Anyone who's glanced at box scores or weekly Top 25 basketball polls has recognized that four Metro Conference teams could be considered for the NCAA Tournament.
But without an automatic bid awarded to the tournament champion, Tulane, North Carolina-Charlotte, Louisville and South Florida must hope to be among the 34 teams seeking at-large berths.
"We've never set limits from a conference," said Roy Kramer, a member of the selection committee for the sixth time and the Southeastern Conference commissioner. "In all honesty, I believe there's more parity this year than any other time I've been associated with the tournament. And that's true in all conferences."
Kramer said it will come down to the NCAA's complicated formula, which includes a team's win-loss record, the record of its opponents, and how a team finishes the regular season.
Despite an unimpressive non-conference schedule _ the highlight was a loss at Wake Forest _ Tulane (19-3) is probably a shoo-in based on its record and its No. 18 ranking. Four of Tulane's last five regular-season games are at home, where it is 11-0.
UNC-Charlotte (16-6) already has played three nationally ranked non-conference teams (Duke, Alabama and DePaul) and beaten two (Alabama and DePaul) to claim a spot in the Top 25 for two months. But three consecutive losses have dropped the 49ers out of the polls.
"Obviously people have been talking," UNCC coach Jeff Mullins said. "There's no doubt we've slipped, but there's still some pretty important games left."
Louisville (15-8) probably doesn't need too many more wins considering it has played one of the nation's most demanding non-conference schedules (UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, LSU, DePaul and Notre Dame). The Cardinals also host the Metro Tournament and they are 9-3 at Freedom Hall.
USF (15-8) was 10-2 and flirting with a national ranking after beating Florida State, Iowa, Texas Christian and Florida. But an injury to Radenko Dobras contributed to a midseason slump, which the Bulls have rebounded from with wins against Louisville and UNC-Charlotte.
"We are in a position which you hope to be at this time of the year," USF coach Bobby Paschal said. "We have as many quality wins as we've had since I've been here. If we get in that 17-18 range, I think we would receive major consideration."
In 1989, the Metro sent four teams (Louisville, Florida State, Memphis State and South Carolina) to the NCAA, so that number wouldn't be unprecedented.
Unknown ailment ailing 49ers: UNCC super sub Delano Johnson has been sick for about three weeks and he may be sidelined for a few games.
"He gets weak in the leg and doesn't have any strength," Mullins said. "He's had blood tests and nothing has shown up. We thought he was getting better, but right before the South Florida game, it came back. He was a vital part of our team for 20 games, but he hasn't been himself and we may have to rest him for a couple of weeks."
Johnson, a junior guard, is averaging 9.8 points and leads the 49ers in assists (4.5) and steals (2.5) per game.
Time for a break: Tulane coach Perry Clark said his team, which lives and dies with its frenetic defensive pressure, is tired. That could be why the Metro's last-place team, Virginia Tech, stunned the Green Wave on Saturday.
"I think our kids need a little time away from basketball," Clark said. "We've been on the road 11 of the last 14 days and it caught up with us a little bit. We play so aggressive and so hard, you have a tendency to wear down a little faster, and on Saturday we were a step slow."
Tulane is now in the midst of a nine-day break. Its next game is against USF on Feb. 24 in New Orleans.
_ BRIAN LANDMAN