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Preps

Korcek: Plodding NCAA strikes again, as it did against NIU in 1996

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018, file photo, Arizona's Deandre Ayton (13) gets behind the Oregon State defense for a dunk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore. Ayton was selected to the AP All-Pac-12 team on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018, file photo, Arizona's Deandre Ayton (13) gets behind the Oregon State defense for a dunk during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore. Ayton was selected to the AP All-Pac-12 team on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez, File)

Hierarchies move slowly.  And one of the slowest might be the NCAA.

Favorite time of the year, March Madness. You can’t beat it. Three weeks of top-notch hoops.

This long-time college basketball fan has only one question – what is the NCAA going to do about this University of Arizona allegation and other high-profile program indiscretions looming over the 2018 tournament?

Right now, the optics are not exactly favorable.

The list of Division I institutions vacating NCAA Final Four appearances in men’s basketball keeps growing – from Villanova and Western Kentucky in 1971, UCLA in 1980, Memphis in 1985 and 2008, Michigan in 1992 and 1993, Massachusetts in 1996, Minnesota in 1997, Ohio State in 1999, and the latest, Louisville in 2012 and 2013.

How disappointing.

Why? Because all have been punished post-NCAA tournament with the emphasis on “post.”

Earlier this week, NCAA President Mark Emmert talked about serious reform measures that might be adopted when the organization’s Division I board of directors meet April 24 and 25 – only three weeks after the Final Four. Keyword: After.

To me, this is déjà vu all over again.

Northern Illinois’ last trip to the NCAAs in men’s basketball happened in 1996, when coach Brian Hammel’s Huskies captured the Midwestern Collegiate Conference postseason tournament and clinched the automatic bid with an 84-63 victory over Detroit in the title game. The triumph marked the program’s third 20-win campaign and earned its third D-I NCAA berth.

The matchup: No. 14 seed Northern Illinois (20-9) vs. No. 4 seed, Southwest Conference regular-season and post-season champions Texas Tech (28-1) in the NCAA East Regional in Richmond, Virginia. Or was it a mismatch?

Anything but, America. While the favored Red Raiders opened four 13-point leads in the second half, Hammel’s Huskies outscored Tech, 25-11, during the final 7:31 and pulled within four, 67-63, on two T.J. Lux foul shots. 

The 11,859 people in Richmond Coliseum went bonkers. The 500 or so NIU backers grew louder and louder. The blue-clad North Carolina fans – waiting for the UNC-New Orleans nightcap – joined the “NIU, NIU” chorus for the underdogs.

But Tech would convert five free throws in the final 40 seconds for a 74-73 victory as the Huskies’ Vaurice Patterson hit a late 3 to make the setback painfully closer.

Senior guard Chris Coleman played the game of his life with a career-high 28 points – including 24 in the furious second half on 10-of-13 shooting from the floor in the NIU comeback – and was named the player of the game.

Said Hammel: “Chris was in a zone.”

Freshman Lux, who would become NIU’s all-time career scoring and rebounding leader, came down with a serious case of the stomach flu and literally looked green. In 25 gutsy minutes, Lux contributed 10 points.

Eventually, Texas Tech would advance to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 by beating North Carolina, 92-73, before losing to Georgetown, 98-90, to complete its best season in school history at 30-2 and finish No. 8 in the final AP poll and No. 10 in the coaches’ version. 

A year later in its first season in the Big 12 Conference and before its debut in that league’s postseason tourney, the Red Raiders discovered two ineligible players participated in the 1996 NCAA games. The NCAA infraction committee found violations, placed Texas Tech on probation for four years, vacated TTU’s 1996 NCAA appearance, and banned the program from conference play and the NCAA in 1996-97.

What’s the big deal? Well, not to be unfair to Arizona, but if this allegation is true, why even let the Wildcats into the 2018 NCAA field? If Arizona is violating NCAA eligibility rules, the ramifications and ripple effect in the tourney bracket would be considerable. Ban Arizona? I can hear their lawyers howling now.

One hears or reads all the time about the NCAA promoting the “welfare of the student-athlete.” Well, who in the NCAA was protecting the Huskies in 1996? When NIU found out about the violations at Tech, I suggested to athletics director Cary Groth to sue the NCAA for second-round money.  That made sense to me.

Moot point?  No, NIU lost by one point to a TTU team that used two ineligible players. With a healthy Lux two days later, I still believe the Huskies could’ve beaten the Tar Heels.

Think about it –  Sweet 16 Northern Illinois.

Yes, the NCAA and college basketball needs reform. Badly. What’s the old saying? Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU, and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984 to 2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at sports@daily-chronicle.com.

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