I won't jump in the river and drown if Jacksonville beats us," said Alabama-Birmingham coach Gene Bartow before Saturday's Sun Belt Conference tournament title game. "I think we'll be O.K. [when it comes to an NCAA invitation]." Indeed UAB should, despite the Blazers' 70-69 upset loss to the Dolphins in Birmingham. Jacksonville not only earned its first berth in the NCAAs since 1979, but also snapped UAB's 10-game tournament winning streak at the Jefferson Birmingham Civic Arena.
The upset sent a clear message to the NCAA tournament selection committee and explains why UAB is still O.K.: This year, the Sun Belt is deeper than ever. Besides Jacksonville (21-9), each of the other tournament semifinalists—Old Dominion (22-7), Western Kentucky (22-7) and UAB (24-10)—deserves, and may well get, a spot in the 64-team NCAA field.
In recent years, the Sun Belt tournament has been more or less the Bartow Invitational. The Blazers have made the final six times in their seven years in the league, winning three times. In each of the three previous tournaments (1982 to '84) held in Birmingham, they waltzed off with the title. But this time Jacksonville crashed Clean Gene's party, first by upsetting Old Dominion, which was the regular-season champion and the top-seeded team, 67-61 in the semis, then by holding off UAB, the No. 3 seed, in the final. Senior forward Otis Smith, the tournament MVP, scored 18 of his game-high 20 points in the second half to lead the Dolphins, who have won 10 of their last 11 games. "Jacksonville is one of the best teams in the country right now," said Bartow.
Davidson upset Tennessee-Chattanooga 42-40 to win the Southern Conference title in Asheville, N.C., thus winning its first title in 16 years. The Moccasins were hindered by the absence of two key reserves, center Eugene (Big) Deal and forward Bobby Hines. Deal and Hines were kicked off the team on Thursday by Moccasin coach Mack McCarthy, one day after the players had engaged in a bloody locker-room brawl before practice. The fight occurred the same day that the 33-year-old McCarthy, who was in his first year as the Mocs' coach, was named the Southern Conference Coach of the Year.
Another rookie coach, Xavier of Ohio's Pete Gillen, fared better. Gillen, who last season was an assistant to Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, guided the Musketeers (25-4) to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference championship. Xavier beat St. Louis 74-66 in the MCC tournament title game in Indianapolis. In the game, sophomore guard Byron Larkin, the MCC Player of the Year, scored 19 points. Larkin, who poured in a tournament-record 45 points in Xavier's 99-91 semifinal win over Loyola of Chicago, was named the tournament Most Valuable Player.
Birmingham is Blazer country, so Jacksonville had a special reason to celebrate.