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Liberty looking for a little divine intervention in first round

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Liberty looking for a little divine intervention in first round

Old 03-17-04, 11:29 PM
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Liberty looking for a little divine intervention in first round



Expect God to be busy fielding calls at about 2:45 p.m. Thursday.

In some form or another, a large part of Christianity will have a rooting interest in what amounts to predetermined fate: St. Joseph's Catholics over Liberty University's evangelical Christians in a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

Liberty coach Randy Dunton gets the Flames ready to play 27-1 Saint Joseph's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (AP)
Based on history, No. 1 seed St. Joe's can't lose. Based on No. 16 Liberty's connections, it can't wait to hit its knees before hitting the court.

"We do believe in The Rapture but we don't believe anybody knows when it's going to happen," said Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder and chancellor of Liberty. "We're not going to try to pull rank on the Lord but we most certainly would like to be the first 16 seed to take down a one."

If there was ever a hopeless situation that lends itself to the power of prayer, it is the plight of the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Try this on for biblical proportions: The previous No. 16 seeds are combined 0-76 in the tournament since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The Flames are expected to be the latest to flame out, along with the other 3:16s -- more Prey vs. Pray.

"If there's been a stage set for (an upset) to happen, I have to believe it's this one," Rev. Falwell said. "Our guys have been ascending unbelievably. With all due respect to St. Joseph's they've had their problems towards the end."

Even if the Lord isn't, it sounds like Billy Packer is on Falwell's side. Still, The Greatest Story Ever Told couldn't hold the jock to the greatest tournament upset ever pulled. CBS Sports president Sean McManus would trade 10 Gonzagas, five Massiminos and a Valvano to be named later for that ultimate game.

"A 16 beating a 1 would be one of those incredible stories, if you're a television executive, you pray for every night," McManus said.

Get in line, hit your knees, and deity up. The odds are monumentally against Florida A&M, Alabama State, Texas-San Antonio and Liberty this weekend. Las Vegas says it's about 70-1 that any of the four will win that first game, 3,000-to-1 that any of them would win the whole deal.

It's more likely an asteroid will hit Buffalo, N.Y., this week than Liberty will pull off the impossible dream against the Hawks at the HSBC Arena. The Unbeatable Foes -- otherwise known as No. 1s Kentucky, Duke, Stanford and St. Joe's -- are a combined 114-point favorites over their first-round fodder.

Basketball's version of Armageddon is still on hold because, while everyone agrees it's going to happen some year, once again this doesn't look like the year. Florida A&M (15-16) is the first team to get into the tournament twice with a losing record. Liberty (19-14) was 3-10 at one point. It's almost laughable that Texas-San Antonio (19-13) is trying to become the first school to play in a Final Four in its home city since UCLA in 1972.

Alabama State is a lot like Liberty in that it might rely on divine intervention. On Jan. 24, the Hornets had lost five of six conference games. A preacher sauntered up to their table during a meal at a local restaurant.

"Guys," the unknown man said, "I want you to all keep your heads up and keep believing in yourselves. ... If you do that, there's a championship waiting for you."

After the strange visit, Alabama State (16-14) went on a 13-2 run and won the SWAC Tournament. Is that freaky enough for you?

No? Well, Falwell actually believes sports can be a marketing tool for his 34-year-old university in Lynchburg, Va. The football program is in the second year of a seven-year plan to move to Division I-A. The 70-year-old Falwell says that someday he'll be in a wheelchair on the sideline when his team whips Notre Dame.

In basketball, he can quote both RPI and scoring averages for the program that has its second bid ever. Falwell got a brief taste 10 years ago when his team gave No. 1 seed North Carolina a run before losing by 20.

"We wanted to compare favorably to what Notre Dame and BYU provide for Mormon and Catholic kids," Falwell said. "We predicted we would play at the highest level -- Division I. Our aspirations are within 10 years to be in the Top 25 every year. We think we'll be there before then."

Does the Lord care who wins? When it comes to these first-rounders it's still fundamental, Christian. The easy answer why No. 1s dominate No. 16s is the same reason why rock stars date super models -- because they can. Major programs have major players. With the introduction of seeding in 1979, that meant the top programs would be rewarded with at least one easy game in that first round.

No amount of parity has been able to change that. The 76 games have been decided by an average of 25.6 points, and almost 91 percent (69 games) by double digits. And it's getting worse. Since 1998, the margin is 31.4 points, with only one team (Holy Cross in 2002) coming closer than 12 points.

