The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 8, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Come March, little guys often lose out

MORGANTOWN — It has always been fitting that the Big East should decide its basketball championship in Madison Square Garden, for it is certainly a yearly battle of heavyweights for the championship and no one does a title fight like Garden.

It started with the first “real” heavyweight champion at the original Madison Square Garden in 1882 when John L. Sullivan offered Joe Collins $1,000 and half the gate of the sold out Garden if he was standing after four rounds.

Collins, much like West Virginia last year, withstood several knockdowns but somehow hung on to what was simply a “survival victory”.

From that time on the great champions all fought there, from Henry Armstrong to Joe Louis, who made eight successful defenses of his title. In 1942 it was Sugar Ray Robinson defeating Jake LaMotta in a fight that is still talked about today.

In 1951 the aging Louis, 37, came out retirement only be knocked through the ropes by a Rocky Marciano left hook in the eighth round and then, 20 years later, it was Ali-Frazier fighting for $5 million, Frazier winning the first of what would be a series of classics.

We bring this up because when you are in the Garden, the chips are supposed to be on the line, be it in the ring, on the hardwood or even as a competitor in the Westminster Kennel Club championship.

What troubles us today is that the scuttlebutt surrounding this year’s Big East Championships is that 10 teams for certain and most likely 11 of the 18 Big East teams will be selected to take part in the NCAA Championships.

This would seem to be a bit of elitism that the sport does not need.

The argument is that the NCAA Tournament ignores conference affiliations, short of taking the league champion, and tries to take the best teams, drawing a line between best and most deserving.

If you happen to be Marquette, which figures to be West Virginia’s second-round opponent after a first-round scrimmage with Providence, this is nice for they are the only bubble team and probably need only to beat Providence to get in.

But should a team that was unable to finish anywhere near the first half of its conference, a team that has had what it has to consider to be a disappointing season, get in the NCAAs when say the second or third place finisher in the MAC or the Sun Belt has no shot with a 22-victory season of which it is proud.

We decided to ask someone who could sympathize with the underdog, someone who had been there himself — Bob Huggins.

“I was there and we did get left out,” Huggins said. “We got left out with 23 wins, I believe.”

And you know that hurt, in part because many of these teams really have no legitimate chance to create a resume that would pass muster with the selection committee.

“The hard thing is the Akrons of the world have going against them is that they can play Big East people — but they are not going to play them at home. So you never get the advantage of having a home game,” Huggins explained.

“It’s not that Big East people would mind going there. It comes down to more than what people think. It comes down to economics. If we don’t have our 16 games and 2 exhibitions games, 18 home games, how do we generate money?

“I can remember I tried to play Louisville when I was at Akron and Denny [Crum] wrote me a very compassionate letter,” Huggins continued.

“He explained to me that they put 18,000 people in Freedom Hall no matter who they play. At that time, football didn’t draw anybody.

“It was the same at Cincinnati. Football didn’t draw anyone, so we generated all the money in basketball. We had to play X amount of home games. I think we made $225,000 a game. So how do you then go play on the road and give up that money, particularly when you are the so-called bread-winner in the department.”

And if you don’t go to play at Akron, you have almost no chance to lose to Akron, thereby padding your tournament resume at their expense.

“It’s not just people not wanting to go on the road, it comes down to you have to take care of your own family. You’re not going to go because some guy writes you a letter.”

So, you finish 10th in the Big East, are not so much as a contender for your conference championship, and you are five wins from a national title while a mid-major with more wins and maybe having been just a championship game in the conference tournament away from the NCAAs is left out.

Is that fair?

“Turn it around, you’re a team that won 22 games,” said Huggins. ”Now put them in our league. How many are they going to win? You are trying to get the best teams in the tournament.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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