Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Asheville gets a whiff of the bigtime

By Rusty Miller
The Associated Press

DAYTON - 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 phone has been ringing out of my hands," Texas Southern coach Ronnie Courtney said. "I thought it would take me a little longer to get there than two years."

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."

Special NCAA hoops section; Bracket contest

It's more than a Bearcats game
No. 24 Arkansas thinking big
UC out to prove naysayers wrong
Varsity Village gets $10M from Fifth Third

Xavier now the hunted

No. 1 ranking increases ante for UK to win it all
Norse win on putback

March Madness could be delayed by war
Pressure and expectations smother winning coaches
Ohio State suspends Williams
BYU's no-Sunday stance could cause NCAA shuffle
Little Mo leads underdog Bulldogs vs. Sooners
Blue Devils to stick with perimeter lineup
Gators need answers quickly
Bobby Knight's son applies for Wright State job
Spirit of Valvano lifts Whittenburg
Tigers learn of bid while on 12-hour bus ride
Asheville gets a whiff of the bigtime

NIT: Iowa 62, Valparaiso 60
UCLA fires Lavin