It's obvious that even with scholarship restrictions, there are very few McDonald's All-Americans filtering down to the likes of Bucknell.

"Somewhere down the road it's going to happen but it's very difficult, you know?" said Patriot League commissioner Carolyn Schlie Femovich. "It's a long shot. Everything has to come together. The 16 seed has to be playing exceptionally well and the one seed is out of sync on that particular night. The great thing about college is we always have that hope."

Schlie Femovich has a unique perspective on the bottom of Division I. Her eight-team league is mix of small Eastern schools that struggle with the academic and athletic balance. Two schools, Colgate and Lafayette, do not give scholarships at all. Others give only three scholarships.

"For us (the tournament) is instant credibility that you can compete at the highest level and still graduate student athletes," she said. "Your credibility is at stake so you've got to go out there and prove it."

The Rev. Jerry Falwell was a face in the crowd as Liberty won the Big South Tournament. (AP)
Holy Cross' meeting with Kansas two years ago almost provided the Patriot with that instant credibility. The Crusaders' 70-59 loss to the top-seeded Jayhawks is the closest a No. 16 has come in the past six years. In fact, coach Ralph Willard's team has led or been within a possession of taking the lead in the second half against Kentucky (2001), Kansas (2002) and Marquette (2003) each of the past three years before losing.

"You have to have something that at least partially negates their superiority," Willard said. "You're not just going to go out and play. It takes people a long time to figure out what we're playing.

"Once you get teams thinking on the floor then you neutralize some of the advantages they have. They have to beat you with something they haven't practiced all year, that's my whole philosophy. They're not going to run their stuff."

Against Kansas, Willard changed defenses sometimes within possessions. The Jayhawks never were comfortable offensively that night. Then when Jayhawks guard Kirk Hinrich left the game with an injured ankle, history seemed to be in the making.

"You still have to play a perfect game," he said. "You're not going to get any calls. I'm not saying the referees are against you (but) if it's the close call you're not going to get it."

The two closest 1-16 games turned 15 years old this week. Georgetown's 60-59 survival over Princeton in 1989 came a day after Oklahoma survived East Tennessee State 72-71. Princeton's Pete Carril announced to the world the arrival of the Princeton offense that year. It looked like a classic mismatch --Georgetown, with John Thompson and Alozno Mourning, against Princeton, with the curmudgeonly Carril.

"They were literally the No. 1 seed and we were the 64th seed," said Northwestern's Bill Carmody, who was an assistant on that Princeton team. "We only had seven turnovers for the game. Maybe one was against the press. The others were bad passes in the half court. As the game got shorter, we actually got a 10-point lead in the first half. Maybe 1-64 aren't as far apart as they were then."

The Tigers finally broke through (as a No. 13 seed) with a 43-41 victory over UCLA in 1996.

Utah State's Stew Morrill is still fuming that his 25-3 team that won the Big West title was left out of the dance. A year ago his 15th-seeded Aggies (the school's lowest seed ever) gave Kansas all it wanted in a 64-61 loss.

"So much of it is whether your players feel like they belong and compete," Morrill said. "It's kind of overwhelming when you see your name up there paired against one of the top five teams in the country.

"Our guys think we're supposed to be good. They think of themselves as a competitive team. We've turned it into a belief."

That doesn't explain why the Aggies were jobbed or why Liberty is so jacked. One program is in NCAA heaven, the other is hell-bent to get back there. Moral outrage is being replaced by the Moral Majority. But both their fates have been decided, haven't they?

"While I'm not making any predictions, we are certainly capable of pulling that first upset ever," Rev. Falwell said. "You've got to look like a pending upset for CBS to stay with you over other games."

May God -- and Sean McManus -- bless you, reverend.
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Old 03-17-04, 11:58 PM
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I bet GatorDeb $400 that St. Joe's would be the first #1 seed to fall.
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Old 03-18-04, 07:15 AM
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I hate Liberty and I hate Jerry Falwell and everything they stand for.

I'm Catholic, and Jesuit educated. So you can tell who I'm rooting for!
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Old 03-18-04, 09:24 AM
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Remember when Liberty almost knocked off Carolina in the early 90s? I skipped class to watch that game, and a buddy and I were going to transfer to that school if they won.
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Old 03-18-04, 09:25 AM
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they are going to need a little more than divine intervention to compete in this game
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Old 03-22-04, 09:35 AM
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god must hate them

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