|Longtime powerhouses scrambling to make NCAA tournament|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 03 March 2008 13:05|
This year, it might be the NIT Final Four.
As the regular season winds down and conference tournaments tip off, the Terrapins, Orange and Wildcats - the Arizona and Kentucky varieties - are in bubble trouble.
If pedigree were all that matters, they'd have nothing to worry about on Selection Sunday. But while these powerhouses are long on tradition, at the moment they're short on victories.
``We are in desperation mode now,'' Arizona forward Chase Budinger said.
Arizona has reached the NCAA tournament 23 straight years, the nation's longest active streak.
Kentucky has played in a record 48 NCAA tournaments, with seven titles and 13 Final Four appearances.
Maryland and Syracuse have each won national titles in this decade.
They aren't the only big names sweating the stretch run. Florida (21-8, 8-6 SEC), the two-time defending national champion, has lost five of eight and has few notable victories.
Ohio State (17-12, 8-8 Big Ten), which reached the national final last spring, beat the Gators in December but has lost five of its last six.
Big East bully Villanova (17-12, 7-9 Big East) also has work to do.
``We know we've got to win some games to get in the (NCAA) tournament,'' Florida freshman forward Adam Allen said Monday. ``Nobody wants to go to the NIT. It's like the champion of the losers if you win that.''
Allen was talking about the Gators, but he could have been speaking for all the elite teams scrambling to improve their tourney resumes.
Start with the Arizona Wildcats (17-12, 7-9 Pac-10), who have picked a bad time to hit the skids. They've lost six of their last seven and were swept over the weekend by USC and No. 4 UCLA at McKale Center, their once-impregnable home.
Even so, interim coach Kevin O'Neill believes his team deserves strong consideration from NCAA selectors.
``I just want to play through the rest of the season and see what they say,'' O'Neill said. ``I doubt there are 64 teams better than us, but we will see.''
The Wildcats finish the regular season at last-place Oregon State and Oregon this weekend. The Wildcats split with those teams in January.
Kentucky (16-11, 10-4 SEC) is going in the other direction. After a 7-9 start, including an unthinkable loss to Gardner-Webb, the Wildcats looked as if they had no prayer of making the tournament. But with nine wins in their last 11 games, they're closing with a rush, and on Saturday they threw a scare into then-No. 1 Tennessee, losing 63-60 in Knoxville.
The Wildcats have lost freshman Patrick Patterson, their No. 2 scorer and leading rebounder, for the rest of the season with an ankle injury.
Kentucky visits South Carolina on Wednesday and wraps up the regular season against Florida on Sunday.
``I know they can win these games without me,'' Patterson said. ``I know they can play because if they couldn't, they wouldn't be here. We have total confidence in ourselves and our teammates.''
Kentucky last missed the NCAA tournament in 1991, Rick Pitino's second season in Lexington - and it wasn't because of performance. The Wildcats went 22-6 but stayed home because they were on NCAA probation.
The last time the Wildcats were eligible and failed to qualify for the NCAAs was in 1988-89, when they went 13-19 in Eddie Sutton's last year. To put that into perspective, Patterson was born on March 14, 1989, four days after Kentucky ended its season with a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament.
If Syracuse and Maryland don't make the NCAA tourney, they will look back on last weekend with regret. Both blew double-digit leads and lost at home, and if there's one thing the selection committee doesn't like to see, it's home losses.
Syracuse (17-12, 7-9 Big East), the 2003 national champs, blew an 11-point second half lead to Pitt on Saturday and gave the game away with a turnover under their own basket in the final seconds.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, a 32-year veteran who has led his alma mater to 25 NCAA tournaments, called it ``the most disappointing game I've ever been involved with.''
It was the fifth loss in six games for Syracuse, which will try to bounce back at Seton Hall on Wednesday night. The Orange finish the regular season against No. 21 Marquette on Saturday.
``It's going to be hard recovering from this,'' freshman point guard Jonny Flynn said.
The Terrapins know the feeling. Maryland (18-12, 8-7 ACC) coughed up a 20-point second-half lead to Clemson and lost on Terrence Oglesby's 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds to play.
The Terrapins have only one regular-season game remaining, at Virginia on Sunday, and then they'll try to make some hay in the ACC tournament.
For many of the nation's elite programs, conference tourneys are something to endure until the real postseason tips off.
Not this year.
For some, it may be the only way into the NCAAs.
AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., John Kekis in Syracuse, N.Y., and Will Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.