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Pac-10 Needs Tourney To Restore Hope

Bob Bender was wearing a rare, floating-on-air smile Saturday when he assured his hang time around Cloud Nine would be minimal.

“We’ll put this one behind us,” the Huskies coach promised, minutes after his team beat archrival Washington State for the first time in his two seasons at Washington. “We’ve got four more games to play.”

While Bender’s perspective is laudable, his ability to calculate precisely how many dates are left on the menu is sad.

There are almost 300 NCAA Division I basketball coaches in the United States. Only a handful of them oversee teams that are prevented from holding onto their hoop dreams into the third week of March.

Among this year’s outcasts: Northwestern and Ohio State, in the Big Ten; Columbia and Harvard, in the Ivy League, and Southern Cal and Washington, in the Pacific-10. These are the schools that have no chance for an NIT bid, no chance for an at-large NCAA bid, no chance to turn over the tables of the conference tournament and make a mad dash for automatic qualification through the back door.

In the old, closed-shop days, nobody would dare plead that the NCAA make room for the Northwesterns and Washingtons of the world. But this shop ain’t closed.

Over the next few weeks, 29 of 32 conferences will stage tournaments that’ll give all members in good standing, regardless of won-loss records, a chance to extend their season by several games. Only the Big Ten and the Pac-10 (the same folks whose archaic Rose Bowl pact undermines college football’s bowl coalition) prefer to be prisoners of tradition, as does the Ivy League, which stopped emphasizing sports around the time George Bush fit his hand into a first baseman’s mitt at Yale.

Whenever the notion is pitched for scrapping atlarge invitations and turning the NCAA tournament into a true equal-access affair, a wise association poobah invariably replies that the explosion of conference tournaments makes NCAA participation a virtual reality for everybody. Well, explain that to Bob Bender. Here he’s put together a scrappy young team capable of scaring a quality opponent, and all his players can look forward to is facing the last-gasp days of the season with dignity.

“I think a lot of the coaches in our conference would like to see a postseason tournament,” said Bender. “But there hasn’t been a lot of talk about it lately.”

Indeed, the issue was buried after a four-year trial run concluded in 1990. Had the Pac-10 tournament been lambasted an artistic or financial disaster, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

But the crowds weren’t bad - in 1988, at the University of Arizona, all tournament games sold out - and the plot lines had plenty of suspense. (Seventh-seeded Oregon upset Arizona in 1987; the following season, Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars, a No. 6 seed, knocked off regular-season champ UCLA.) Problems? Sure. Seems the championship conflicted with the NCAA selection show and was reduced to an anticlimax.

Now I’d never presume to know more than presidents of universities in a matter so sublime as time-slot budgeting, but if the end of an important game is running into the beginning of an important TV program, why not start the game earlier?

Seems some of the conference presidents weren’t enamored, either, with midweek travel commitments that required schools from the north to transport delegations to southern California and Arizona.

OK, so spread the pie. Soon there will be five comfortable NBA arenas located within the boundaries of the Pac-10. Why not rotate the tournament between Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Phoenix? If tickets are distributed equitably, no team would own a distinct home-court advantage.

Some will argue that a conference tournament devalues the regular season. Don’t buy it. A conference tournament merely infuses the regular season with the promise that the best is yet to come.

As entertaining as the UW-WSU showdown at Hec Edmundson Pavilion was Saturday, as loud and lively as the sellout crowd was, the matinee had a mood of finality: The Huskies were going nowhere.

“As a coach, you always want the season to be extended,” said Bender, who is not wholly impartial to the idea of conference tournaments. A Duke grad, he knows all about the ACC tournament, annually among sport’s most anticipated spectacles.

“Last year,” Bender went on, “we wanted to keep playing because we had some seniors. This year, with a younger team, we want to keep playing because we are improving so much. Either way, you hate for the season to stop.”

For the last word on this, I nominate Jim Valvano, who, before he lost his life to cancer, generally commanded the last word in any conversation. Valvano’s colorful career is best remembered for the 1983 NCAA championship his underdog North Carolina State team won against the Phi Slamma Jamma gang at Houston.

Less remembered is this: With a 17-10 record, N.C. State doesn’t even get invited by the NCAA unless it beats Wake Forest by a point in the first round of the ACC tournament.

In order to keep hope alive, first you’ve got to have hope. 950301 MCGRATH-1J


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