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Gold Nuggets
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
By Adam Gold
Adam Gold is program director of the Triangle's "850 the Buzz" and host of "The G-spot with Adam Gold" on weekdays from 3-7 p.m.

[Editor's note: This column marks Adam Gold's debut on Gold will author columns for the site from time to time with a broad focus on issues in college sports.]

Blame it on the ACC

By Adam Gold
All rights reserved.

Selection Sunday is long gone, 65 teams were placed in the bracket by the NCAA Selection Committee and, when that deed was done, Dean Smith and three other former coaches put together the 32-team NIT field.

With 97 teams heading to postseason play, it didn’t take very long to reel off the Conference USA schools that took part in the madness. Memphis destroyed the league this year, winning all 19 of its games against conference opponents, 16 of them by double digits.

It could be that the Tigers are truly a juggernaut and will go on to cut down the nets in Atlanta on April 2... or it could be that the rest of the conference was MIA.

It was a man among boys season for a once proud league — none of Memphis' fellow league members was invited to either the Big Dance or the NIT.

That’s one team among 97. Or, one fewer than the SWAC, MEAC, Atlantic Sun, Sun Belt, Metro Atlantic, Mid-American, Ohio Valley, Southern and America East.

Not even the second place team from C-USA, 20-game winner Central Florida, made it into the postseason. What does that say?

It was a down year for Conference-USA — only half the league was over .500. Yes, the conference sent two teams, Memphis and UAB, to the dance in each of the last two seasons. Yes, the Tigers were a No. 1 seed last year and a No. 2 this season. But, this isn’t about one team, this is about a conference that used to be a postseason factor in basketball but has become nothing more than a so-called “mid-major.”

You don’t have to look very far to find blame. In fact, the culprit lives 160 miles from the center of Greenville, or almost 300 miles closer than the Pirates’ closest league rival, Marshall.

Three summers ago the plates shifted and an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale changed the landscape of college sports. The Atlantic Coast Conference announced plans to expand from nine to 11 teams, a number that would later grow to 12 once the back-room dealing was finished.

Virginia Tech and Miami would come first, and a year later Boston College would join them — all three schools exiting the Big East — helping to grow the ACC into a 12-team knockoff of the football-rich Southeastern Conference.

What followed was natural and predictable in college sports as there is no regulation on conference affiliation. Schools are free to align themselves with whichever schools they choose and, as we found out, geography be damned.

John Swofford, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, likes to talk about the “geographic footprint” of his league. Well, Bob Lanier didn’t have a footprint this big.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of coastline along the Atlantic, because you can’t cover a lot more beach than the distance between Miami and Boston.

Amid a flurry of legal action, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese was plotting to reshape his conference and the end result created a league as accurately named as the 11-team Big Ten. The Big East raided Conference USA, convincing five of the league’s 14 schools to join the Big East, creating the second 16-team league in modern NCAA history. Some will remember the 16-team Western Athletic Conference that split in half after that format's short life span.

Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida bolted from Conference USA to the Big East, but the evisceration of C-USA wasn't over. Texas Christian jumped to the Mountain West and Charlotte and Saint Louis evacuated for the 14-team Atlantic 10.

Anyone else confused yet? That’s eight schools from a 14-team league gone to seek new playing partners. The result was that Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky was left to repair the extensive damage.

Out of the rubble would emerge a league whose name certainly fit the description.

Conference USA went to the WAC for Tulsa, Texas-El Paso, Rice and Southern Methodist; it looked to the Atlantic Sun for Central Florida; and Marshall came thundering in from the Mid-American Conference.

Back to a dozen teams, the league was well positioned — for a presidential election maybe. One thousand nine hundred miles separate East Carolina from UTEP, and it’s more than 1,200 miles from Minges Coliseum to the home arenas for Rice, Tulsa, Houston and SMU.

If I was guessing, I’d say that there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to how the restructuring of Conference USA would impact basketball, and I’d be right. Conference USA admittedly became a true southern football conference, leaving the basketball side to swim upstream among the other mid-majors.

C-USA basketball went from a league that averaged four NCAA tournament teams per year from 2000-2005 to a conference that ended the season with just one team other than Memphis ranked among the top 100 in the RPI — meaning that C-USA has as many top 100 RPI teams as the America East, Patriot, Southern, Horizon and West Coast Conferences, and fewer than the Mid-American (4), Mountain West (4), Missouri Valley (5), Western Athletic (5) and Atlantic Ten (7).

And how about the Colonial? You know you can’t spell N-C-A-A without C-A-A, right? George Mason made it to the Final Four a year ago, the Colonial sent two teams to the Tournament this year (Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion) and another (Drexel) to the NIT.

Conference USA? Hello? Hello? Anybody home?

I understand that things move in cycles. Mike Davis should be able to do at least what Mike Anderson did at UAB before he left for Missouri last summer. Larry Eustachy should be able to return Southern Miss to at least occasional viability.

Tulsa and Texas-El Paso have been good before and there’s no reason why they can’t be good again. Maybe Matt Doherty will be able to bring SMU along.

But, you can't compare Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette to Tulsa, UTEP and Central Florida. Even in a great season, Conference USA appears destined to be Memphis and the Eleven Dwarfs.

The bottom line is simple. In the haste of reassembling a conference after the national shuffling of the deck three summers ago, Conference USA was dining on leftovers. The league is a shell of its former self on the hardwood — and it’s not exactly a powerhouse in football. Even in its good hoops years, it’s unlikely to surpass the Missouri Valley or the Colonial.

Perhaps most problematic for East Carolina is that it doesn’t have a chance to establish any semblance of a real rivalry with any team in this league.

Under the circumstances, it is advantageous to ECU that it has never looked to hoops to pay the bills. Football has paid the freight, always has and apparently always will. The arrival of Skip Holtz on the scene was timely indeed. He is going about the business of rebuilding a program of substance, one about which the Pirate Nation can be proud.

But the basketball side of the equation at East Carolina — just like the league in which it competes — is taking too many body blows. If it was a fight, the white towel would have already been thrown.
Only, in Conference USA, it would have missed everything.

03/21/2007 06:33:39 AM

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