ENGSTER: Big Dance a haven for mediocrity

As John Brady attempts to maneuver his team into the NCAA Tournament, it is important to note that an 8-8 SEC record was once not good enough to be in either the NCAA or NIT post-season fields. <br><br> Twenty-six years have passed since LSU nipped national champion Kentucky 95-94 in overtime on a February night at the Assembly Center

It was the victory that catapulted Dale Brown's unit into elite status of college hoops. Brown and Co. reigned among the bets for 15 years, but in 1978 LSU was snubbed by both the NCAA and NIT selection committees.

The 1977-78 Tigers defeated national champion Kentucky, No. 6 DePaul, lost a razor-tight decision to No. 3 Arkansas and went 12-6 in the SEC, good enough for second place in the league. But Brown's bunch spent the postseason at home, watching Kentucky beat Duke in St. Louis to capture the NCAA crown. Kentucky lost only twice in the 1977-78 season – the last defeat was to LSU.

The Tigers closed the 1977-78 season with eight victories in 10 SEC assignments, the only losses coming in the final minute to Florida and Mississippi State. There was no SEC Tournament until 1979, so LSU closed its season at home with a 103-85 verdict over Alabama, the only other team to beat Kentucky in 1978.

The Tigers of '78 played a demanding non-conference schedule highlighted by DePaul, Arkansas, Texas and Washington State. LSU was quite likely one of the ten best teams in the land by season's end, but one of Brown's best teams was left off the NCAA dance card.

The NCAA field has since doubled to 64 teams (plus one with 65 now qualifying), so now an 8-8 SEC record is usually impressive enough to get a bid. In 1986, LSU went 9-9 in the league and advanced to the Final Four. A year later, Brown's crew posted an 8-10 conference mark and charged into the Elite Eight.

I liked the old days better. In previous years, teams had to win their respective leagues to get an NCAA invite. Bob Boyd's USC team went 24-2 one season, but didn't get an NCAA bid because the Trojans' two losses were to conference rival UCLA.

The field of 64 renders the regular season almost meaningless. The time has come to reduce the NCAA Tournament to 32 teams and force conference members to either win the regular season or postseason championships to advance into the NCAAs.

Imagine the intensity of regular season competition if the outcome really meant something? The guess here is that attendance in the Deaf Dome would pick up considerably if fans knew that an NCAA bid hinged being at the top of the SEC heap. Season ticket holders pay top dollar to see competition that is merely window dressing for what comes in March.

If the NCAA Tournament wants to invite 64 teams to its tournament and condone mediocrity then every team in the land should participate. Every program should get a dose of March Madness if squads with losing conference records are allowed to compete for the national title.

No team with a losing conference record has captured an NCAA crown yet, but it almost happened 17 years ago. If LSU had not lost at the buzzer to Indiana, the Tigers would have advanced to New Orleans for the Final Four with a losing SEC ledger. LSU would have had a strong chance to beat UNLV and Syracuse as Indiana did at the Superdome to give Bob Knight his third NCAA title.

It was interesting to hear all the belly-aching about Oklahoma playing for the NCAA football title despite losing the Big 12 postseason championship to Kansas State. In basketball, this kind of scenario develops often and few people gripe about the irony of teams unable to win their leagues competing for national honors.

The NCAA Tournament has experienced a diminution of quality with few complaints because the field of 64 brings more money into the coffers of university athletic departments. If money takes precedent over quality, the field should be expanded to 128 teams.

In their hearts, coaches, athletic directors and college presidents know that 32 teams should be the limit for the NCAA Tournament. It will be amusing to see which college luminary has the audacity to say the obvious. The NCAA Tournament, which once rewarded excellence, is now a haven for average participants.

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