Part Of The NCAA 'In' Crowd

East Tennessee State coach Ed DeChellis dries off after his players Jerald Fields (1), Tim Smith, third from right, and Ryan Lawson, second from right, doused him with water after winning the Southern Conference tournament, Saturday, March 8, 2003
Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, North Carolina-Asheville and Troy State aren't among anyone's list of basketball powers, but those schools are the envy of plenty of others since they've already secured a spot in the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament.

For them, the selection show on Sunday won't be a sweaty-palmed affair. By winning their respective conference tournaments, they've eliminated any "ifs" from the equation. They, along with Penn, which won the Ivy League title, have secured a spot in the field of 65 teams. The dream of a trip to this year's Final Four destination, New Orleans (April 5-7), is alive and well.

Still, selection Sunday will answer two important questions – who they face in the first round, and where will they play.

Any of these teams could be packing their bags for a March 20 contest in Oklahoma City, Okla., or Indianapolis. Might even be a western destination on the horizon – Salt Lake City or Spokane, Wash.

Or, perhaps a March 21 game in Boston, or Tampa, Fla., or maybe a trip to Birmingham, Ala., or Nashville, Tenn., is in the offing.

For a school with a losing record like North Carolina-Asheville (14-16), there is also the possibility that a quick trip to Dayton, Ohio will be added to the itinerary for the play-in game March 18. That game pits the 64th- and 65th-seeded teams against one another with the winner earning the dubious distinction of facing the tournament's strongest No. 1 seed.

So five of the tournament's 31 automatic bids have been spoken for and over the next week the other 26 will be filled. That leaves 34 at-larger bids for the selection committee to pencil in.

Of course, for dozens of the elite teams in Div. I, a spot in the tournament is a given, but the question of seeding remains up in the air for many. That question will be answered by the teams themselves in various major conference tournaments this week.

A conference tournament title not only assures any team of a spot in the field, it can also propel a team up a couple spots in the tournament bracket, thus providing a matchup against an "easier" opponent.

The quotation marks are intentional, because outside of a No. 1 seed's opening round game against a No. 16 (a No. 1 has never lost), there are no givens in the tournament. And with as much parity as there has been in many of the conferences, there aren't going to be many pushovers in the 1st round or 2nd round.

The 1st round must sound awfully good to the gaggle of teams that cruelly twist in the wind this time of year – the "bubble" teams.

An early exit from a conference tournament for any these teams will almost certainly mean an NIT bid as opposed to an NCAA bid come Sunday.

Ultimately, what all this means for the basketball fan in the coming week is a delectable taste of what lies ahead when the brackets are filled and "March Madness" begins in earnest.

by John Esterbrook