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College Notebook No. 3
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

By Denny O'Brien

Hoops prosperity unlikely for new C-USA


Louisville picked a fitting farewell for Conference USA. That's one way of viewing the Cardinals' Final Four appearance.

For the Cardinals, it could serve as the springboard back to the elite level at which it annually competed under Denny Crum. With Rick Pitino patrolling the sideline and a new home in the Big East, there's good reason to believe Louisville will become a fixture in the Sweet Sixteen.

Likewise for Cincinnati, which has been C-USA's dominant hoops program. The Bearcats have been a mainstay in the Top 25 under Bob Huggins and should see their stock rise in the Big East.

Add Marquette and DePaul to that equation. Both are storied basketball schools whose traditions should benefit greatly by their new conference home.

That's just a snapshot of what C-USA lost in the expansion carousel. What it inherited was a handful of programs whose impact nationally over the past 20 years has been minimal at best.

"We are excited about adding new members and making structural improvements to Conference USA," league commissioner Britton Banowsky said when C-USA announced its expansion plans. "This is an opportunity for us to tighten our geography, group similar institutions together, create a divisional model, and possibly stage a football championship game. It will be very exciting to watch this league grow and develop."

Basketball being the exception.

Where C-USA is the least likely to grow is the area in which it traditionally has been the most successful. With nearly every program of historical significance ripped from its fold, C-USA now faces the harsh reality of enduring years in which it is a one-bid league.

Memphis is the only traditional power that remains. By and large, the Tigers have withstood decades and coaching changes without losing their position in the pecking order.

No other C-USA program can make that claim.

UAB enjoyed success under Gene Bartow and has rekindled the fire under Mike Anderson. UTEP owns a national title and is no stranger to the postseason. Even Tulsa has experienced stretches where it was an NCAA Tournament spoiler.

But that trio is hardly the barometer by which you want your league to be measured.

College basketball isn't defined by fads.  The programs that dominated in the 1950's tend to remain among the best in 2005.

Sure, there have been trendy basketball schools. Gonzaga immediately comes to mind.

However, the odds of the Zags remaining a national contender in 20 years are as likely as Kentucky someday regressing to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference heap.

Such is the scenario that can't be ignored. And it is exactly the reason C-USA is unlikely to spend its hardwood future in the national spotlight.

That doesn't mean the league won't experience periods of moderate success.  The current coaching pool has enough talent to at least provide some credibility and possibly keep the conference afloat.

But that's a complete 180 from C-USA's previous niche.

Leveling the field

Many Division I coaches would like to see the NCAA Tournament expand to 128. What they should pursue is reducing it to 64.

Since the field expanded to 65 for the 2000-01 season, one invitee — the loser of the annual Tuesday night play-in game — has been robbed of an appearance on the big stage. All because the number of at-large bids can't be reduced from 34 to 33.

"We want to do everything we can to ensure that the student-athletes who compete in the opening-round game get the full flavor of participation in this great championship," Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson said in a statement in 2000.

What flavor is that... castor oil?

This rule is another example of how the power conferences unfairly reign in  college sports. The result in this case is a pair of champions from smaller conferences playing for a right they already earned — a chance to show their moves at the Big Dance.

Baseball gaining momentum

Who said college baseball was a non-revenue sport?

Over the past couple of years, the sport has received a major boost, with many programs erecting multi-million dollar facilities and cable sports networks increasing their coverage.

This past weekend, the ESPN family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU) televised the entire Texas-Nebraska series and has plans to broadcast at least 29 more regular season games. ESPN also owns the rights to the College World Series and all NCAA Super Regional games.

Add to that the coverage by College Sports Television (CSTV) and Fox Sports, and you no longer have to go to the ballpark to hear the sound of aluminum bats.

Despite that recent surge, though, college baseball still does not resonate in the mainstream. Major newspapers typically don't provide widespread coverage, with the lone exception being the CWS.

Even so, the increased attention cable networks are giving college baseball suggests that trend could quickly change.

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02/23/2007 01:59:46 AM

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