Small Schools Get Taste Of Big Time

Texas Southern coach Ronnie Courtney, left, covers forward Allan Lovett during a practice Monday, March 17, 2003, at the UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.
The NCAA play-in game, instituted three years ago to accommodate some conference reconfiguringing, has created an opportunity for some schools far from the Div. I spotlight to get their names in lights.

The math speaks for itself: North Carolina-Asheville is playing in the NCAA tournament with a losing record, the only team among the 65 to do so.

Coach Eddie Biedenbach, however, doesn't want to hear any talk about losers and undeserving teams. He thinks his Bulldogs can play.

"We are one of 17 losing teams that have been in the NCAA tournament, but we have a schedule that includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan State, Holy Cross, which is in the tournament, and East Tennessee State, which won its league," Biedenbach said. "Any mid-major is going to have a tough time with that schedule."

The Bulldogs, whose schedule is ranked the 17th hardest in the nation, take a 14-16 record into Tuesday night's play-in game against Texas Southern (18-12). The winner gets a No. 16 seed and faces top-seeded Texas on Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

This is the biggest game in North Carolina-Asheville history. The university, a school of about 3,200 students in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has chartered buses to take fans to Dayton. The school was offering a ticket and round-trip transportation for $70, with financial assistance for those who can't afford the trip.

The NCAA exposure is a bonanza for both schools, which are overshadowed by bigger universities in their home states.

Asheville, the surprise winner of the Big South tournament, is making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Biedenbach got a taste of tournament life as a North Carolina State player. He also was part of an NCAA title-winning team as an assistant with the Wolfpack in 1974. This is his first trip in 10 years as a head coach.

Texas Southern made the NCAA field by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament. This is its third trip to the NCAA tournament, but first since 1995.

The Tigers beat Alcorn State 77-68 in the SWAC championship in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday night. Sleep has been in short supply ever since.

"I've had about four hours. I'm extremely tired," coach Ronnie Courtney said.

"The phone has been ringing out of my hands," Courtney added. "I thought it would take me a little longer to get there than two years."

After a short night spent celebrating the school's first NCAA berth since 1995, the team boarded a bus at 6 a.m. Sunday for the 12-hour trip back to campus in Houston.

Courtney elected to charter a bus rather than fly because the Tigers had lost two games after a flight to Alabama two weeks earlier.

While still crammed into the bus, circling a couple of TVs, the Tigers discovered they were playing North Carolina-Asheville.

North Carolina-Asheville will find a familiar face at this game. Allan Lovett, a 6-foot-5 forward, played for the Bulldogs in 2000-01, but now averages 16.5 points for Texas Southern. He averaged 7.9 points in 17 games as a freshman at Asheville before quitting midway through the season.

"We have to remember we're not playing him, we're playing his team," said Asheville's Andre Smith, a senior guard who played with Lovett. "Our goal is to go up there and win no matter who's on the other team."

Biedenbach holds no grudge against his former player.

"We don't know much about Texas Southern except they have a player who used to play for us," Biedenbach said. "I wish Allan was still with us, but I'm glad to see he's doing well for Texas Southern. They're a team that won a conference championship and 18 games, so we know they're a good team."

Lovett had 23 points and eight rebounds as Texas Southern beat Alcorn State 77-68 in the SWAC tournament final on Saturday night.

"This is a real big deal, because we haven't gone dancing in years," Lovett said after the victory — and before he knew Asheville was next up for the Tigers.

Texas Southern was founded by the state Legislature in 1947 to provide a college for black students. About 10,000 students are enrolled in the school in downtown Houston.

If Texas Southern wins Tuesday, Courtney's team gets to face one of his former high school players: T.J. Ford of Texas, one of the nation's top point guards.

"I've never had to coach against that fellow," Courtney said. "It would be great for him and me to play in that game. But the thing is, when he's on your side, T.J.'s not going to let you lose."

Asheville will have to shake off some rust, having earned its tournament spot more than a week ago.

"I really have been pleased with our practices this week," Biedenbach said. "We've picked up where we left off from the tournament and have had great practices. We're very excited about playing a game now because it's been awhile since we've played."