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BREAKTHROUGH SEASON

The Missouri Valley has never sent more than three teams (one automatic qualifier and two at-large selections) to the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded in 1985.

But this year, five might be a part of March Madness.

Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Creighton, Southern Illinois and Missouri State all had RPIs in the Top 36 entering this week thanks to aggressive non-conference scheduling and some eye-catching wins.

"We're closer now to a BCS conference than we've ever been and our non-conference resume as a league is proof of that," Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott said, referring to the power leagues that dominate football and basketball. "I don't think there's any question we're one of the five best leagues in the country."

Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said the NCAA selection committee has the chance to live up to its pledge about selecting teams regardless of conference affiliation or conference tradition.

"Whether you call it a freak, whether you call it a phenomenon this year," he said of the RPIs of the fab five, "the point is, it's done. It's happened. They've got an opportunity to step up to the plate and just say, "Hey. This is what the NCAA Tournament is all about. . . . This happens to be a year when the little guys have done well and we're going to reward them.' "

Maybe like never before.

BIG EQUALS TOUGHER

The expansion of the Big East and ACC, which followed the leads of the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, has meant tougher leagues and tougher decisions for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

"We know that we're going to face some unusual challenges this year and, probably, specifically due to some of the conference realignments," committee chairman Craig Littlepage said.

In the new 12-team ACC and the 16-team Big East, as it has been in some others, no one is playing a double round-robin. That means teams with identical league records aren't necessarily created equal.

Consider Florida State. The Seminoles are 7-6 in the ACC and tied for fifth, but they've played four games against the top four teams (Duke, North Carolina State, North Carolina and Boston College) and are 0-4 in those games. They have a home game left against Duke on Wednesday.

Now consider Miami. The Hurricanes are 7-7 in the league but have played seven games against the top four and have gone 1-6.

"It's our job then to dig beneath the surface," Littlepage said. "It's our job to clearly evaluate what they've done in that schedule that they've played both in conference as well as out of conference."

MONEY WELL SPENT

When Tennessee upset visiting Florida on Jan. 21, fans poured onto the court to celebrate in violation of the SEC's sportsmanship policy. The scene, much to the Gators' chagrin, repeated on Feb. 18 when Arkansas beat them at the Bud Walton Arena.

Each school was fined $5,000.

So what happens to the money? It goes to the McWhorter Post-Graduate Scholarship Fund. Since 1986, the league has rewarded its top male and female scholar-athletes with the award.

Who knows? Maybe a Gator might win one this year. Karma.

MUST-SEE TV

NO. 16 KANSAS AT NO. 7 TEXAS, 9 P.M. TODAY, ESPN: The Longhorns are struggling a bit, although still have a shot at a No. 1 seed. Kansas, tied with Texas for the lead in the Big 12, has won 10 straight and 17 of its last 19.

NO. 2 VILLANOVA AT NO. 3 UCONN, 2 P.M. SUNDAY, CH. 10: The first meeting, on Feb. 13, was a classic that the Wildcats pulled out, 69-64, thanks to Allan Ray's five 3-pointers. This could be a preview of the Big East finale and perhaps a Final Four matchup.

- BRIAN LANDMAN

Times Staff Writer

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