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New NIT criteria not all good news

The National Invitation Tournament unveiled some upgraded parameters for this year's tournament last week and it was clearly a good news-bad news scenario for mid-majors like schools in the Big 4.

The announcement that regular-season champions from every league will be guaranteed an NIT berth if they don't go to the NCAA Tournament was something mid-majors have wanted for years. But it may have come with a massive tradeoff -- the selection committee also said it will not continue the NIT's long-standing policy of forcing teams to have at least .500 overall records to qualify.

I think back to 1999, when Alvin Young-led Niagara won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title but was upset by St. Peter's in the semifinals of the conference tournament in HSBC Arena. Young was a New York City native who led the nation in scoring and NU's large New York alumni base should have been a natural attraction but the NIT snubbed the 17-12 Purple Eagles.

It was a complete injustice. Niagara obviously wanted to win the MAAC and go to the NCAAs but had these rules been in place at the time, the Purple Eagles would have already been ensured of a spot in the postseason. So that's good. The NIT's news release on the change said the inclusion of the league champions was a big step in "assuring quality and integrity in the selection process."

Hah. Integrity has never been part of the NIT's makeup and it won't be now, either.

For years, the NIT has been run by the Metropolitan Association, a group of five New York City schools. The selection process has largely been a back-room deal and it's gotten dirtier in recent times because schools tend to "buy" home games by promising big crowds and because ESPN has had major influence on which teams get picked.

The NIT sued the NCAA for antitrust violations in 2001 and the case was settled in August with the NCAA paying $56.5 million to buy out the rights from the NIT for its events, both the preseason and postseason versions. The NCAA has empowered a new selection committee to pick the 40-team field and they will meet in Indianapolis concurrently while the main field of 65 is being selected.

But the mid-majors have been growing increasingly queasy over the makeup of the six-man committee because it's chaired by former Kentucky athletics director and Vanderbilt coach C.M. Newton. The other five are ex-coaches Dean Smith (North Carolina), Don Devoe (Tennessee/Navy), Reggie Minton (Air Force), John Powers (Manhattan) and Carroll Williams (Santa Clara).

The prevailing thinking that Newton and Smith will have the most influence is bad news for mid-majors. While talking heads on ESPN and writers on ESPN.com have been glowing with praise for the NIT's automatic qualifiers rule, they've conveniently ignored how scandalous the other part of the new setup could be. Couldn't be because it's a major way to help ESPN, could it? Nah.

Now that having a winning record isn't a requirement, power-conference schools struggling to stay above .500 such as Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, St. John's, Penn State, Northwestern, Utah, Washington State and Mississippi State suddenly don't have to worry and might get the call now simply because of influence on the committee or the wishes of ESPN.

Same for a school like Saint Joseph's, which is also below .500 but could bring 5,000 fans to New York if it snuck into the NIT Final Four.

But what happens to a league like the Colonial that has five teams (George Mason, UNC-Wilmington, Hofstra, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth) with at least 18 wins? Only one or perhaps two of them will go to the NCAAs. What about Iona, Marist and Manhattan from the MAAC? Or Kent State, Akron and Miami (Ohio) from the Mid-American? Is the NCAA really going to snub mid-majors with 18-22 wins for mediocre BCS-level schools with a bigger name?

It sure looks that way. And it's just plain wrong.

>Bona's big question

The great what-if of St. Bonaventure's season is the 60-58 heart-breaker it endured Jan. 3 in its Atlantic 10 opener at Saint Louis. Bona had a three-point lead in the final 40 seconds but lost the game on two free throws with 2.6 seconds left. The Bonnies insist holding on for a win on the road in their league opener could have been a springboard for more success this year and meant far more than just the difference between a 1-12 or 2-11 league record.

"It would have given us a lot of confidence, coming in the first A-10 game knowing that we could go in somebody else's place and get a victory," forward Michael Lee said after Sunday's loss to Massachusetts. "It would have really helped us the rest of conference play."

"Going from two wins (overall) to seven is progress," coach Anthony Solomon said. "But if there's any program in the country that needed early success in conference play, it would be us. We didn't get those but we just have to continue on."

Bona is 0-22 on the road in A-10 games under Solomon heading into tonight's contest at Duquesne. Its three conference road wins during the 2002-03 season were forfeited because of its recruiting scandal. So its road conference losing streak is officially 31 games since a 60-56 win at Massachusetts on Feb. 13, 2002.

>Around the rim

All four of No. 6 Texas' losses this season have been by double digits -- by 31 to Duke, 17 to Tennessee, 10 to Oklahoma and 21 to Oklahoma State.

Syracuse somehow survived last Saturday's visit from Louisville despite an unbelievable night at the free-throw line. The Orange went 19 for 46 while the Cardinals were 26 of 30 and still lost.

Said coach Jim Boeheim: "What good does it do to worry about it? It's not going to help anything. We've got bad free-throw shooters. We won. Those guys get fouled, they're going to miss free throws. That's the bottom line. You can only worry about the things you've only got control over."

Game of the Day: Boston College tries to earn a measure of revenge when it plays at North Carolina State in a rematch of ranked ACC foes. N.C. State hammered the Eagles in Boston, 78-60, on Jan. 10.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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