose, the Bison would probably get an at-large bid. They became the first school in league history to finish a regular season undefeated (14-0) this year and beat Kansas in the first round of the NCAA's last year.

Of course No. 5 Gonzaga is a shoo-in for an at-large bid if the Bulldogs somehow lost in the WCC tourney. However, Gonzaga did go undefeated in league play this season for the second time in three years plus is playing at home where the team has won 38 straight games. While the CAA hasn't had an at-large bid since Richmond in 1986, George Mason, Hofstra and UNC-Wilmington have all won 22 games entering Saturday's action (all play and not against each other).

That leaves the Missouri Valley Conference, celebrating its 99th year. The MVC placed five teams in the postseason last year (three in NCAA and two in NIT), for the first time in its history. It could match that total again this year but getting another three invites to the NCAA tournament seems like a stretch. However, the conference does have an excellent RPI, ranking sixth as of Feb 25. Saturday's semifinals feature 19-9 Bradley vs regular season champ Wichita State (24-7) and 23-8 Northern Iowa vs 20-10 Southern Illinois.

The bad news for Wichita State is the league's No. 1 seed hasn't won this tourney since 1998, while Southern Illinois is likely happy to not be the league's No. seed this year, as the Salukis have failed to win the tournament each of the last four years as the loop's top-seed.

Northern Iowa spent a couple of weeks ranked at No. 25 this season in the AP poll (first time in the school's 106-year history), but the Panthers finished poorly. They did however crush Missouri State 57-42 Friday night. Bradley only gets in if the Braves win the tournament.

No 7 George Washington hosts Charlotte at 2:00 ET (Colonials are favored by 8 1/2 points) today, as the school tries to join Bucknell and Gonzaga as college basketball's only undefeated conference teams this season. It's not an easy task, as only Pacific (18-0 in the Big West) did it last year and including Pacific, only eight schools have accomplished it the past five years. The Colonials own the nation's longest current winning streak at 17 straight and at 25-1, are the lone remaining school with just one loss on the season.

Maybe that's not a good thing? Consider these numbers. Most people know that Bob Knight's 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers are the last team to finish a season unbeaten, going 32-0 that year, capping it with a win over Michigan for the national title.

However, do you know the last time a one-loss school won the NCAA title? How about the David Thompson-led North Carolina State team of 1973-74! There have been 20 one-loss teams to try since (including Illinois last year which lost the national title game to North Carolina), but none have been able to do it.

Looking back over the years, there have been 17 schools to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated but only seven have gone on to win (41 percent). Compare that to the 54 one-loss team that have tried, with only six eventually claiming the title (11 percent). How about two-loss teams? There have been 90 of them, with 16 going on to win (18 percent).

I'll have much more on the tournament next weekend, on the eve of "Selection Sunday."

Morrison vs Redick

Gonzaga's Adam Morrison has completed his regular season and his Bulldogs will begin WCC tournament play Sunday. Duke's Redick has a final regular season game tonight against North Carolina (9:00 ET on ESPN) before the Blue Devils begin play in the ACC tourney next Friday.

Morrison currently leads the nation in scoring averaging 28.8 PPG, while Redick is second at 28.1 PPG. Now one of these two players will win the scoring title (with the other finishing second) and one will win the player of the year award with again, the other finishing second. How rare is this situation? Pretty rare indeed.

Just twice since 1970 has the same player won both the scoring title and the player of the year award in the same year. The late Pete Maravich did it in 1970 at LSU and Purdue's Glenn Robinson pulled off the double-double in 1994. However, not a single time in these last 35 years have the same two players finished one-two in the scoring race and one-two in the player of the year balloting.

Winning a scoring title in college hoops is not a good harbinger of success for that player's team in the Big Dance. In fact, the only NCAA scoring champ to have led his team to an NCAA title in the same season is Clyde Lovellette of Kansas in 1952! Over the last three decades, just two players ranked among the nation's top-10 scorers, have even led their teams into the Final Four.

Back in 1979, a guy named Larry Bird (28.6 PPG and the nation's 2nd-ranked scorer that year) led Indiana State to the title game, where the Sycamores lost to a Michigan State team led by some guy named Earvin. In 1990, Dennis Scott (who finished 9th in scoring that year at 27.7 PPG) and Georgia Tech reached the national semifinals, losing to UNLV.

Ness Notes is available by 1:00 Et Monday through Friday. A feature story runs Saturday and Sunday.






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